Chasing Down the Muse: Family stories shape us all

"All well-regulated families set apart an hour every morning for tea and bread and butter."


Times have sure changed since the 17th century when Joseph Addison penned those words. A "well-regulated" family may be many things to many people and usually nothing quite so simple as Addison's words might imply.

With the advent of the holiday season have come thoughts about family and just what it is — what family means. I know family is not the same for everyone. It doesn't even seem to be the same thing for all within my own clan. Sometimes family seems to a really cohesive, tight thing. In other groups it may be a loose connection of individuals. And at other perhaps less satisfying times, family is a battlefield.

Whatever family may be, there always seem to be stories and roles to be played out in some way or another. I find myself wondering if the stories passed on and the roles played out and preserved serve to obfuscate. Do these premises become a sort of wall, sealing the real persons from view?

Many writers seem to be seeking out the "real" within their own families through their writing. Some find it; some only further muddy the waters. Often, what is found leaves the writer with what appears to be a disquieting mélange of still unanswered questions.

I have had the pleasure several times in the past couple of years of going to gatherings hosted by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett at Scape Gallery in Corona del Mar. Authors come to this delightful small space monthly on a Tuesday evening to speak of their recent works. Most of those in the audience are fiction writers themselves. All listen with rapt pleasure.

On an autumn evening a couple of months ago, writers Danzy Senna and Heidi Durrow shared the spotlight. They both spoke in part about how they bring personal experience into their writing. Family and family "story" at times are integral to the writing of fiction.

To make a long story short, while I had read Durrow's wonderful book — "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky" — Senna's work was new to me. Curious about her writing, I purchased two of her books. One was the memoir "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?"

What struck me in my reading of the memoir was the wealth of stories a family generates and how these many versions of a life could contradict and confuse. With great tenacity, in this case, the author followed the stories, even when they seemed to deny the previous story told.

Is it any wonder that there are contradictions in stories told in family histories? We are all made of a full array of traits that are often inconsistent. Family stories are thus viewed in differing pieces — like an incident witnessed by five different individuals with five different versions.

In the end, in any family we may find ourselves intimately acquainted with folks to whom we might never have introduced ourselves. Still, they are family. They are what writer Carson McCullers called family — "The we of me." Family links our past to our future and we can never fully escape it, whatever its many contradictions.

Holiday season tends to bring family — whether "well-regulated" and sipping tea or not — to the forefront of our thoughts. Family members may not be physically present, but we carry them within. The stories may be crazy and contradictory, but that's just life. Why not love them, faults and all, as we would choose to be loved in return?

CHERRIL DOTY is an artist, writer, counselor, and manager of the Sawdust Studio Art Classes in Laguna Beach. Always fascinated, inspired, and titillated by the beauty and the ever-changing mysteries of life, she can be reached at or by phone at (714) 745-9973.

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