If people were perfect, would we have fiction?

On February 6, 1989, my mother wrote

It has occurred to me that much of what would go to build your reservoir you will draw on as a writer are things, have been things, that it might trouble you to write knowing I–or your dad or your grandmother–might read. There’s probably nothing you could write that would punish me more than my own self-flagellation–I was in a mental ward after you were born in part for what I thought were my failures. If you don’t want me to read what you write, I’ll give you my word. I’ll read only what you personally place in my hands. But don’t stifle yourself or draw back because of what I might do or think. We all have the right to suffer our own consequences, and you have the absolute right to be what what you are.

I was 20 then. She was 45 and wouldn’t need to worry about her word as she died that year.

On October 11, 1983, she wrote

When I took you to your father’s, your dad and I, & then you, had a talk about visitation, if you remember. The agreement was that visitation is up to you, and your father will help you by seeing you get here. I understand why you have avoided being alone with me, and why you tried to manipulate me into seeing you outside of my home. It is always difficult to face people you’ve hurt or lied to.

I have been hoping you would have the courage to face yourself, and me, but that is not characteristic of people your age. There are so many things you need to understand about yourself, mostly that you’ve done the very usual things kids do. Your behavior has been normal and ordinary, although immature. Even your ability to mimic adult behavior is a sign of immaturity–you so needed to bring about what you wanted, no matter what happened or who got hurt. You have nothing to feel guilty about; you do have things to change in the way you act towards others.

I was 14 when she wrote that (though my 15th birthday was 3 days later).

Taking slices of these letters out of their time is not really fair. I could add the part where she writes, “…in a few years, you’ll find it easier to deal with reality and won’t fantasize so much about how you want things to be. Come see me when you’re ready; I love you.”

Maybe that’s why I write fiction. I can manipulate and fantasize and be praised for my efforts.

Today, I talked to my students about how they choose what to include in a story or any writing at all. I asked them to think about what they would write if they wrote about their parents–and what they wouldn’t write. My students typically tell me how wonderful their parents are in every way, and they looked startled at the news I suspected otherwise. I hope otherwise. (There are only so many times I want to read that someone’s father worked hard and supported the family and that their mother is kind and does everything for her children. Am I bad to be annoyed by these virtuous souls?)

Of course, I want people to like me, to like my mother, and to like my main characters. But don’t perfect people make you crazy? But then again, what flaws are okay to reveal?

What are the flaws of your favorite fictional characters?

11 thoughts on “If people were perfect, would we have fiction?

  1. Oh, I dunno – I’m perfect and I don’t think I make people crazy.

    Hahahahaha! Made you laugh!

    You know, I read through these little clips of your mother’s letters and one thing that jumps out at me is her conviction that you would be a writer. She doesn’t seem to speak of it as “your dream of being a writer” or anything like that. It’s like she just takes it for granted, this is what you want to do so you will, period. She really believed in you, it sounds like, no matter what her other faults may have been, and I think that is something precious, probably because I never had anything remotely like that.

    Characters without flaws are just stereotypes or archetypes. Big yawns.

    1. Ha! I did laugh.

      It helps to have another perspective on these letters. You should’ve had parents who believed in you. But now you have us–and we do.

  2. In my novel (which I’m not going to publish because it’s not good enough), the main character has an awful time at school and his parents ignore the signs. But later they realise their faults and try to make amends. My parents didn’t do the second part. I’m not sure it would have been any different if I’d told them what happened. I wouldn’t have written about this when they were alive and able to understand.

    1. How do you know it isn’t good enough to publish? Or can’t become good enough?

      Parents can’t always help who they are. As a mom my flaws are often too apparent. But I’d like to think I wouldn’t ignore signs of trouble. Sorry yours did. Though I try to look at these things as material.

  3. Tom

    The glorious madness of being human; sometimes it takes my breath away. Some times like this one.

    Thanks for sharing this, Marta.

    As for “perfect people”, the phrase is an oxymoron. Fathers do work hard and support the family, and mothers are kind and do everything for their children. These are every-morning choices, and those who make the “right” choices are commendable. It’s hard, doing that. It’s also easy; ruts are paths or least resistance through the Grand Canyon of life.

    Some mornings, some people make other choices. Then life for them — and everyone they touch — changes. The people they are are jerked aside, pummeled, tossed out of the am lane and into the path of an oncoming becoming.

    That’s what’s worth writing about.

    Arguably, that’s what’s worth living.

    1. I think I suffer from teacher syndrome–you know, it is a new thing for the student to write, but it is an old thing for me to read. (Maybe agents feel this way.)

      All you say is true. Thank you for your comment.

  4. I don’t even want to know what sort of manipulative things my mother would put in letters. She doesn’t do written communication very well. And I’m not sure I’d be able to read whatever those letters contained anyway. I’m sort of a wimp that way. (Okay … not “sort of”.) So I admire your courage to read through them again.

    I think I’m in the “no flaws is boring” camp with READING fictional characters. I’ve struggled to figure out how to inject flaws in mine. Realistic, human flaws. I wonder to what degree I’ll succeed? I’ve heard psychology classes help a lot here. *Sigh*

    1. Yes, well, these letters have been sitting in boxes for 20 years. That’s a wimpy amount of time!

      Psychology classes may or may not help. The more I study psychology, the crazier I think I am.

  5. Those letters are pretty intense. I can see how many issues your mom had to work through and I know that’s tough, speaking as the daughter of a paranoid schizophrenic and probably narcissistic artist father. He probably would have written that I was immature if he had thought to write these things down.

    But as to that, I remember once calling a 14 year old student of mine immature. And he said, “Well, miss, I’m immature because because I’m a kid. I’m not a grown up yet, so I’m supposed to be immature.” or something of the sort. And he was right.

    I do remember once my father telling me that my art was “pretty” and “the kind of thing that people put over their sofas.” And this sounds like a compliment, until you realize that between artists, it’s a pretty big insult. Well, what can I say, I guess he’s a bit jealous and a bit of a jerk.

    It gives me something to write about.

    1. She was a good mom in many ways, but she had plenty of issues. And yes, your student was right. So many adults complain about kids growing up too fast, then we get upset when they act like children.

      Since you’re your father’s daughter, he mustn’t be a complete jerk because you’re talented and amazing. But yeah, he also sounds like a little bit of a jerk. We can all be thankful though that you can write about it.

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