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  • Jan Flynn

My Family’s Letting Me Down

If only they were more screwed up

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash

No wonder I’m so frustrated

See that photo, the kids jumping for joy? Those aren’t my actual family members, but I have more than one pic of my real grandnieces and grandnephews doing the same thing. Because they’re all relentlessly healthy, functional, and high-achieving, with devoted and supportive parents. And grandparents!

These are kids who are gracious to adults, polite yet genuine, and full of confidence. You can have a worthwhile conversation with any of them. Even the teenagers among them treat their parents with affection and respect.

A week does not go by without a report from their proud progenitors: another academic award, a medal in sports, a recognition for above-and-beyond civic involvement or community service.

This weekend, for example, I attended the state-level high school track meet, wherein one of the grandnieces — a freshman, mind you — outdid her own personal triple jump record by two feet, and placed third in the state medals for the event.

A grandnephew will be his student body president next year. A grandniece shoots the lights out both in her classes and on her school and club volleyball teams. Another grandniece is off to college in the fall — in Paris!

Her youngest sibling is busy becoming a baseball star. The brats just won’t quit, and I’ve run out of superlatives.

Where am I supposed to find material for novels?

It was Tolstoy who famously snarked, in the opening lines of his novel Anna Karenina:

“All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I don’t know what kind of data Tolstoy had to back up the implication that happy families are blandly boring — mine certainly isn’t — but there’s an aspect of his observation that is self-evident. Unhappy families are full of conflict, drama, and tumultuous, tortured relationships.

Which are precisely the ingredients that fuel stories.

And here am I, a fiction writer, constantly casting about for material. Many writers have the luxury of a deep reservoir of family turmoil they can draw from for inspiration. Family sagas, angst-filled character studies, disastrous revelations of dark secrets, even true crime — the lucky writer has all that at their disposal, every time their clan gets together for another tension-filled holiday.

Not me. My family gatherings are marked by nothing more interesting than goodwill and good times. Just your standard love, laughs, and harmony. Nothing to see here, folks. Maybe in the house across the street, there’s a drunken brawl or a horrifying confession above the wreckage of the dinner table, but in my clan, it’s all sweetness and light.

That’s why this post is so short

I’m in the midst of drafting a novel. I know writers who relish this part of writing, unspooling a brand-new story onto the page for the very first time. For them, revision is a chore.

But when it comes to first drafts, I’m solidly in the camp of Joyce Carol Oates, who once commented:

“Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.”

At this point in my draft, I’m midway across the floor, my nostrils are filling up with lint and cat hair, and I have no idea what direction the narrative’s supposed to go in next. It would help if one or more of my relatives would supply me with some peanut lubricant in the form of outrageous behavior or a nasty feud, but no such luck.

On that score, the whole pack of them is a bitter disappointment. I’m left with nothing but my imagination to draw from.

I know you must be feeling very sorry for me. Feel free to let me know just how much. Meanwhile, there’s a family outing this afternoon, and I have to go pack a picnic.

It will include sour grapes.

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