The perils of writing about the past – Grant Jarrett

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By Grant Jarrett

There are dozens of compelling arguments against writing about the past, about family, friends, loved ones, pets. First and foremost, the substantial risk to your own sanity. There are things no one should have to relive, awkward kisses and failed advances, mortifying moments that still make you grimace and blush. Forgotten slights and resentments might be exhumed, brought back to life to haunt you anew. ♥

And then there are the hurts you caused through thoughtlessness or cruelty. Treasonous acts, deceptions, and miscalculations you’d like to fool yourself into believing everyone else has forgotten. This is not therapy and no one should have to listen to your incessant whining, no matter how beautiful the prose, how apt the analogies or exacting the punctuation. But even if you can navigate that obstacle course without serious emotional injury and create something true and relevant, something akin to Art, there is another risk to consider before strip-mining your life and hawking the noxious residue to the public.

No matter how you approach the thankless enterprise, no matter how pure your intentions, no matter how fair and evenhanded you think you’re being, when you write about your family and your past, you will offend someone. That’s one of the reasons I don’t invest much energy in trying not to offend. It’s hopeless. Which is not to say that I would write anything I wasn’t’ convinced was true, or that I would intentionally depict someone in a way that might highlight his or her flaws. It is to say that, no matter what I’m writing, I at least attempt to adhere to the truth. The problem is that the truth is a slippery, wriggly bugger, always skittering about, as unique and individual as eyewitness testimony or dental records and, in practical terms, probably not as useful as either one. No one else sees what you see, which is to say that you are screwed.

Though my mother and father are currently dead and seem particularly impassive, my four brothers are still potentially ripe for offense. Writing anything at all about our shared history, even just stating simple, incontrovertible facts — in 1965 our mom bought a green Rambler station wagon, our grandmother parboiled the chicken before frying it, or that someone is an inveterate bed-wetter — is begging for industrial strength rancor with a 23% chance of gunplay.

But there is good news. Two of my brothers have already excommunicated me, one by unfriending me on Facebook (he was disappointed to learn that life lacked a convenient “unbrothering” button), and the other by advising me through a rather curt email that he would no longer accept phone calls and would direct any attempted email communications from me to his “junk mail” file. Because three of the top ten Jarrett personality traits are stubbornness, I don’t expect either brother to reconsider until long after we are all dead and they are finally tired of being right. Were I to attempt to explain without prejudice what led to these drastic measures, you, the imaginary reader, would likely make unflattering assumptions about the mental health of one or more of those involved. Consequently, I, always one to take the high road and avoid judgments, choose not to do so and risk confirming your diagnosis.

So here I am, with only two remaining brothers to offend, down from the original two parents and four brothers. Yipee! And, as it happens, one of the remaining brothers is very forgiving and the other is both disinclined to read anything I’ve written and unconcerned with such trivialities as what I might say, think, or feel about events that may or may not have occurred thirty years ago. So I’m going to write what I feel like writing and stop fretting, though I don’t plan to drop my guard, just in case of reprisals.

Now, if you’re looking for a moral, a message, or a lesson in all of this, here it comes. If you are a writer, or if, because life is not already frustrating enough, you would like to be one, and if you believe it’s even remotely possible that you will occasionally touch upon something that could sound vaguely familiar to one or more members of your family, or that you might simply find a spark of inspiration in your past, now is the time to lay the groundwork for a successful, stress-free future. Piss those bastards off today; alienate the shit out of them now so you don’t have to deal with their whining and death threats in the future. Of course, if things really get ugly you’ll have something to write about 20 years from now. Or they will. It depends on who’s the better shot.

Grant Jarrett grew up in Northwestern Pennsylvania and currently lives in Manhattan, where he works as a writer, musician, and songwriter. He has written for magazines including FOW and Triathlon, and is the author of More Towels and an International Book Awards Winner for his latest novel Ways of Leaving. He is an avid cyclist and a reasonably competent flosser.

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