My eighth-grade boyfriend had a joke he liked to make whenever I talked about one of my four brothers.
“Which one?” he’d ask before starting to list off random boys’ names—“Robert? Frank? Jack? Billy? Jose? Nick?”—none of which were my brothers’ names. He found this routine hilarious. I found it annoying.
Years later, however, while attempting to write a family-based memoir, I realized he had a point: my family stories are confusing. The cast of characters is simply too long: there’s my four brothers (and nowadays add in their girlfriends and fiancées) and my parents (who are divorced and both in relationships with people who have children of their own), plus, in my extended family (my father is one of twelve children), thirty-six first cousins, many of whom are now married, with their own children. I’m in Russian novel territory here—and there’s a reason most people never actually pick up Tolstoy.
I’m lost was a common response to the family stories I turned in for critique during MFA workshops. “I just can’t keep track of this many people,” a classmate would complain while I sat in the corner, silently fuming. Our workshop rule was that you couldn’t speak while being workshopped, only listen. If I could have said something, I would have burst out: “What would you like me to do? Ignore half of my family? Pretend I’m an only child? Lie?”
Eventually, I understood my well-meaning classmates were just being honest. It is my job, as a writer, to make my family tree as clear to readers as it is to me. But how?
Usually, when I’m stuck on a writing-related dilemma, I go to the experts. I read and read and read until I’m ready to write again. But my usual standbys failed me: Joan Didion’s memoirs center on her tiny family of three—just herself, her husband, and her daughter. Mary Karr had just the one sister to deal with in The Liars’ Club, and, in Lit, just the one son. Making my way through the canon, I thought I saw a pattern: the most successful memoirists and essayists come from small families. Tobias Wolff: one brother (and they were estranged as children). Richard Wright: one brother. Alexandra Fuller: one surviving sister. Augusten Burroughs: one brother.
Was that the secret? I wondered. To be born into a tiny family?
I racked my brain, trying to think of even one memoir about a big, rambunctious family like mine. I pulled David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day off the shelf, thinking, He only has one sibling, maybe two, right? And then I remembered Sedaris is one of six children—an even larger immediate family than my own. But somehow, he manages to shape his crowded upbringing into a set of streamlined stories that never get bogged down in who said what or how many of his family members were in the room at the time.
Flipping back through the pages, I started to see how Sedaris pulls it off. He does not take on the gargantuan task, which I had been attempting in my own stories, of making sure every member of the clan has an equal voice and is as fully developed as the narrator. Sedaris actually ignores some of his siblings. Family members might provide colorful anecdotes or funny retorts, but ultimately, they are there only in supporting roles.
After seeing how Sedaris’s writing had tricked me, I renewed my search, turning up several more successful memoirists and essayists from large families. Frank McCourt was the oldest of seven children, three of whom died in childhood, and in Angela’s Ashes, he, like Sedaris, treats his siblings as minor characters. He acknowledges that they all exist, but their trajectories are never the point of narrative focus. The viewfinder the reader looks through is always firmly attached to McCourt.
Maxine Hong Kingston is one of eight children, though you wouldn’t be blamed for not realizing it based on The Woman Warrior. Hong Kingston goes one step further than Sedaris and McCourt in portraying her large family, relegating her siblings to background roles so far in the shadows that none of them are even named. From time to time, she mentions “my brother” or “my sisters,” but they exist without any defining features, as anonymous as a Greek chorus.
James Baldwin was the oldest of nine children—but they, too, are almost invisible in his work. He touches on his large family in his seminal book, Notes of A Native Son, but even in the title essay, which centers around his father’s death and his youngest sister’s birth, Baldwin turns his attention outside of his home to tell a larger story about the world beyond.
Honestly, I was a bit dismayed when I realized how these successful writers had either diminished the voices of their family members or ignored them entirely. My instinct has always been to mine my family’s experiences for material; I feel we are intrinsically linked. I even wrote an early draft of my memoir in the first-person plural: we did this, then we felt that way. This voice came naturally; our memories are often all mixed up. As a toddler, my younger brother, Teddy, swore he had already been to Disneyland, even though he was not born until years after our family’s first trip there, because he heard the stories the rest of us told about it so often. There must be a way to honor this tribal mentality while still maintaining a personal narrative.
Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle is undeniably a book about a family, and major parts of Walls’s own story are glossed over in favor of the narrative of the group as a whole. Her three siblings and two parents are vivid enough to be fully realized characters, yet Walls’s narrative never gets cloudy, thanks to the barely perceptible distance she keeps as narrator. From the beginning, Walls’s voice is speaking from slightly outside of her family group. The first short chapter, set much farther into the future, features a scene in which the narrator views her mother from afar. This narrator stays with the reader when she goes back in time to tell the rest of the story, starting in chapter 2.
I once thought I had finally cracked the big-family code when I decided I would give each of my family members his or her own chapter, allowing me to tell their stories one at a time so the reader could keep them all straight. But a literary agent who read it told me it felt forced—because, of course, it was forced. Walls does not need to introduce her characters one at a time. She places the reader so effectively in her own experience, the chaos and confusion included, that the cast of characters is just accepted. Her singular perspective invites the reader to be part of this group experience.
Nonfiction can amplify one story, helping it become something much larger than the story of one person or even of one family. Counterintuitive as it sounds, zooming in close is sometimes the best way to expand a narrative’s reach. Being from a big family, this was a lesson I should have realized sooner: one voice must rise above the cacophony if anyone is going to be heard.