Storyville: Using Your Family to Tell Dark Stories
Oh, the number of times I’ve killed off my wife and kids in a story or novel. I mean, Disintegration alone! But that’s not the only role your family can play in the telling of dark stories. There are many ways you can use the people around you to provide depth, meaning, emotion, and authority. Let me toss out some ideas and see if they can help you go deeper as well.
In my story, “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave”, I tell a very dark list story, in only about 400 words, but I tapped into my own memories as a new father, the ways that I worry, and items from my life with my child. There is a line about stepping on a Matchbox car, and crumpling up in a sobbing mess, missing the boy. I can remember setting up that orange track all over the house, and racing the cars from upstairs all the way down to the basement. I can also remember stepping on a few (Legos as well) and howling in pain. I have written about dolls and figurines, stuffed animals and toys, bikes and sporting goods—using our time together, the ways we played, and the conversations we had with so many inanimate objects. I’ve written about my father’s 1967 Camaro—in Royal Blue. And the backyard I grew up in, the way the trees would sway in the wind, but rarely break. There is so much around you, don’t be afraid to take note, walk around, pick up objects, and study your own life.
I have used my wife’s perfume (both notes and names), as well as candles we’ve owned (colors and scents). I have used the sound of laughter, as well as crying, the joy of singing, and the terror of a bug (spiders and flies!) to help me tap into their POV and emotion. I have used all of the dishes we’ve ever cooked in our kitchen—from lasagna and curry, to BBQ and steak, to chocolate chip cookies and banana bread. I’ve used the sight of my twins as they fight, love each other, compete, and bond.In my story, “How Not to Come Undone”, I focused on the two of them, my son and daughter, and amplified their traits and emotions, and then flipped them. It was a pretty compelling exercise.
I tapped into my own memories with loss, not our children dying in a tragic accident, but the loss of parents, miscarriage, and other stressful moments in our lives. I can remember praying to whoever was listening to let me take my wife’s pain. I have used fights and harsh words, and the tension that rolled around my gut. I have tapped into the heady love when we were dating, the heat and arousal from our passionate nights together, and the peace of lying next to each other, chatting about our lives until the wee hours of the morning. The simple, generous love of my daughter, and the echo of myself that is my son. I use the good and the bad, tapping into all of the memories I have at my disposal—and then shaping them to fit whatever narrative I’m writing.
I always had a difficult relationship with my father. He was from Texas, a quiet man, who liked working on cars, and being an accountant. He didn’t like my long hair, my music, the clothes I wore, the friends I hung out with, or the girls I brought home. In my story, “Moving Heavy Objects”, I tapped into that disconnect and spent time in my MFA program trying to figure out how to bridge that gap, to understand him. And in the end, I think I did. He was only being the person he could be—and in hindsight, the times we spent together working on my 1966 Candy Apple Red Mustang, or up in the country fishing and hanging out, were actually quite a gift. I just wanted him to be somebody else—and that was never going to happen. It’s easy to block out all the days your father plays catch with you, or the fact that he paid for you college (three years, at least), when they don’t understand the world you travel in, the work you do. He didn’t come to all of my baseball games, not even in high school, but he did come see me when I had a major role in Grease, and I know that wasn’t his cup of tea. Use that baseline story to help shape your emotion, your inner conflicts, and then take it off into the horrific or fantastic.
MY ROLE AS A FATHER AND HUSBAND
One of the ways that I tap into my own life experiences is by using my own expectations, feelings, and emotions as a father and husband. I can think of no better example than in my story, “Chrysalis.” It is the story of a man who has moved his family to a farm, where he now works as an accountant (my father’s job). But he is not a farmer. He does read the Farmer’s Almanac, though, and when he sees signs of a brutal winter coming, he decides to act. But it’s not without risk. They don’t have a lot of money, but he uses what he has, including returning all of their Christmas gifts, to purchase a load of coal, which he secretly dumps into the basement of the old farmhouse. When the storm comes, and then fades, he worries that it has all been for nothing. The empty boxes opened on Christmas present a stressful moment, one that is highly scrutinized, until the weather hits, a storm of the century. Around them the power goes out, six feet of snow, people trapped and dying, and no way for anyone to help them, as isolated as they are. When he lights the coal-burning furnace, saving their lives, he is redeemed. I try to use everything I go through—the good and the bad—as a father and husband, to provide depth to my stories. Most of that story is entirely fiction—but I did research where I could: reading the Almanac, going to a farm, studying furnaces, and even the way coal is shipped up and down the river (triggering a memory from my childhood, unloading 100 pound bags of coal off the Mississippi River in St. Louis). Tap into your roles, and see where they take you.
When it comes to your family, sure, the obvious solution is to simply recreate them on the page. But that doesn’t take a lot of imagination. There is nothing wrong with listing actual items, brands and versions of something, but then use that detail to ground the story in a moment, give it meaning, and then take it farther. In my classes, the poets always have an easy time converting to fiction, because they know the words, the phrases, the beats, and the symbolism. The essayists and non-fiction authors (taking from the real world, their lives, their research, and their reporting) too often get stuck in the truth—whether it’s an interesting story or not. Use your past, your relationships, details, and emotion to give your stories more depth and authority, and then take it beyond that into something more tragic, original, and fantastic.
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