[Note: this post is in response to a reader request by @sheikyurbouti. Thanks, though this may raise more questions than answers…]
“Write as if your parents are dead.”
I’m sorry if your parents are dead. But I’m not sorry enough to stop.
You may have heard this advice in a creative writing class, though I never did. They say that some students take it as a writing exercise. One of my favorite Rigor Amortis stories is about two wounded zombie parents whose breathing son returns to finish the job he started.
But you and I know this isn’t a story prompt. It’s clichéd shorthand to encourage you to reach outside of your comfort zone, to stretch your limits as a writer. Trample the fifth commandment! Write something that your parents would be ashamed to claim as the fruit of their offspring. Disown (or own) your religion. Queer your main characters. Create disturbingly dark (or light) stories.
That alien amoeba mutual rape story? That thriller about serial cannibalism and human taxidermy? That tragicomedy about one man’s longing for his 12-year-old stepdaughter? Some mother’s son, some father’s daughter, imagined these scenes and characters in horrific or lurid detail, and, unwilling to stop there, felt compelled to share these visions with us through their gift of word-painting.
This advice doesn’t work on me. Why? Because I don’t give a fuck what my parents think about me, or about my writing. I’ve written openly and candidly about my folks, and my relationships with them, not because I’m brave, or because I lack social filters, but because I had to, to process it all. Because catharsis was more precious to me than attempting to repair those relationships.
Much–but not all–of the most evocative writing is revelatory. It’s exhibitionist, but not in the way you think. You strip yourself naked. Then you peel off bloody strips of skin. You pry open your ribcage. You expose your beating heart to your readers’ fingers and forceps.
Do you worry that your readers may decode your innermost fears, desires, or weaknesses? Can you disguise your hunger for validation? Your fear of rejection? Your need for forgiveness? Your susceptibility to temptation?
If you still feel safe, maybe this is a sign that you can dig deeper.
When I was in seventh grade, I was mugged in the school bathroom by a black kid who was adult-tall.
“Let me see your wallet,” he said.
I pulled it out, and carefully showed how each pocket was empty, except for my school ID.
“That’s cool, bro,” he said. He smiled and patted my shoulder as he walked out.
His praise was like a mug of cloudy water to a man in the desert. I was positively giddy as I strolled back to class. I was cool. He said so.
No one else in my life was willing to go there.
Ultimately, “writing as if your parents are dead” has nothing to do with your parents. It’s about you. The person you shock the most may be yourself.
Give it a shot. Write so that you have something to lose. When you write, leave the comfort of your house, leave the safety of your neighborhood, leave the familiarity of your hometown. Risk the loss of your job, your faith, your family, the respect of your friends, a portion of your sanity, a measure of self-respect. Lie across the altar, raise your pen high, and bring it down before the angel stays your hand.
I’m ready to post this, and I’m nervous. I’m experimenting with structure, and it feels clumsy. I’m trying to follow my own advice and draw more deeply on my own experience. Even if I write as if my parents are dead, you’re all very much alive.
But here goes.