Writing About Complicated Loves (Especially My Parents), by Chris Pannell

February 18, 2016

I was going to call this post “Censorship: Self and Other Kinds,” but as I really wasn’t going to deal with state or corporate or Internet censorship, I settled on something to do with hiding love and not writing about it. Self-censorship, in other words.

Censorship carries with it the idea that the writer can be, or will be, controlled, and that the writer will not utter difficult or controversial or disagreeable sentiments the censor opposes.

In my own experience, I have had, for many years, to censor myself and not write about my parents in any significant way. Why had I, for most of my life, felt this way, felt that a very large piece of my existence was not a fit subject for poetry (or prose)?

Why was I limiting my subjects to the observable parts of the world, the dramas of the eyes and ears, the working life as I understood it? The answer must have been in my relationship with my parents. Family members, especially my parents, were off-limits. The mechanism of this self-censoring must have been shared. This is not a blame game; it was more like we had a deal, though I’ll be damned if I can remember what the terms were.

When Hamlet speaks of actors who are rehearsing in the Danish palace, he says to Polonius, his potential father-in-law:

Do you hear, let them be well used, for / they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. / After your death you were better have a bad epitaph / than their ill report while you live.  (2. 2. 519-522)

As I writer, I always had the power to write “an ill report” of my parents’ lives. Writers portray, as actors portray, not just narratives, faraway places or events of the mind, but obviously and also feelings, moments of crisis, personal matters and events of the heart. And the ill report might as easily be a fine report, one filled with admiration and respect.

But as many a writing teacher will tell you, stories thrive on conflict and emotion. Celebrity tabloids thrive on negative news, made into stories. Even the seeker of a job in a corporate or government office is advised to tell stories to connect with the interviewer. Carmine Gallo says, “Telling a good story – one that moves hearts and minds – is the key to winning people over.” I include readers among those who must be won over.

I am presently working – in a furious, making-up-for-lost-time kind of way – on my first novel. Parental characters don’t have a huge role in it, but one of the main characters is approximately 25 years old. His parents live nearby. And as my parents are the only parents I have ever had, I must model all fictional parents I ever write, to some extent, on them. Their opinions don’t influence my character’s behaviour, because at that age, he is disregarding them, trying to establish his independence and to become fully adult. That’s where the book’s action is: out in the job-seeking, commuting, relationship-building, family-starting part of his life. His relationship with his past is not first and foremost.

I recently completed a poetry book for Wolsak and Wynn titled Love, Despite the Ache. It tells the story of the end of my parents’ lives. There are more than a few wrenching, miserable poems in the book. It was easy to write the first draft. It more or less poured out in a torrent, almost at the same time as the events it describes were happening. Along with love, there is no more wonderful subject for poetry than death. But it takes all a writer’s resources to do it. It is very difficult to make up stuff about how you feel about dying, if you can even entertain the subject at all.  And the revisions have been hard, because there’s no healing catharsis in fiddling with words, punctuation and the sequence of poems in a book. Such revisions involve staring again and again at two individuals I used to know very intimately, reliving their illnesses and their deaths. It is no relief to have condensed things a bit and re-made my mother and father as characters. They are still my mother and father, and they are a geography and a historical place that I came from, a place that I used to know and love, to a depth of which even I was not aware. Until I saw it in writing.

A novelist may write many books over a career. I’m working on my first. Each novel may have to portray a parent-child relationship, either when the child is young or when both parent and offspring are adults, or maybe even near the end of the relationship, when the child is the caregiver, and when certain truths become more evident than before.

Part of the solution to self-censoring, then, is to give oneself permission to say the things one has always known, no matter how embarrassing, no matter how much you know that if mom was alive, she wouldn’t have approved. (“Don’t make me grist for a novel,” she would have said.) It’s hard to do. Saying it here on the page doesn’t make it easier, or even possible.

A bigger part of overcoming self-censorship is to allow fully for the subconscious to do its thing. To engage fully in the activity of remembering both what is top-of-mind, what is in our present-day conscious brains, and what has been forgotten, which comes back unbidden in the activity of laying words down on a page. In the writing, the true stuff gets blended in with the traditional writer’s business – the made-up stuff. In the end, the author will not know what was real and what was not. The reader may suspect, and may even accuse the writer of serving up the truth in disguise. Slander lawsuits are based in this. But it is an axiom in the law that you can’t slander a dead man. The dead can do nothing more than haunt you.

The writing is fiction – even if you and your parents know some of it isn’t made up at all.


Chris Pannell is the author of Drive and A Nervous City. His third poetry collection, Love, Despite the Ache, is due out this fall. He lives in Hamilton, where is at work on his first novel.


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