The first day on a quest to collect narratives from my mother, I realized how fundamentally unprepared I was for the job. As we dug through and organized boxes of old photographs, Mama told me the story behind each one. But listening was not always easy. Some of the images made me uncomfortable. I’d look away, pick up another snapshot, and then change the subject.
Frustrated, I went home with an empty notebook. Unable to write a single sentence, I decided to read the spring issue of Writers Ask, a quarterly publication of author interviews that has never failed to inspire me. I realized my mistake on the fourth page when Pulitzer Prize winner, Robert Olen Butler, responded to a question about his talent for “inhabiting people who are way outside yourself.”
The thing about the artistic unconscious is that, well, first of all, it’s scary as hell there, and that’s why to be an artist means never to avert your eyes, because your impulse, your deepest impulse, is to flinch, to look away. That’s why so many writers are very comfortable in their heads—it’s safe there.
Butler’s reply was a perfect description of what I’d done while visiting my mother. I looked away when I didn’t like the picture in front of me. And I stopped listening when I disapproved of her story. My mother stood before me, yet I refused to see her. It was safer that way. I could just make up my own tale of a conventional mom.
And that was an enormous mistake. The beauty of Mama’s life is that she never followed the rules of convention. She has spent eighty-three years in defiance. Her story is of a rebellious girl who refused to learn to cook, sew, or embrace anything domestic. She joined the army during the Second World War. But mostly she worked to earn her own money. She did marry, but often, and in a blaze of passion.
So if you go into your unconscious and you don’t avert your eyes and you do that day after day, story after story, book after book, eventually you will break through to a place where you are neither male nor female, neither black, white, red, or brown, neither Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, or Jew, … You are human. … And if the authenticity comes from that deep place, and if your life experiences are eclectic and broad and intensely observed on the surface levels as well, because that’s important, then you can draw that universal human authenticity up through the vessels of characters, who might be, on the surface, quite different from you.
As I read the interview, I wondered what it would be like to visit my mother and not see her as Mother. Not some projected idea of what I want her to be. Just allow the stories to flow, not close my eyes or look away. Listen without judgment or manipulation, anger or pain. In other words, visit my mother from the same place I go to as a writer in an effort to create.
Part of the reason artists are who they are is so they can reassure the world that the things that seem to divide us—race, gender, culture, ethnicity, religion—are not nearly as important as the things that unite us. And we never question the artist’s ability to do that in realms that I would suggest require a greater leap of imagination than leaping over matters of gender and race and so forth. For example, I am a middle-aged white male, born in the Midwest, I am an only child. My parents, last December, celebrated their sixty-eighth wedding anniversary. And not a day has gone by when we have not been in contact with each other, and most days the word love is freely and sincerely exchanged.
I imagine Robert Olen Butler lives by his words. It’s reflected in his impressive body of work. It’s also reflected in his relationship with his parents. I love my parents, too. So my quest has expanded. As I collect Mama’s stories, I shall practice being human. Not Daughter questioning Mother, but as one person to another. And this time, my goal is to leap into the artistic unconscious and not avert my eyes.