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No Elvis Cadillac for you, Mom.

  • by Mimi Speike

Okay, I saw this yesterday. It sparked an idea for a post, so I jumped on it. Now I see it’s all over the web. You’ve read this already. No problem. I never intended to talk about Tarentino. I’m going to talk about me, and you, and our less-than-supportive families. Who ought to give us some respect, but mostly don’t.

______________________________________

Maybe none of you obsess about your family the way I do about mine. Maybe you all had (relatively) normal families. (I know Carl is the exception.) I think about writing a piece, for Medium probably: Lies my father told me. He lied often, I only realized it after I was grown and my siblings and I compared notes. He bent reality to be what he wanted it to be. He told me when I was at Syracuse that my cousin had failed the physical to be drafted into the army. He was required to have an operation on his knee to make him acceptable. I understand now that he made that up to shame my brother, who was trying to escape the draft any way he could, and that bugged the hell out of Dad. Another of his fibs: he invented an abandoned wife and child for the creep boyfriend of my sister, to disparage him. (Joe didn’t need disparaging, believe me. His treatment of my Sis spoke for itself.)

The lies, the manipulation, that’s another issue, to deal with elsewhere. I grew up in my little bubble of misery. My brother seemed to be oblivious to what was going on and I resent him for it to this day.

My brother and sister do not read my work willingly. Nor do my nieces. I don’t twist arms. I send a chapter or two, with the instruction: don’t feel you have to comment, just tell me where you stopped. If that’s in the third paragraph, fine. That’s all you need to tell me.

The only meaty (dumb, but meaty) comment I’ve ever gotten was from my sister, who told me, I can’t understand this Shakespearian English. I change our modern word order a tad and throw in a few archaic terms and she calls it Shakespearian. Christ Almighty!

Oh, my brother told me: “I’m not a reader.” He told me this about fifteen years ago. I was stunned. Not a reader! He graduated from Harvard. All these years I had no clue. We were not close, despite being twins.

His wife, or ex-wife, they still live together, she claims to be a huge reader. Has she looked at my stuff? Not that I know of.

I’ve been on Sly and Celestine, Maisie too (in an earlier version), for forty years. I never informed any of them that I write until twenty years ago, anticipating the reaction: “Guess what my crackpot sister is up to now.”

My husband is solidly behind me, thank god. He’s a heavy reader, of nonfiction. He’s also the only person I ever met who owns more books than I do. He loves what I’ve written, though I know he doesn’t appreciate my finesse with words. He speaks English well, but it is is not his first language. He loves Sly for the history I build in. He’s all for history. Educate while you entertain. References to the Arabic origin of math and physics, super! More, he wants more of that. It’s never enough for him. He’s always ready to jump on a problem and research it for me.

My brother’s major complaint about me is that I’ve drifted through life, not making plans, kind of like the way I write, come to think of it. I believe this annoys him more than all the bad choices I’ve made with my life. He probably views my writing as my latest whim. A forty-year whim. Yeah, right. If he respects what I’m doing, he doesn’t show it.

If it makes me money, if I leave an estate of any worth, I’ve made up my mind. My nieces aren’t getting anything from it. I sent one of them a snippet a while back, with my usual instruction. She emailed me back: I’ve passed this on to my father. She’s a creative. She makes art. She’s studied acting, seriously, at a top acting school in NYC. I would have thought she’d at least be curious about what I’ve written. Apparently not.

Families don’t owe us a read, but it would be nice to be taken seriously. Does your family see you as a joke: Still wasting your time on that pipe dream of yours? Oh god, another story! This one’s about a mouse!

They don’t even visit my Facebook page, to look at the art. That’s easy enough to do. A friend of my niece, a cartoonist, visits and comments regularly. Not my one and only next-generation close relation.

She’s maybe gonna regret that one of these days. My money’s going to the folks who supported me, who encouraged me. I’m with Quentin Tarentino on that. I’ll leave money to my sister, with the understanding that none of it is passed on to Meda.

I’ll leave it to her friend the cartoonist, creating wonderful, fun LGBTQ-themed small publications, and doing community outreach, leading graphic novel-creation workshops in San Francisco at senior centers for the hanging-out retired, and in after-school programs, for kids. Any amount I’m able to bequeath, I may give it to Alex. He’ll put it to good use, I’m sure. Alex Leslie Combs, find him on Facebook. I admire his spirit, and his talent.

