Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Family Cauldron

By Laura Puccia Valtorta

This afternoon I returned to South Carolina from my father’s memorial
service in Watertown, New York. There was a burial of ashes followed by
an afternoon drop-in at the local Italian-American Civic Association.
Both the burial and the memorial gathering afterwards were meaningful

I hadn’t seen some of those relatives in 20 years. My fourth-grade
teacher showed up, and about 15 of my dad’s colorful co-workers. Family
members were exchanging genealogical research. I discovered that one
second cousin had made a trip to Reggio Calabria at the invitation of
common relatives there I never knew existed. They treated her royally.

I could write two books on my first cousin, David, who recently sold a
profitable produce business and lives in our grandparents’ old house.
The details of his life are like a soap opera and very entertaining –
to me.

The question is - should this family stuff be written down? Almost every
fiction writer begins by telling the story of his or her family. I did
it in Family Meal. D.H. Lawrence did it with his first book, Sons and
. Pat Conroy seems to do nothing but write about his domineering
father and mentally ill mother. At some point the reader baulks. Enough
already’! Everyone THINKS he or she has an interesting family. Not many
people do.

People who write memoir have a different task. They seek meaning in the
timeliness or the universality of their experiences. Memoir writers
don’t pretend to take the theme any farther than that.

The problem arises when a fiction writer tries to turn her living
relatives into metaphors. The temptation is great because the
descriptions are so real and easy to come by. The character is large
and loud and standing right there! The author can question the
character. This is too easy.

Maturity in writing comes when we can create characters that are
entirely fictional – not based on a relative or neighbor. These
characters, such as Carmen in my novel about the future, possess a
freedom that yanks them from the quotidian and places them in a
fabulous world full of meaning. Greater meaning than we see at the
office everyday. When we can write this we become more like the great
Haruki Murakami - fiction artists.

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