How to Write About Family by Kate Hill Cantrill
by Writing Workshops Staff
6 months ago
Many holiday seasons ago I devised a way to make the family gatherings more manageable by attending as the character of myself as opposed to my actual self. I don’t know if a trained therapist would recommend this method, but it works for me, and it seems to work for my family as we are getting along fairly well these days.
Case in point—my mother is hosting Christmas Eve and she has invited my father and his wife and the only hesitation in the matter was regarding whether they should bring something sweet or something savory. After little discussion it was decided that they are bringing bagels to pair with my mother’s lox.
The actual me reacts to situations without any distance and, around the stressful holidays, too often without enough humor. The character of me is able to step outside of the boundary-crushing, claustrophobic, visits down dysfunctional memory lane conversations as though they were just scenes in a short story I am writing. The character of me will pause to respond instead of reacting in order to assess the situation properly. Is this the part of the scene that requires a poignant response, or is it too soon for that and I need something comedic? When an elderly relative needs more assistance this year finding that word should I have my character escape into the bathroom to despair while she sips from a flask hidden in the hand towels, or do I have her remain in the conversation, confront the fear, but also accept with serious gratitude that it’s just a word lost here and there?
Which way do I want my story to go? If I come into these moments as the writer I am, observing, looking for material, understanding that this is only one scene among many and that the end is a long way from written, then I take a dedicated and creative part in my world in a way that I find to be truly enjoyable.
If you have some complicated family reunions happening soon, I suggest that you check in with the writer in you and come to an agreement that you will participate as the character that will play you in the story you will write after the event.
Bring something to jot down moments that are particularly funny, particularly odd, or very useful in shifting the mood of a scene. Know that you have a purpose in this visit that is beyond just attending. You are a part of this story, and celebration or disaster, you can write your way through it to discover what else might be there.
For my upcoming Writing About Family 6-Week Zoom Workshop, starting February 2nd, 2022, students are going to be encouraged to come to the class with a single family situation/conflict/relic/story/relationship that we will be investigating from multiple angles using different genres to see what the story reveals to us!
As always, this course is open to all levels, and is for those who want to dig deep into their writing voice and experiment with form and shed some preconceptions about exactly how a story should be told. Why don't you join us. If you're curious, more information and registration is right here. In the meantime, wishing you and yours the best this holiday season!
BIO: Kate Hill Cantrill is the author of the short story collection, Walk Back From Monkey School. She holds an MFA from The Michener Center For Writers, and her stories, essays, and poetry have appeared in literary journals such as: Story Quarterly, The Believer, Mississippi Review, Texas Observer, Blackbird, Salt Hill, Del Sol Review, The Short Story Project, and others. She has received fellowships from The Corporation of Yaddo, The Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Jentel Artists’ Residency, and The James A. Michener Fund. She is presently writing both a novel and an epistolary novella.