Write What You Know

 

        Strangers catch my mom’s eye at stoplights. She sighs, “What do you think their story is?” I’m nine, I say that I don’t know. I’m thirteen, I shrug. I’m eighteen, I roll my eyes, “why do you always have to ask me that?” I ask her about this now and she reminds me that I would say “Not everyone has to have a story, Mom.” Usually it’s older people. People with smile lines. People holding hands of bouncing children. People pushing shopping carts filled with bottles and cans. People in tight clothes and make up frosted on like a cake. People weighed down by backpacks or instruments. She jumps at the chance to wave at people passing in front of our car as if the crosswalk were a mile long. “Don’t worry! Take your time!” I slump lower, hiding behind my hair. She sees characters. Still watching them, the light changes and she almost holds up her hand to mystically suck the story right out of them.  

 

        My mom: lover of dachshunds and blueberries. Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. Favorite writing exercises include “I remember” lists and drawing your heart. Her glasses are bright blue and she drapes at least two scarves around her shoulders every day. She wears multi-patterned converse that are constantly complimented. Her writing desk is an big old door propped up on two shelves from Target and it’s covered in piles of paper, little rocks and bottles she’s found on hikes and motivating signs she made like “Make Good Art!” and “Stay Offline!”

 

        She grew up the daughter of a football coach who was always on the hunt for the next opportunity to win. Every time a bigger and better job came into play, they would pack up the station wagon and move on. New school, new friends, new bedroom. She told me that if there was any sign of woe upon leaving yet another town, her dad would yell, “Look alive folks!” or “Get your ass in the car!” My mom was a tall and gawky avid reader with thick brimmed glasses. Her brothers played football and her sister was a cheerleader. She calls herself “a reluctant football daughter.” However, as the oldest, she was in charge a lot. This meant dressing her siblings up as orphans and staging “Oliver Twist” or pretending to be Helen Keller dramatically touching her sisters face wailing noises. One time she actually convinced her sister that she had gone blind.  Another time she told her sister that their family couldn’t afford to take of her anymore so she had to go live with the neighbors. She let her weeping sister get as far as the neighbors front gate before the guilt sank in. She raced after her telling her they worked it out and she can stay. She also constantly send letters to boarding schools overseas begging to be come live and learn there.

 

        When she started at University of Tennessee Knoxville, she was a journalism major, but switched to theater after her year abroad in Manchester, England. She told me that she found “her people” that year and by that she meant “theater students.” Her friend, Fiona, an actress, told her that “journalism was a grotty trade-school occupation and if you want to be a real writer, be a playwright.” Her first play was called “Tea Time” which she wrote after her English roommates had a blow-out discussing whether or not Hamlet was in love with his mother. She wrote, directed and stared in her production of “Tea Time” in which she wrote multiple monologues for herself directed at each character telling them “her feelings” about them. Her roommates her very unhappy with the production. When I ask her about it now she says “I die when I think of it.”

 

        After a riveting year abroad, she gave everyone in her family reading lists; her mother had to read Middlemarch, her sister had to read Portrait Of A Lady and she tried to make her brothers read Thomas Hardy but is sure they never did. She also fell in love with George Elliot, Jane Austen, Henry James and the Brontes. I imagine her on the Moors, long skirt, three scarves, arms stretched-out, getting filled to brim with characters by listening to their voices through gusts of wind.

 

        Now a full-blown theater major, she devoured Tennessee Williams, Albee, Beckett, Lillian Hellman and Beth Henley. She was also super in Evita and Cats and says she had a soft spot for Bob Fosse, of course. Then she met my dad who was studying acting and medicine. She cast him as Tom in Glass Menagerie and then in a number of her own plays. When my dad told her that he grew up in the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains as the middle child of thirteen children - six older, six younger - she told me that in that moment she thought “If I marry him, I’ll never run out of stories.”

