It can be hard to know

It can be hard to know what episodes of a life to include, and which to omit.

If I saw something which for me was hugely informative – perhaps I saw my mother crying or my father shouting – do I mention that? Or is it part of the “foreign country” past of others that is best left alone?

In general, I would include mention of any or all particularly telling episodes in early drafts as often as I like until I had come to a clearer and more compassionate understanding of the dynamics of, for example, my parents’ relationship and could see it from a more rounded perspective. In writing, I would continue to refine my understanding of any events until I could feel, for example, the reasons for my parents’ frustrations and could glimpse more of the reasons why they found life difficult.

Certainly, their relationship has been formative in my other relationships, and of course I may say so. But any direct attribution of hardship, say, should be avoided. Compare,

~ “Aware of the tense atmosphere between my parents, I became withdrawn and unhappy”.

This may be true, but a statement of this order is likely to cause bad feeling, since we appear to attribute all or most of our unhappiness to the tension in our parents’ relationship: the old, “It’s all your fault” trap. Much better, and far more interesting, to hint at a challenging atmosphere and show all the other things with which we were directly involved that certainly would have made life difficult.  


~ “Becoming aware of how volatile my parents’ marriage later was, I try to make my own marriage as harmonious as possible, though it’s amazing how often I still fail in this.”

I may know my parents’ relationship had its challenges, and my parents may even have confided in me about that, but that confidence deserves to be respected.

I suspect that my advice would be, that if a person lays a hand on you, you may mention it; if we saw them lay a hand, or exchange cross words with another, perhaps a single, immediate reference to what we saw or felt will be enough. As with other forms of narrative, show, don’t tell, and resist the urge to mine for sympathy.

Thanks for listening.

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