It’s not that I long for my relations’ praise. Anything they say, I would discount it. I have serious doubts about their literary judgment. I merely hope that, after a lifetime of missteps great and small, I am finally doing something admirable with my talent, that I was never able to exploit to my satisfaction.

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37 thoughts on “No Elvis Cadillac for you, Mom.

  1. My unscientific conclusions:

    1) The only family member any of us can count on to read our work and give us the feedback we ask for is the one who Googles all the relatives at least semi-annually. You know, the one who believes they have the right to know the secrets you have never shared with anyone. The one who is certain everyone needs their input to achieve anything of importance.

    2) Without one of those in your family, your most reliable beta readers and honest critics are friends who want to see you succeed. (It also helps if they enjoy reading the genre you write in.) Or,

    3) Fellow writers who have committed to critiquing your work in exchange for you critiquing theirs. The added advantage there is that they probably know what they’re talking about.

    Liked by 8 people

  2. Perry Palin says:

    Great post, Mimi. Loved the comments about your family but I didn’t love your family. You are not alone.

    When I was growing up we were poor. My mother died when I was ten. I know our father loved us, but he didn’t know much about raising a boy and two girls. He worked hard for not very much money, came home exhausted, and left us to our own devices. He fought with alcohol all his life and sometimes he lost.

    My sisters and I put up with one another in a small house but we each raised ourselves as variations of the only child. They can’t believe I am capable of fiction. They don’t like my stories, but at least I think they read them, and have nothing to say.

    I fish for trout in streams with artificial flies. My family all knows that it’s a lunatic’s diversion, but they like the taste of fried fish. They see writing as a step further down the same road, but without the reward.

    My wife is supportive, but she doesn’t get to read anything until it’s done, which means it has been published. Our two sons never say anything about the stories. When I won a small cash prize in a regional fiction competition, my wife said we should frame the certificate, and our daughter said “Fifty bucks! They gave you fifty bucks for one of your stories? What were they thinking?”

    I don’t obsess about my family. I have found ways not to, and I am healthier for it. Write on.

    Liked by 7 people

  3. Well, my eldest grandson is a big fan. There is a granddaughter in New Orleans (busy at this very moment surviving hurricane IDA) who has about 2,000 teen members in her literary critique group -it goes by a cooler name but I forget- they critique my daughter’s romance novels. And my Lady will read anything I ask her to & point out grammatical errors.

    Keeping in mind that family is an accident of birth, I consider them all to be part of that broader group of people who go blank when you tell them you’re an author. They can’t relate. It’s like when my aunt Mable tells people she’s a moonshiner. It sounds cool but most don’t know anything about making tax-free whiskey. So beyond a reflexive response, what can they say? In my experience people are relieved if you change the subject to a shared experience. “But it’s too hot today. Does the heat keep you from doing things you want to do?”

    Shared experience is why we love writer co-ops.

    Liked by 9 people

  4. Mimi, I feel ya! And am so glad Sue and Perry answered first. I cannot improve on their responses—other than to share some particulars in empathetic solidarity with you from my own life.

    Before I became an emancipated minor at the age of 16 there was . . . backstory.

    I was a foster child. Brought into a family at age 2 ½. (After having been bounced out of four other foster families, apparently. No memory of this. I do remember holding my breath until my face would turn red and I would pass out.) Foster-mother had two of her (natural, biological) children after I was brought into the household. I wasn’t legally adopted till fourth grade: alien in the nest.

    I made the honor roll every year in grammar school and got sent to a gifted program for grades 7th & 8th. (That took the direct intervention of my school principal.)

    I wrote my early drivel on the back of computer data sheets Dad brought home from work as waste paper. I laboriously ruled the lines myself. Couldn’t use notebook paper: that was “wasting paper”. Books were forbidden: If I brought home library books, they were taken away and put atop the refrigerator until it was time to return them to the library. (“Books put ideas into your head. You’re going to watch TV and be normal like the rest of this family.”)

    My 7th-grade teacher (a no-nonsense black woman named Mrs. Brock who I adored with all my heart) asked me why I didn’t use notebook paper for the stories I turned in for extra credit. “I can’t,” I said. “Foster-mother told me that was wasting paper. I can only use notebook paper for real schoolwork.”

    Mrs. Brock gave me two reams of notebook paper. “Take this home with you. Inform your foster-mother that your assignment for the rest of the school year is to write a story a week.”

    Diaries were ferreted out and destroyed. (“You’re just documenting proof of abuse for your counselor.” Family counseling was mandated when I turned 12. After I got out of the juvenile home. For having run away–the twelfth time–and, cornered in a public library while reading, pulling a butcher knife from a sheathe in my sock when the cops ordered me to put the books down. My father had peeked in the window and seen me reading there. He knew where I went when I ran away from home; knew I would run if he came in to grab me.)

