Capital City Press featured writer Carissa Halton
When my husband, Mat, and I were married just before the world was expected to end with Y2K, neither of us knew that I would become a non-fiction writer. Now, as a little girl I dreamed of becoming a novel writer. Generally, writers want to write what they love to read, and I imagined my first book would be the first in a serious detective series. I read mysteries and romance, historical fiction and comic books while walking home from the school bus stop, at my desk in math class, late at night with a flashlight under my thick comforter. I read everything but non-fiction. But through my twenties I began to see real life stories that were just as surprising, funny, bizarre and curious as my fiction stories. I also realized that there was a magazine and newspaper market (read a little money).
The subject of my non-fiction tends to be the human stories that make me feel something-- happy, sad, mad, curious-- so when I received a grant to write a book of essays documenting my neighbourhood, Alberta Avenue, I let my experiences guide my content. And, as it turned out, Mat would become a central character in my first book, Little Yellow Houseopens a new window. In it Mat and I buy a house in the inner city, Mat and I battle house sparrows, Mat stops my fight with a man dumping glass in our alley,opens a new window Mat builds me square foot gardens in a spring snowstorm, Mat puts up with me replacing coffee for homemade dandelion tea (sourced from roots in the alley), and Mat cuts our King-sized bed down to a double after we’re caught by a child doing something private . This wasn’t part of the deal when we married twenty years ago, that his private life would be part of my very public stories. I tried to make it up to him with the book’s dedication: For Mat (to whom I promise someday I will write fiction).
So how do I write about my family without them deciding to not live with me anymore?
There are many different approaches to writing our family stories, but, for me, I have always started from the principle of relationship (remember: Little Yellow House is not a story of my family’s dysfunction. These types of memoirs have a lot more complex decision trees where writers must weigh the risk and value of writing the messy truth.) I write with the belief that while I may be the storyteller, the story is theirs too so, in my essays and not my journalism, I let my subject review and give me feedback on their part of the story. In part it is a method of fact checking what I didn’t get right, and in part it is a way to test their emotional response to their story being shared.
Through this process, small details based on feedback from the subjects of my stories changed Little Yellow House. For instance, my oldest daughter was seven when I began writing and eleven when it came time for printing. Her sense of self had grown over that time and, after reading her sections, she asked me to cut a number of jokes she felt I made at her expense. The sections were funny and I knew readers would laugh and think, “How adorable!” But I could see how she might read it differently. As a parent interested in maintaining a good relationship with her for years to come, I respected her requests. Other sources asked for small changes that did not change the big picture of the essay. For instance, I describe a murder in one essay and when the victim’s mom read the section, she (understandably) wanted it to be less descriptive. When I considered this request, I weighed the fact that the important points in the story were about the victim’s relationship with his mom and sister. The fact of the murder was important, but no other details were. The murder’s descriptions and daughter’s jokes were added to keep the reader interested, but I took the edits as a challenge to find other interesting details to share that didn’t sacrifice the emotional well-being of my source.
Now this isn’t to say that truth shouldn’t be spoken, or facts should be sacrificed to save face, or stories that make others uncomfortable aren’t for you to share. It is your version of the story. But for me, I see that there are a thousand ways to tell a story and what I choose to focus on has implications in my real-world relationships. I hold this power with great responsibility and feel grateful that the stories that have come to me are not ones that have required me to reveal embarrassing personal truths or call out someone else in order to prove my central point.
Life with a non-fiction writer carries a certain amount of risk and I never have wanted my family or friends to feel vulnerable that I will write their truth or story before they are ready to share it. That doesn’t mean my writing doesn’t impact them in other ways. Sometimes to create content, I need to make up experiences. For instance, for a couple years I was blogging about making home-made household products and as Mat found himself spending yet another Saturday morning helping me create content for my blog (this time we were designing a solar oven made entirely of junk from our garage), he laughed and rolled his eyes, “I should write a blog about living with a blogger.”
Without my family’s story, I’d have a much less interesting and relatable book in Little Yellow House. I am ever grateful for them sharing their lives with me and allowing me, no trusting me, to share theirs.
Carissa Halton is a 2019 Capital City Press Featured Writer.opens a new window Join Carissa on May 4, 2019 for a tour of Alberta Avenueopens a new window, the setting of her book Little Yellow Houseopens a new window. Check out what’s coming up in our events calendar.