“I’m finally getting published. I even won a contest.” The phone was silent. Breathe, I told myself. I held my breath.
“That’s—that’s great. Wonderful,” my mother said. “What’s the essay about?”
It wasn’t a question, it was a demand, an accusation.
“It’s about when J. was sick, and food… and stuff…” I trailed off. Writers know how terrible this question is when it is an honest question, much less a leading one. I sat down, waiting.
How much weight can one syllable hold? How many meanings can it have? Relief, disappointment, suspicion all in two letters. It wasn’t about her.
“Wow, well, that’s great. That’s really great. I am so proud of you.” I wanted to believe she was trying her best. I did the best I could, she always said. Again, there was silence before she spoke.
“Yeah, so I had a really bad week at work.”
In writing, as in life, it’s all about my mother.
Just about every story and essay I submitted to grad school workshops had elements of her, or was about her. Almost every single critique—probably around 60 over three years—said, “I want to see more of the mother.”
But how much space must I give her? How much space must she take?
Joan Didion wrote, “That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” The part of me my mother won’t let go, that I won’t let go, feels guilty. But I don’t think Didion is saying that to the writers. It’s a statement of fact, and it’s a warning to those the writer knows. You may be faced with the brutal truth of your actions and their consequences. The writer must face hers, as well.
You can’t write about me. You wouldn’t do that to me. That’s not fair. That’s not yours to tell.
Yes, I can, and I will. It is, in fact, mine to tell.