    Dad was indifferent—hence an ally—re: my reading and writing. He did tell me that I was the only ten-year-old he knew who wrote like Mickey Spillane.

    Liked by 7 people

    • mimispeike says:

      Damn those morons for not realizing what a treasure you were. (And are.)

      You escaped an intolerable situation by retreating into books. I did the same. I was in a rage all the time, but didn’t dare express it.

      My more-willing-to-deal with the disfunction (or, apparently, oblivious to it. That would be my brother) siblings are as damaged as I am (in other disturbing ways) and have none of the imagination I have, so maybe it was worth it.

      Liked by 4 people

    • victoracquista says:

      Carl, Thank you for sharing this. It is so far afield from my childhood experiences. For one thing, we had a closet that had been converted into a library with, I would guess, a few thousand books. We (brothers and sisters) were regularly dropped off at the library until I was old enough to walk there on my own. Loved to read, books were encouraged. I count my blessings.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Victor, Exactly! My family encouraged reading. An earliest memory is as a toddler sitting on my uncle’s lap while he read a children’s book and tried to teach me some of the words. Comic books were my favorite “genre” during grade school. I walked past the town library to high school and along the way read every book of interest they had. In the military, my nickname was “Gary Read!” My wife used flash cards to teach our kids to read as early as 18 months.

        There was the unfortunate childhood situation where my step father, who earned the Bronze Star for Valor in Combat in WWII, beat on my mother & I until I was old enough to convince him otherwise with the aid of my trusty Mossberg shotgun. (Nobody knew he had PTSD and he did stop.) But all that just made reading books a wonderful escape.

        Liked by 5 people

        • victoracquista says:

          GD, I still remember my mother reading Huckleberry Finn to me and my brother seated together on the couch.
          Reading as an escape seems to be a common experience.

          Liked by 3 people

  5. MamaSquid says:

    Funny you should mention family. I just ended my relationship with my mother a few days ago. I have no relationship with my father or any of the other men she dragged in and out of my life. My Mom was cruelly abusive and complicit in her husband’s abuse of me, but she was supportive of my writing in the abstract. She let me do creative writing retreats and things of that nature. But in the concrete sense she found the whole thing bewildering. Stories I wrote in school were greeted with either, “This didn’t really happen? Then what’s the point?” OR “Why does the mother in this story have X Y and Z flaws? Are you trying to say something about me?” (In all fairness, unconsciously, probably I was. Mothers have been conspicuously absent from my work, mostly because I don’t know what a normal mother-child relationship even looks like.)

    When I was twelve I took all the money I had saved up and purchased a word-processor, the kind you had to save files on floppy disks, and I basically spent every waking moment on that thing. First I just tried to “improve” on other people’s work, using the same voice and more or less the same events. But eventually I got creative. I wrote my first (terrible) novel on it, and that is how I coped with my childhood. I just wrote, and wrote, and wrote. What came out was violent and profane and tormented, not what you’d expect of a devout Christian girl, but it’s the only place I knew to put all the darkness. I think it prevented my rage from swallowing me whole. I think it still does.

    For most of my life, I didn’t write to be read by other people. I wrote to survive, to cope, to process. It was as personal as sharing my diary. I didn’t start sharing my work until I was 32. I found a writer’s group that changed my life. They are my found family. I don’t need anybody else.

    My husband is my greatest support. He reads my stuff all the time, and even though he’s not a writer he has quite the editorial eye. He once convinced me to remove an entire POV character from my first novel, which was like half the book. And dammit, he was right. One Christmas he bought me a developmental editor, which is a big deal because he doesn’t like to spend money. He’s not just blindly spending money on something because it’s my passion, he genuinely believes he is investing in a skilled writer. That means the world to me.

    I guess the husband is the one exception to not needing anybody else. I can’t imagine being in an intimate relationship where I couldn’t share my work. These are the most personal pieces of me, sometimes giving me insights I wasn’t consciously aware of until I saw them written down. I want to share that with my life partner.

    I don’t take it personally if people aren’t interested, any more than others should take it personally if I don’t want to hear a play by play of their latest sports game. We are all blessed with diverse passions and interests and nobody owes me a read.

    Liked by 9 people

  6. Reading all these backstories reminds me of something Jonathan Franzen observed in his dynamite collection of essays, How to Be Alone (closely paraphrased): If you want to write, have an unhappy childhood. If you would make a lifetime reader of a child, forbid them to read.

