|Matthew Lansburgh's collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, won the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was recently published by the University of Iowa Press. His fiction has appeared in StoryQuarterly, Ecotone, Electric Literature, Columbia, The Florida Review, Guernica, Michigan Quarterly Review, Joyland, Glimmer Train Stories, and SLICE. He was the winner of Columbia Journal' s fiction contest in 2014 and The Florida Review's fiction contest in 2015, and his work has been nominated for six Pushcart Prizes. In selecting Outside Is the Ocean as the winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, Andre Dubus III described his book as "mesmerizing." You can visit Matthew online at www.matthewlansburgh.com and follow him on Twitter (@senorlansburgh).|
Writing About Family: Advice, Second Thoughts, Xanax, and a Note to My Mom
My father died in 2013, at the age of eighty-eight, estranged from his children and the dozens of women he'd fallen in and out of love with throughout his tumultuous decades; my mother turned eighty-two last year and still plays tennis several times a week. My father divorced my mother when I was three, and for as long as I can remember my relationship with both of them has been fraught. I first started writing Outside Is the Ocean many years ago as part of an ongoing effort to make sense of the people who raised me and shaped who I am: to understand and grapple with the anger and mistrust, the guilt and, yes, love that has characterized so much of my relationship with my parents.
When I first began working on the stories in my collection, I drew heavily from my life. Over time, with each successive revision, my drafts became less autobiographical and more fictional. The scenes and circumstances in the final version of the book are nearly all fabricated, but the emotional core of the stories is based on my lived experience. I still haven't told my mother that finally—after all these years—my dream of becoming an author, a real author, has come true. Strangers who learn this are often shocked; a woman I met at a recent event told me I had to tell my mother immediately. "Your mother will be so proud of you. It doesn't matter what you say in the book, she'll be proud."
Of course, I've spent more than a few sleepless nights wondering what my mother's reaction would be if she did read Outside Is the Ocean. Part of me desperately wants to share it with her—the part of me that wishes she and I could spend time together without conflict and tears and misunderstanding.
I often wonder what my obligations are to my parents when it comes to my writing. I assume most people would say I'm not obligated to sugarcoat things, that my primary responsibility is just to do my best to create characters that are three-dimensional and rendered with empathy. Often, when I'm awake at 3:00 A.M., I tell myself I've accomplished that goal, that many readers have told me they feel the characters in my book are drawn with compassion. This fact, coupled with the fact that my book is fiction, usually makes me feel better, but there are times when nothing I tell myself allays the guilt.
In a recent review of Outside Is the Ocean, Paul La Farge called Heike, my fictional mother, "one of fiction’s great bad mothers." He goes on to describe Heike as "a German-American who survived the Second World War only to inflict what seems, at times, to be nearly equivalent terrors on her son and adopted daughter. Self-centered, vain, erratic, and yet passionately convinced of her own righteousness, Heike is the permanent center of her own terrible party, the victim of so many monstrous everyday injustices that she’d be beatified if only anyone knew, or cared. Heike could be a monster, but Lansburgh—even as his stories draw energy from her wild terribleness—is wise enough to render her as a person." When I read La Farge's words, I was thrilled that he liked my work, but his assessment was also a kick in the gut. My mother isn't much of a reader and she rarely goes online, but what if she came across his description? Would this end our relationship once and for all?
People who know my mother have told me the risk of showing her the book isn't worth it. They think the chances are low that she would see the portrayal of Heike as nuanced and compassionate, that it is likely she would latch onto one of the less flattering moments in the book, without registering the overall arc.
Writers are often told to be true to themselves and to embrace their subject matter with honesty. We're urged to shine a light on the darkest regions of our souls. Perhaps part of the reason I've always wanted to be a writer is that, growing up, my parents taught me to be honest and assert my individuality; they themselves always spoke their minds and never minced words. When I began writing this essay I hoped that thinking through these issues would help me arrive at a clearer answer of what my responsibility is to my mother now. Should I share my book with her? If she reads it and is upset, how should I respond? Should I defend myself or apologize?
I realize, however, there are no simple answers to these questions. My guess is that one day I will share the book with her. When I do, my hope is that she will read the whole thing and see it for what it is: a nuanced portrait of a complicated relationship between people who love each other but who have also had a hard time navigating their differences. And Mom, if you end up reading this essay, please know that I care about you deeply and that my book was written with love.