Family Ties: What I Learned from Writing Linked Essays

Since starting grad school in 2010 in Creative Writing at Ball State, I’ve been carving out a niche for myself in the program. I’ve had a flash fiction class with Sean Lovelace, creative nonfiction with Jill Christman, and just completed two courses this Fall 2011: 610 Writing Across the Genres and Cathy Day’s 612 Fiction Writing Workshop.

On the first day of class, with all Prof. Day’s talk of diptychs and triptychs and linked stories, I wondered just how I’d ever be able to write a short story cycle. Most of my essays and fiction have been limited to one premise and 20 pages. How could it be possible to expand beyond this, with multiple characters, multiple issues, but still a common thread (or threads) woven throughout? I dreaded it, and as each week went by without much of an idea, I started to panic.
I knew, at the very least, that I wanted my project to be nonfiction. I’ve been wanting to write about my family and their West Virginia and immigrant history ever since I started the grad program at BSU. But the question still remained: If the task is to write, at the very least, a diptych, how could I possibly tie together different relatives from different sides of the family, people with such radically different backgrounds and upbringings?
My first point of attack was to sit down and type out a series of questions for my parents to answer and record on tape. After a couple days of deliberation about the core familial issues I wanted to address, I handed my mom and dad a print-out of questions about three family members: my dad’s dad, Calvin; my mom’s half-brother, Steve; and my mom’s half-sister, Jeanie. I asked questions ranging from the inane – “When was your father born?”, “How would you describe your brother?”, and “What is your earliest memory of your sister?” – to those with multiple deep levels – “When was your father diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia?”, “Why did your mother sign away custody of your brother, Steve?”, and “Why didn’t you ever visit your sister in prison?” Even though I found that most of these questions led to other questions later – things I thought of later while hunched over my computer, listening to my parents’ recorded answers – as I transcribed their interviews I started noticing patterns. Each of these family members I’d highlighted in my questions had, at some point, been largely absent from my life. Each of them struggled with some form of emotional deficiency. And, as it turns out, I felt I hardly knew any of them.
After the transcriptions were finished, I printed them out and began cutting them up into

sections. I wanted to take both of my parents’ accounts of each of these relatives and group together common memories, recollections, and feelings. I stapled both parents’ accounts of these three relatives together and put them into their own separate piles, according to person. And while I still felt disconnected from these three relatives of mine, I started noticing just how much there was in common among them, and not only that, but just how much in common I had with each of them, in terms of feeling, emotion, and understanding. When talking about my Aunt Jeanie, both my parents said they felt a disconnect in her, a sense of not belonging, and an overwhelming desire for the love and respect of her mother. Both my mom and dad saw my Uncle Steve as a bit of a misfit and a thug who got his life straightened out with the help of the military. My grandfather, Calvin, was a bit more difficult to sort out. My dad was able to recall fond memories of his father in spite of the emotional illness my grandfather suffered (and that the family also suffered because of it), but ultimately be rational about it in terms of how it changed the family dynamic and what my dad’s understanding of the situation was. My mom, on the other hand, was much harsher and much more critical of father-in-law in her interview answers. That also led me to a connection between my mom and me, that we share the same lack of empathy and understanding for my dad’s dad, which is something I’ve been trying to write about for years that this project has finally helped me begin to understand and articulate.
Writing linked essays has helped me form connections I never would have realized existed. For example, while reading through the interview transcriptions with my parents and moving around my little stapled piles, I hit upon a common thread among my grandfather, uncle, and aunt that I’d never even considered before: Calvin being confrontational and getting into heated arguments with neighbors and friends, Steve getting into a fight at school and breaking some kid’s jaw, Jeanie being arrested and taken to jail. It was amazing to me that this whole possibility emerged from three very different people. Linking has helped me see the commonality where I never imagined there could or would be any and this triptych project has allowed me to bring my writing to a deeper, more meaningful level. It is certainly overwhelming, and no one promised writing would be easy, but linking has been so personally rewarding for me and I plan to see this project through as my creative project/thesis for the Fall of 2012.

2 thoughts on “Family Ties: What I Learned from Writing Linked Essays

  1. Hi Sarah,What a great post – I'm so glad I've come across it. I'm currently writing something in a similar vein; a memoir type project which I haven't quite worked out how to link all the facets of just yet. I have to say, your approach to your own project sounds brilliant. I've never even thought about interviewing my family and working with transcripts representations of plot points.Have you published any of this work, or is there anywhere I can read some? I'd really love to see this in action.Cheers,Sam.

  2. Hi Sam,Thanks for the kind words! I don't have any of my essays published yet. The form I started with at the beginning of the semester drastically changed from what I submitted during finals week, and I still find that the shapes of these essays are shifting as I continue to revise and reform the core questions.I can say that the interviews with my parents did give me more questions than answers, but it was such a helpful part of the whole process that really got me thinking about deeper issues related to my family and to my writing.I had planned to put snippets of my essays on my personal blog – – whenever I can get them polished enough to feel comfortable sharing. But a couple of interview excerpts are on there, if you're interested.Good luck with your writing, Sam! I'll be interested to hear how your project develops!

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