    Liked by 5 people

  7. Well, I’ve had a happy family, sorry to say. My dad read sci fi and mysteries voraciously, and I got the habit from him. I was the oldest child (and the oldest grandchild of a large extended family) so I was spoiled. Nobody gave me much crap when I was growing up.
    I never expected family to read my books, because most are non-fiction biz books. By the time I started writing them, I was on my own half a continent away from them.
    My wife and daughter are also writers, and they are members of my crit group. So we read all of each others’ pieces even though we have very different genres.
    One brother has read my sci fi stories and liked them. Another brother produced my books in InDesign.
    So since I didn’t have an unhappy childhood does this mean I can’t be a decent writer? I don’t know. My stories are not full of anger and violence. I don’t kill off half my characters. I write with humor.
    We’ll see, when I begin taking book marketing seriously. Will anybody buy them and give me good reviews? Well, I enjoy reading them.

    Liked by 8 people

    • And who else matters? Unless you’re writing to become wealthy. Or at least to support yourself. I like to believe there’s an audience out there for everyone who wants one. It’s just a question of finding them.

      Liked by 6 people

    • LOL, Mike! This: “Well, I’ve had a happy family, sorry to say.”

      Thank god some of us (writers) did! Else I suspect the entirety of literature might turn grim and humorless as Poe, violent as a Sam Peckinpah film, and emotionally wrenching as a mid-60s Peanuts strip by Mr. Schultz.

      Liked by 5 people

    • I see no need to apologize for a happy childhood.  An unhappy childhood is more likely to lead to an unhappy adulthood than to high art.

      Some people do distill high art from their suffering (at whatever age), and it’s hard to write convincingly about what one has never experienced.  Fine.  But the notion that serious art “should” wallow in nastiness like anger and violence is perverse.

      Liked by 6 people

      • mimispeike says:

        I don’t think we’re saying that at all. I’m saying a painful childhood drove me into myself, and it was that, and all the reading I did, that nurtured my imagination.

        Liked by 7 people

        • Maybe I said more than I meant to.  Mike’s apology for a happy childhood struck me as bowing to a perverse but widespread notion.  (Did I take it too literally?)  I did not intend to imply that anything else said here was along that line.

          BTW, I also was driven into myself and into reading by a painful childhood.  Not sure what that nurtured in my case.

          Liked by 4 people

          • I took Mike’s comment as mild sarcasm/comical jape–which is why I had a bit of fun riffing on it. If I had the power to go back in time and try again with a different set of foster parents (story idea?), believe me I would–even if that meant I would lose all desire to read and/or write. (But I don’t believe it works that way, as so much of who and what we are is encoded for in our genes, shaped by environment.)

            As to Mr. Franzen: He isn’t arguing that ALL writers MUST have had an unhappy childhood (that would be moronic, willfully obtuse and perverse, as you noted) but rather that so many of The Greats did and therefore, those of us suffering life-long PTSD from childhood trauma can and should draw strength, comfort, consolation, support and encouragement from the writers cited in his text. Franzen argues that these writers provide constructive models for those of us who have weathered searing psychic and physical pain, who struggle to create memorable and enduring works of art that say something, have weight and relevance, are grounded in hard-won wisdom and fraught experience. You Are Not Alone is the subtext of How to be Alone.

            Liked by 3 people

      • Couldn’t agree more, Mellow! Ditto the “Romantic” notion that all serious poets/writers should be out-of-control, ID-raging, substance abusing, sociopathic libertines. FAIL! (I’d like to whisper into the ear of some of these young men and women before they get too far down that nowhere road . . .)

        Liked by 3 people

    • Perhaps there was a snarling neighborhood dog who lunged at Mike as he passed a ramshackle house on the way to school each day? A spinster aunt’s cat who hissed and clawed his spindly infant ankles when he approached? A morose, slack-jawed turtle who wounded his ego and self-esteem by perpetually winning backyard staring contests? A rude, insufferable squirrel who followed Mike’s every move from a high branch in the front yard oak tree, chattering nastily–he knew it; could he but understand the wild rodent tongue he could prove it–to the rest of its fat-paunched, nut-bulged-mouth family of his peccadillos and shortcomings? Something!

