Write As If Your Parents Were Dead

Creative Nonfiction
Kimberly Cullen


Photo Credit: nonlineargirl/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. My friend Dan, a writer himself, recommended it to me many years ago when I first started posting my writing. I bought the book and then held onto it until this summer. I have read it at a snail’s pace, a few pages at a time, giving myself the chance to absorb her advice and sit on the thoughts for a while.

When I announced at work over a year ago that I would take a sabbatical beginning this fall in order to focus on my writing, I spoke with honesty and openness. I also unknowingly set myself up for failure. Because I created an expectation that I have not met. People honestly don’t really care what I’m doing on my sabbatical, but by committing to writing publicly, I created this expectation in myself to produce. And so as I slid into the start of the sabbatical, I frantically and frenetically created this website where I moved all of my blog posts over and told myself and others that I would write. I wrote a piece, one that came from the heart, highlighting one of the many silver linings from the COVID confinement we all experienced last spring. I did a little marketing campaign on social media: get ready, coming soon, just a few days left, launching tomorrow. And I published. I had tons of readers, lots of support. I even got an email from my son’s high school English teacher saying he loved the piece and would be following my work.

And then I froze. I tried to write, and couldn’t think of one thing to say that was worth a damn. I wrote fragments, and realized that the only thing I wanted to write about was stuff that I wasn’t sure people should have to read (I mean, really, why would they put themselves through that?). I started rereading things I’ve written in the past — other unpublished work: thoughts that I had, feelings that I processed, events that happened.

I read through the account of my brother’s funeral, and that horrific night — when my dad lost his shit and my mom wanted to leave, and everyone was drunk, and I walked into the screaming match and stayed most of the night. And I realized that I wanted to write about those things, to wrestle with the demons that my optimism tries to stifle. I realized that I want to write about the times when my dad was drunk and horrible, the abuse he dished out to my mom, and the shitty parent he evolved into as we got older. I wanted to write about my brother —the one that is left — and the disintegration of what was once an idyllic mother–son love story. And I sat there in front of my computer screen, unable to write any of it because all I could focus on was the hurt those words might cause.

I have felt so responsible for my mom since my dad and oldest brother died that I couldn’t even begin to imagine causing her to revisit so much of the pain that she has tried to overcome. And I cried. I cried at frustration for her that she has experienced so much pain and had to work so hard to redefine who she is in this world. And I cried at my own pain, this sense of impotence washing over me. If I can’t write about this stuff, how the fuck will I ever deal with it? And if I can’t deal with it, how am I supposed to connect with others who may have experienced similar things? And how will my life have served any purpose if my growth doesn’t help others? And this sense of frustration threw me into a dark writer’s hole… a space where I have all of the ability, but none of the motivation.

Write for what? became my mantra. I continued to journal, relying on that to feed my daily need to write. But the journal was more of a homework assignment as I was dutifully following Julia Cameron’s instructions from The Artist’s Way. I found that I would pour out a few thoughts on those pages, and then would go about my day without writing anything more. I continued to work on a much more straightforward writing project that I’m collaborating with a friend on, and what little creativity might have been sitting under the surface came out in those pages. But the real stuff — the raw and bloody emotions that are deeper down —they stayed where they were, safely hidden away from the eyes and judgements of others —most of all those of my mom.

And then yesterday, I was sitting on the sofa, reading a few pages of Bird by Bird. I was tired from having slept very little the night before. I am in Florida with my mom —making up for some lost time since we hadn’t seen one another since December last year. We were prepared for a tropical storm, but not quite the roaring and howling that came with the unexpected Cat 2 Hurricane Sally. So after a night of craziness, and as the winds began to die down, I sat there on the sofa —in my pajamas because there is kind of no place to go on the day after a hurricane —reading Anne Lamott.

My mind was alert enough to consider what I was reading, and my body tired enough to not pull me away to the usual distractions. And I read this: “Write as if your parents were dead.” I stopped cold. I looked out the window, watching the palm trees moving in the wind, and then read it again, slowly. I highlighted the sentence and those around it. I took pictures and sent them to my husband.

Write as if your parents were dead. I realized that that is the only way for me to do this. To write with the honesty that would exist if they weren’t there to read it. And so this morning, I woke up with a new perspective. Write for what? For me. Maybe I don’t need to publish everything. But I can’t publish anything if I write nothing. Writer’s block be damned. I am going to face those demons one by one. Writing for me will not be an act of betrayal. It is an act of hope and at its core, an expression of love, and it’s time for me to get back to the joy that comes with wading through a whole lot of muddy shit to find that single solitary flower that might otherwise not have been noticed.

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Kimberly Cullen is a thinker and learner, writer and storyteller, counselor and coach. After almost of quarter of a century in k12 education, she is now on sabbatical, taking some time to breathe, reflect, dream, explore life’s many gifts, and write. When she was around 8 years old, she starting writing down my dreams and these turned into stories. She has been blogging about life since 2010, and has published several articles about the need for change in how and what young people learn. Hope and gratitude are common themes in her writing, her work, and in her life in general. Email: cullen_km[at]hotmail.com