Navigating the Borderlands of Art and Sacrifice: How I Sacrificed my Family for my Writing, and How I am Going to Recover
My dad texted me tonight. It said:
“Warm, dumb, and illiterate…?”
He was referring to a short story I recently published online about my mother — one in which I was trying to describe the struggle I’ve had in learning I am just like her. One in which I sacrificed him as the juxtaposition of my mom’s character — saying things about him I would never say to him. Things I don’t necessarily believe.
Since I was a little girl, I’ve always dreamed of being a writer. At ten my obsession was food, and I spent time getting to know the delicacies of taste and flavor, researching how to become a food critic. Then, I could merge my two loves: food and words. As I got older, I became obsessed with the concept of humanity — the things that make us human. There is nothing in the world I find more beautiful than humans, so I began character studies. My mother indulged in my obsession with people, sometimes taking me to the airport to watch people. Sometimes taking me to a bar and grill on the plaza with a balcony overlooking the sidewalk. I carefully observe people: the things they say, do, wear, their expressions, and I always try to imagine what they are thinking, what the ground feels like under their feet, how they see themselves, how they see others. Now, I love people — so what do I write about? People. Portraits about their flaws and fears — vignettes of the very things I think make them so amazing. The things that make us insecure. So human.
My sophomore year of college I discovered Julia Alvarez. Her book How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents put me in awe because of the delicate description of the Garcia family — so accurately realistic and raw. These people were zany, imperfect, lovable. Her family was the Dominican version of MY family, and I was hooked. After falling in love with her book, I took it upon myself to follow up with this lead on my senior capstone. I spent a whole semester reading and studying the works of Julia Alzarez and one question kept coming up: She writes about her family and history. Everything is so well documented and realistic, so why does she call it fiction?
In my digging, I came across an interview she did for her book A Wedding in Haiti. In this interview she talked about how important it was for her to relay a story in a way people could really see. What she was talking about was not based in fiction nor nonfiction. It was based in the heart of human emotion. A way to seek and create understanding. To pass down a message in the most authentic way. It was the first time I ever thought about the morality of taking liberties in fiction. How much of these characters is true and how much is fake? The answer: It doesn’t matter. And so I am inspired by gaps in perception. It did not matter what the woman walking by me in the airport was REALLY thinking. If I could watch her and write about her in a way that I thought would captivate others…help them to see the beauty I found in her. Then, truth did not matter. Alvarez classified her works as fiction because while her characters symbolized real people, they ARE NOT the real people. They are a interpretation created in order to help others really see what it means to fight for the things you love. What it means to lose your identity and have to find it again.
Thus began my documentation of humans. I began scrounging craigslist, reading diaries, everything I could to study people and interpret what makes them most human — then falsify them to make them more human. The very people that inspire me the most are the wild and crazy ones I know best: my family. We are so diverse, so very very human.
But when my dad texted me today, I was stunned. I couldn’t breath. My dad has always been my number 1 supporter. In school, in my career, in my adventures. He has always wanted for me what he could not have. He was devastated. I could tell because he was not picking up my panicked phone calls, and my dad is they type of guy who will carry two extra phone batteries to stay connected. I tried to explain to him via text that it was just a way of creating contrast — it is not real — it’s just my art. It was never my intention to say hurtful things: the opposite — When I wrote the short story that upset him, what I meant to do was portray him as innocent, naive, loving, compassionate. But I knew in my heart I betrayed my dad.
I know he isn’t dumb and illiterate, but what other people cannot tell is how much of my story is not true. It was so realistic that I caused him to send me a text later saying, “It’s just hard to read it from the one you love most in the world.” Reading this message broke my heart. I was going for a touching effect on my audience, and I got it. And the more I thought about it, I betrayed my mom too. Because no matter how much of those portraits seem true, they aren’t true. In the same way I over simplified my Dad; I sold my mom too. I posted it because I did not expect either of them to read it, but I also posted it before I considered how much my words could misshape other people’s perceptions of them…if my dad was hurt, my mom could be devastated by it. It was the kindergarten lesson about the power of words I was relearning as a professional writer.
So here I am questioning the balance between art and sacrifice. I’ve come to know one of my first true pains as a writer:
- To write about the things I know and love the most and to make them authentic, I run the risks of being an asshole — of misrepresenting. Of sacrificing those people I love.
- To write the things and never publish them, I sacrifice the ability to share the beauty I see in the people I love most.
- To not write them, I sacrifice my art altogether.
What I wrote was really important for understanding my story — do I delete it and have less of a story? Do I leave it knowing I caused my dad to question his intelligence and the way I perceive him? I settled by writing an introduction the piece that hurt my dad. Hopefully it softens the blow. I’ve sent dozens of apologizing messages to my dad, and in the end, I think he will forgive me. I hope he will follow my writing again. Still, my first step in becoming a published writer was the humbling realization words not only empower, but can hurt too. I wonder how Alvarez’s family felt about her piece of “fiction.”