I’m an only child.
A real only child, too: no half-siblings, step-siblings, live-in relatives of roughly the same age, siblings who were extremely older or younger than I, or secret siblings lurking in closets somewhere, ready to tumble out and reveal a share parentage. Nothing like that.
We had a family of three, my father and mother and I, and while I wanted an older sister during my teen years, my parents never performed that particular miracle. (In college, I wanted an older brother, someone who would tell me which men were okay to date and which weren’t. My parents never obliged me there, either.)
It had its benefits. It also had its drawbacks. Too much parental attention, for one, and paradoxically, a high degree of loneliness. I spent a lot of time reading and writing and storytelling to fill the long hours on weekends and summers. (We didn’t have kids in my neighborhood who were close to my age.)
I’m envious of people with siblings. I hear conversations between close sisters and marvel at how they talk about their shared upbringing. I can’t fathom what that must be like to have someone who had shared my life for that long and in that way. Growing up, I had friends whom I considered to be as close as a sister. I also knew that if that girl had to choose between me and her real sister for some reason, she’d choose her sister; blood trumps water.
I’m reconciled or resigned to this fact.
Now what I feel most acutely is how this only-child status has limited my writing. It’s difficult to write about sibling relationships when I’ve never experienced them. I have at least three only children in The Cruelest Month (my first novel) and if two other major characters have siblings, they don’t appear in the manuscript.
My second novel, the nameless-shapeless mess, revolved around the relationship between two sisters after one sleeps with the other’s husband and becomes pregnant. Besides being entirely too melodramatic, the novel had a huge fatal flaw: I couldn’t figure out the sisters’ relationship after the betrayal.
I knew the guilty one felt horrible and remorseful and wanted her sister to forgive her.
I knew the victim felt angry as hell at both her sister and (the equally remorseful) husband, and her hurt is compounded by her love for her sister and husband.
But I couldn’t figure out the emotional landscape beyond that. How do sisters forgive each other? How do they treat each other when they’re hurt? How did they interact before the adultery? I asked questions of various sisters I knew; their feedback was helpful. But it wasn’t a substitute for experience.
So one walked around yelling at everyone in every chapter, and the other cried and begged for forgiveness in every chapter. Stories thrive on conflict, but this wasn’t productive conflict, the type that changes people and moves a plot forward. This was stagnant and pointless. When the characters “changed,” the changes felt improbable. Silly, even.
Eventually I dumped the novel and admitted to myself that my only child status had limited my imagination. A Certain Slant of Light, my third novel, had a protagonist who is—you guessed it—an only child.
I hate this particular limitation.
I hate being limited in my writing at all.
Aspiring novelists are always told to “write what you know,” but I’ve never thought this meant “write only about only children who are white, straight, bipolar evangelical Christian females living in the South who majored in English and married young and have two kids.”
I want to write about people different from me and I want their narrative voices to ring true. Men, minorities, people outside the mainstream: I want to put myself in their shoes and write their stories. And yes, that includes people with siblings. So why have I been told to “write what I know”?
I’ve read various interpretations of this writing adage. Write what you want to know. Write what you can imagine. Write what you have experienced emotionally, not just physically.
This last rings true to me. Emotions don’t necessarily reflect the truth of physical reality (look at my emotion-driven thoughts during a wild mood swing!) but they do shape my view of my life.
What I’ve experienced emotionally is vital to conveying the truth in the lie of fiction. I’ve experienced feelings of alienation from my own body . . . despair at my helplessness. . . confusion, when I couldn’t trust my own mind . . . paralyzing fear . . . desire for the unattainable . . . rage against systems and people and ideas . . .and utter aloneness, both contented and terrifying. I know positive emotions, too: elation, joy, peace.
Right now, I have a point of view character who isn’t of my race or gender. We have totally different upbringings; I haven’t experienced life from within his skin and I never will.
But maybe, just maybe, I have experienced certain of his emotions in different contexts. Maybe I can crawl into his shoes for a while.
Confusing sometimes, and paradoxical, this interpretation of the world that is so different yet so similar to mine.
I don’t know where this will lead. But I hope that these emotional experiences in my writing give me a greater depth of understanding for other people.