      Liked by 5 people

  8. My family was just dysfunctional enough for me to think, ‘Shit! What can I do to make this easier? Ah, I know, I’ll write!’ Having previously been encouraged by teachers who seemed convinced that writing was an activity to be valued. No parents or siblings left now, barely a cousin or two, but I’d rather get validation from strangers. Sometimes my daughter says, ‘Hey, Dad, you’ve got a new book out! You didn’t tell me. It’s great!’ My son isn’t a reader and my wife reads a lot but in French, so I get no feedback till a few comments from ARC readers come in. That’s OK. It’s a solitary activity, and we adapt to the circumstances around us.

    Liked by 7 people

  9. mimispeike says:

    My big point is: we are doing something marvelous, and difficult, without any real expectation of a market success. That alone demands a level of respect.

    My siblings think I’m even crazier than they always thought I was. My sister asked – is it fun?

    My reply – it’s fun when going well, but there’s always a cloud of ‘Why am I doing this to myself? hanging over my head. Her (reasonable for a non-writer) question: then why do it?

    Barb! I can’t stop, don’t you get that? I have stories to tell, and I have to write them to see how they turn out. And it’s the best game in the world.

    Liked by 6 people

  10. victoracquista says:

    Mimi, thanks for getting us started on this topic and for provoking such meaningful sharing. I feel supported in my writing efforts by my family and friends with a few caveats. I am very selective with whom I share stuff that I am writing because I know those selected individuals will read it. There are others who are generally interested in how things are progressing with my writing, but it’s unlikely they will read what I’ve written. I’ve lowered the bar of expectation when it comes to active support and accept their passive support. I am very fortunate to have a close sister who is my biggest fan, even more so than my wife who is very supportive.

    Even with varying levels of support from friends and family, I think we all share something in common with Blanche DuBois in saying, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers, always depended.”

    Liked by 6 people

  11. @Mike: in reply to “. . . my favorite form of communicating . . .) Mine too, Mike! That got a chuckle out of me.

    😉

    PS. It’s what I love about this site: You’ll laugh; you’ll cry . . .Heh! Blink and suddenly you’ll hear Monty Python’s announcer intoning: “And now, for something completely different . . .”

    And hey folks! –we’re doing this ALL BY OURSELVES! No multi-millions spent on flashy graphics, catchy music, click-bait advertisements, etc. Just the lost art of conversation sustained year-upon-year. Kudos, appreciation, affection and respect to everyone who posts here! (How come we haven’t attracted a troll yet? Not that I want that–knock on wood. There are decided advantages to remaining insular and small . . .)

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Well, this thread has been very interesting and informative, starting with Mimi’s great post. I really don’t have much to contribute to it. Like a couple of the others, I was lucky in my choice of family. They encouraged my reading habits early on, and were always pretty supportive. I mean there were always the common frictions (I didn’t get along with my sister for years, yet now she’s an enthusiastic helper, offering editing suggestions of my writing). I was just a quiet kid who enjoyed reading and the imaginary worlds of sci-fi.
    Nowadays, I get about the support I’d expect from my family. I already mentioned my sister, and my daughter is also a big help as she reads and comments on my stories. Actually, my daughter is a voracious reader. I think I helped get that started when she was in grammar school (about 7 or 8 years old). For some reason I started reading her The Hobbit, and ended up reading her the entire Ring Trilogy (thank God she didn’t ask me to read the Appendices too!). My wife reads my stuff, but she isn’t really into the genre. (She’s always been a bit competitive. After I read my daughter the Trilogy, she tried to read her Pride and Prejudice — let’s just say that didn’t go so well and leave it at that).
    My son kids me about my writing, but doesn’t read it. He started to once, but told my daughter that he felt weird reading something I wrote, so I leave him alone.
    Other than that, I have some friends I discuss books with, but they also aren’t into my genre. I suspect that they worry that they just won’t like my writing and it would show.
    I guess, all-in-all, I’m happy with this. There’s nothing sadder than those stories regarding query letters to agents gleefully extolling the fact that “Mom says I’m the best writer since Shakespeare!”

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks for this, Tom! I chuckled re: your daughter being read Jane Austen after Tolkien: “let’s just say that didn’t go so well and leave it at that.” I also was amused at learning your son “feels weird” whilst reading Dad’s fiction. (What?! Dad’s a creative spirit? Putting all these weird sounds and images in my head when I read his writing?! No, no, no–Dad goes stolidly to work every day at the ole nine-to-five, reliably brings home income, tells lame jokes and offers eye-rolling advice. Stay in your lane, Dad! You’re freaking me out . . . I imagine him feeling/thinking/saying. Heh!)

      Liked by 3 people

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