I hope you had a wonderful holiday season, perhaps sharing good times with your family (real or cobbled together). From all those smiles I see on holiday cards and social media, it looks like you did.
But…those public photos seldom tell the full story.
My family is perfect, of course—proof found in that photo of my daughter Sahara—but I recently peered into the messiness of family life.
Noah Baumbach’s film Marriage Story (which I watched on the plane to South Africa to visit my wife’s family) shows us Charlie and Nicole going through the throes of divorce—spending crazy money on lawyers who pit them savagely against each other, especially when it comes to custody of their young son. It sounds too ugly to watch, but it’s riveting because the relationship is so dimensional. They did love each other once, still do in some ways, and we too find things to love about them, but the years of sacrifice have accrued so much resentment that they also feel a stomach-churning hatred of each other.
Painfully real, but strangely funny at times, as life is.
Then I read Celeste Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere (while lounging in the SA family home, often in the dead of night due to jet lag).
Here we meet two families—the picture-perfect Richardsons (mom, dad, four kids), and Mia, an artist with a dubious past who wanders town to town with her teenage daughter Pearl. Mia is renting a duplex from the Richardsons and the two families are attracted to each other…until they start cracking open each other’s flaws. Lies, spying, abortion, arson. This story also dives deep.
And yet there’s love. Here’s Mia coping with her teenager’s reluctance to show much affection:
The occasional embrace, a head leaned for just a moment on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.
And, okay, my family isn’t perfect either, but my wife and I were thrilled watching Sahara laugh and dance and play with her little South Africans cousins.
With family, the feelings are intense, the stakes high. Which is why it makes for such great storytelling, if you’re willing to show the real stuff.
If you’re feeling inspired to write, we’ve got lots of writing classes starting right about now. You’re always welcome in the Gotham family.
President, Gotham Writers Workshop