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Posts Tagged ‘both/and’


… That ability for nuanced writing, for creating characters who are at once terrifying and engaging, is one of the things that I particularly respect about Brenda Peterson. The mother in “Duck and Cover” is clearly erratic (she almost reads like a manic/depressive) and frequently abusive, but she’s also got an undeniable charm.

The ability to hold both sides of a character clearly in view is not easy in a book, any more than it’s easy in life. One of the challenges in dealing with my dad’s death was moving beyond the point where I wished he had either been all good dad or all monster to understanding the the reality of him was that he was both.

Her depiction of the father as a husband and father who deals with his wife’s excesses not by curbing them and protecting their children but by escaping into his work is likewise familiar.

A dangerous parent can only survive with a partner who denies the reality of what’s happening, or who actively joins in the abuse. One of the truths that this book holds is that it is not enough to simply be kind and loving if one finds one’s self in an abusive relationship. Good parenting sometimes requires hard actions. Sometimes it means apparently betraying a spouse who might in some ways be a good and wonderful person. It is not simple.

Anyone who has experienced a reality like that will recognize if not details, certainly outlines, in the parents in “Duck and Cover.”

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I write books. I write a lot of books, and I write them at the same time. I do this because I’m a storyteller, and because I use writing as a way of escaping to another place, time, and life. And all that’s great–but it really doesn’t result in good books.

This is because while I am a storyteller, I tend to get lost in minutia. My readers might enjoy my storytelling, but they tend to have a hard time following the big story–the overarching narrative that ties all the little stories together, and makes them more together than they are apart.

A few days ago I posted a request for people to weigh in on which of my current writing projects they’d like me to focus on next. The answers were pretty much divided, but then fate took a hand. A book I’m typesetting about helping loved ones who are facing death included a passage on the importance of “both/and” thinking, rather than “either/or” thinking.

The writer explained that it was particularly important in circumstances where “ambiguous death” was involved–missing persons, Alzheimer’s patients, and as in my case, where my father’s terminal illness brought up a whole scorpions’ nest of emotions, memories, and history. His death was incredibly complex, and I found myself wishing for the false simplicity of an either/or answer to the questions he left behind.

It should come as no surprise that I’ve been weighing those days, and I’ve come to see that the question of whether we would be either/or people or both/and people really was the defining question we faced. How we answered that question is what determined how those terrible days played out.

Recognizing this has given me something I never have had before–a clear theme for a book, one that governs every aspect of how I will put this book together. I have the stories–lots of them–but I’ll be retelling them, editing, shaping, and pruning to explore that central, vital question the manner of Dad’s death posed for us–would we be either/or people, or both/and people?

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