“You got your creativity from me,” my mother says. “Your father was good at many things, but he didn’t have a creative bone in his body.”
My father passed away in April. He was an inventor, a construction engineer. A brilliant blue collar man. He wasn’t a very talkative person — unless you got him going about something he was passionate about — but every now and then, when there was a lull in the conversation, he’d cut in with a witty joke that would take you completely by surprise.
He didn’t seem overly artistic to the casual observer. Wore the same clothes and ate the same things almost every day. A creature of routine.
But he had a knack for thinking of what other people didn’t. And some of his creations are still out there, outliving him.
My mother is definitely a crafty sort. She’s a very good seamstress but works mostly from patterns. I can barely sew because I’m her third daughter, and she was done teaching little girls to sew by the time she got to me.
We both cook — but I’m much more likely to watch several people make something or read a dozen different recipes — and then go into the kitchen and wing it, based on what I’ve gleaned from my research. And once I’ve made it, I’ll experiment each subsequent time. Mom sticks to a recipe. Makes it the same way over and over.
Mom is reading my first novel, which she thinks is brilliant. Can’t wait to brag about it to all her friends.
“You got your creativity from me,” my mother says. “I’m the reason you’re a writer.”
The Real Reason I’m a Writer
And as she says this, I feel an old memory creeping in. I’m sitting in the car, and my mother keeps telling me to shut up. Telling me that what I’m saying is annoying. Embarrassing. That no one wants to hear it.
I tell my mother about the memory. “Oh yeah,” she says, and she laughs a little. “We used to tell you to play the Silent Game every time we got into the car. To sit and read.”
She affirms that I wasn’t allowed to talk in the car when I was little. And that my two older sisters and younger brother were.
As we’re talking about it, I can remember it. I also remember running out of books or forgetting them sometimes. Staring out the car window, unable to talk or participate as the rest of my family chatted around me.
I remember my little brother pinching and nudging me, trying to get me to cry out, so I’d get in trouble for “talking.” And I remember telling myself stories in my head as a way to make it through the never-ending car rides that had me playing this one-player Silent Game.
“That’s why I’m a writer,” I tell my mother. “I had to go places in my head because I wasn’t allowed to speak. And once I could write, I wrote them down.”
“Oh probably,” she says. “That sounds about right.” She laughs, her voice still light. She acknowledges the double standard but doesn’t apologize. Doesn’t seem to think it’s even sad.
I can’t imagine laughing while thinking about telling one of my children to shut up and letting her siblings speak freely. But she is.
In that moment, I feel disappointment — and then I get irritated at myself for being disappointed. Because I’m being foolish. She didn’t get it at 34 when it was happening, so why would she get it at 64? Why would I be unrealistic enough to expect her to be able to take my perspective or empathize? To realize it was hurtful? To apologize?
But I do feel disappointed in that moment. Disappointed that she’s eager to take credit for my strengths, without respectfully acknowledging any of the difficulty I went through to develop them.
The truth is that she is the reason I’m a writer. But not because of what we have in common.
Being Constantly Told to Shut Up as a Kid Sticks With You
We don’t talk about the times she searched my room when I was in middle school, interrogating me about any writing she found. And burning it if she found it too weird or offensive. But I remember that, too.
It was curious later… when things got rough at home, and I started to stay mostly other places, with other relatives and other families. Because I was never told to shut up at those places.
Instead, I was listened to. Told I was funny, charming. My friends’ parents encouraged me to talk about myself, my life. To tell stories.
Even when I wasn’t simply spending the night but living there for a bit, I was validated. Told to express myself.
In the house I grew up in, I was told by my entire family that I was weird. Boring. And that the things I said were “queer” (or “quee-ah” in the Maine accent I grew up around). In 90s Maine parlance, this didn’t mean gay/not straight (as it means now) but “weird in an unwelcome way.” I was a pariah at home. An outsider, an outcast.
Nearly every other place I went, I was accepted. And I could never figure out why. I would be well into my 30s before I even pondered the A word (abuse), and only then because my therapist brought it up matter-of-factly after I described some childhood events that while they hurt, hadn’t even seemed all that strange to me.
But I struggle with the aftereffects even now. Even after all the soul-searching and therapy. Even after all the difficult conversations I’ve had with people from my past.
A feeling persists, a worry that I’m annoying. That no one wants to hear what I say. And that every time I open my mouth, I’m taking something from the world rather than giving something.
Which is honestly a rough side effect for someone who these days works as a full-time writer.
But I’ve learned not to listen to that little voice inside of me, the one that worry takes on. I know it’s a false friend.
I keep on talking, hoping maybe one day it’ll go away.