 

        After my parents spent their first year of marriage in Ningbo, China teaching English, they moved to Los Angeles to become a writer/actor duo. My mom’s first play she had produced there was called “Blood and Marriage” about how hard it is to be pregnant. She told me the first title for that play was “I am a Futon and Other Umbilical Tales.” Then she reminds me that that was the play where Jimmy chokes on a chicken bone and nobody saves him. Jimmy was my uncle who struggled with addiction. The only thing I remember about that play was that she used my baby doll, Inga, during one of the rehearsals and when I saw her on stage, I threw a fit and scolded my mom, “Don’t bring my baby to the theater no more!” She loves telling me this story. Then she wrote “Make Me A Sacrifice” about a grandfather with alzheimer's, an opinionated grandmother with a temper and a controlling mother holding the family together by a thread. Her mother did not speak to her for a long time after she read that one. She said it was just too cruel. My mom’s next play was called “A Perfectionist Bleeds.”

 

        While my brother and I were growing up, my mom moved over to fiction. Or at least that’s what she published it as. Her first novel was called “Offsides” about a bookworm in a football family. Then much later she published the first book in a series of three called “Gentle’s Holler” about a big mountain family. My dad’s mother, who raised thirteen children in the mountains, curled her lip and said, “there’s something on every page.” When I was confused by how family could get so upset by my mom’s words, she just told me that writers write what they know. It made sense. But then I started appearing in her work.

 

        She writes op-ed’s for the LA Times, always about family. I had the sweet and pink round belly in ballet class who had to be told to face away from the mirror because I couldn’t stop starring at myself. I was also the sass-pants who stomped out of little league games and up to my mom (who was reading) and told her to watch me or I won’t play. I was also the kid who when my mom told to be careful, I whipped my head around and said “Hey! Am I two or am I four?” But as I got older, I just became the teen who rolled her eyes and scoffed between anecdotes. I find the younger me more charming than the older me in her work. Like anyone being written about would, really. But what’s challenged me the most is being written about alongside my older brother. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t want to be written about until I was hardly written about at all.

 

        My brother prompted my mom with stories way more than I ever could. He was the wiry boy obsessed with old movies. The kid who cut his hair and glued it to his arms and introduced himself as Larry Talbot, Lon Chaney Jr.’s character in The Wolf Man. He conducted experiments as Dr. Frankenstein, yelling IT’S ALIVE! Later he became the glam rock lead singer of his high school band, Flypaper Cartel, and won battle of the bands. He’s a spitting image of Gene Wilder and wore red high tops with silver sequined snake skin pants. “Are you Flannery’s sister?” people would ask once I got to high school. “Another Lunsford??” Teachers would exclaim. I did roll my eyes and scoff at how mystified people were at my brother. Of course I didn’t fight for the spotlight with someone who seemed to be the spotlight. Of course my mom wrote about watching her son strut across the stage at the Greek Theater, shedding glitter with every Elvis shutter, performing original songs. Of course she called him a fusion of Robert Plant, David Bowie and Mick Jagger. All the greats! My sweet sass-pants turned into “Don’t write about me! Ever!”

 

        My mom writes stories that beckon to be told. She writes with every insecurity in the room with her and that’s what makes her work incredibly real. I illustrated a picture book she wrote about a true story of an Alabama storyteller and sculpture artist who became best friends when she was 82 and he was 64. This summer she has been invited to speak at the Carson McCuller’s Symposium with a piece she wrote about going to the first Carson McCuller’s Symposium in 1987 in Columbus, Georgia. She’s never been to Rome and now almost the whole family is going to watch her tell her story.


        This week she’s speaking at a Moth type event with a piece about my brother who has been struggling with addiction and how she can’t fix him. She’s been wrestling with this in her writing since it surfaced and every piece ends as devastating as it does ambiguous. When my brother lost a close friend to addiction, a friend my mom watched grow up, she wrote a piece for the Times about it and my brothers friends ridiculed her for writing about something she knows nothing about. She wrote a piece about how Marijuana is a gate-way drug and should remain criminalized because “take my son for example...” I don’t want my mom to write about who Flannery is right now but I know she needs to. I know she’s writing what she knows, even if she doesn’t want to know it.