*** Whenever I get together with my sisters and reminisce about something that happened when we were growing up, one of them will pipe up, “It wasn’t like that.” Another will pile on: “And you weren’t there.”
And maybe I wasn’t. Memory is like that. Photos in family albums morph into memories, while events that weren’t seared into consciousness fade.
For years I sat back and didn’t write while my sisters did, and it’s always illuminating when one of them writes about a time when I was there.
My older sister Delia’s first book, the huge bestseller How to Eat Like a Child, has a chapter on “How to torture your sister.” In it she reveals techniques that she and I practiced on our younger sister, Amy. (“I’ve got to tell you something. You’re adopted!”) Delia would go on to write Hanging Up, miraculously finding humor in our screenwriter father’s bouts of alcohol-soaked self-pity.
My oldest sister Nora, who inspired a generation of women to feel bad about their necks and who wrote and directed some of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks’ best films, gave me a moment on the page as the "good" daughter (“to distinguish her from me,” the protagonist explains) in Heartburn, her painfully funny autobiographical novel about the breakup of her marriage to Carl Bernstein.
Then there’s the time I nearly killed Amy. She immortalized it in her first novel, Cool Shades. She couldn’t pedal her tricycle fast enough to keep up with my two-wheeler, so I tied my bike to her trike. Soon we were flying along. Near the corner, I hit the brakes. But tricycles have no brakes, so Amy kept on going until the rope snapped and she flew off, skidding face-first across the macadam. Reading her book brought back the full horror of that moment when I realized what I’d done.
I've gotten used to being written about, and whenever one of my sisters publishes something (as in just about every other week), I brace for another cringe-worthy episode from my life to get aired.
For years I couldn't fight back. I didn't write.
Then, one day I got a call from a freelance writer. She wanted to write a magazine piece about me. “You’re the sister who doesn’t write,” she said, like “the fourth Brontë sister.” Which sounded unappealing, not just because the fourth Brontë sister died young of tuberculosis.
Then it struck me: the longer I waited to write, the less material there would be to claim as my own.
I told that freelancer that if anyone was going to write about me not writing it was going to be me.
After telling that freelance thanks, but no thanks, I started where most writers start, essays about my own personal experience. I piled page on top of page, thinking maybe I was writing a book. But when I read it, I knew that while the words were fine, and some of the sentences were lovely, the story was circling the drain. I had no idea that characters need arcs, that there had to be stakes, and the story had to go somewhere.
I tucked that unfinished manuscript away. When I pulled it out about three years ago, I was surprised to find that it didn't smell as bad as I thought it would. In fact, pieces of it are in Night Night. (The episode where Deirdre gets nabbed for shoplifting at J. J. Newberry's really happened. Sadly none of my sisters were involved so I missed an opportunity to humiliate one of them.)
Which leads me one of my hard and fast WRITING RULES. Save everything you write because today's garbage is tomorrow's compost. Which is a corollary to my other WRITING RULE: Just hold your nose and write.