Being Real—In Life and in Writing

When I was in elementary school, my mom and I lived with my grandparents for a few years. Each morning, I would wake in my daybed and tiptoe, pajama-clad, out to the second-story landing overlooking the living room, dining room, and the breakfast bar of my grandparents’ large kitchen. Down below, there they were: sitting in the dark on stools at the breakfast bar, sipping coffee from matching white porcelain coffee cups and talking in low murmurs. Eventually, the sun would rise and light would fill the whole first story of the house. My mom and I would join them for breakfast. The TV eventually would be turned on to catch a glimpse of the morning news, traffic, and weather reports.

But for my grandparents, the morning started with stillness, darkness, conversation, and coffee. Since my parents divorced when I was a toddler, my grandparents were my model of an adult relationship. I wanted that: a partner to start the morning with, over coffee, in the dark, until sunlight flooded the house.

Now that I’m a grown-ass woman who has, for better or worse, owned her sentimentality, when my grandmother died last year, I wanted those exact small, white porcelain coffee cups. I got them, and now we, my husband and I, use them every day. And of course with every sip, I remember what they symbolize: my ideal of married life that was formed at a young age.

Nevertheless, as in love as my grandparents were, as much as they never seemed to run out of things to talk about every morning, as supportive as they were of each other, they fought too. They had knock-down-drag out battles, ones I didn’t see but only heard about as an adult because they were good grandparents. If I was present for any tense moments, I don’t remember them. I only remember everything that was right and enviable in their relationship.

We all have our fairy tales—whether they involve princes and horse-drawn carriages (oh, Disney), or plain white coffee cups. I’ve been listening to and reading the philosopher/writer Alain de Botton talk about love lately, so these ideas aren’t exactly my own. He says it too. We have an ideal of love and we have the reality, and when the ideal doesn’t match up to the reality, we get disappointed. We feel things aren’t fair. This isn’t how it was supposed to be. Wasn’t this relationship going to cure my loneliness, fulfill me? Wasn’t I going to wake up every morning to enjoy quiet conversation over a cup of coffee?

According to de Botton, part of the isolation we feel when we realize love is not always a smooth ride, and can still be very lonely, is a result of people just not being real. Our faces are buried in devices connecting us to social media, where all couples are happy and no one’s arguing over socks on the floor or where to go for dinner. Also, our models—parents, grandparents, godparents, whatever—probably didn’t have their lovers’ quarrels in front of us when we were children (if we were lucky), so we grew up assuming that conflict in relationships was a sign of trouble rather than normalcy.

Being real is what we owe to our friends. I don’t mean going on Facebook Live to broadcast a marital spat when one breaks out—though that would make an interesting art project. I mean we need to share our struggles when we’re in conversation with those close to us. We don’t have to share the exact nature of our bad behavior or our spouse’s. But we do need to shatter the illusion that love is smooth and conflict-free. Like de Botton says, we need to act with generosity in the face of everyone’s flaws.

A commitment to realism is as important in writing as it is in life. As writers, we absolutely cannot shy away from creating real characters if we’re writing fiction or writing actual people in all their flawed glory if we’re writing memoir or essays.

There are so many contradictions within each person. Two opposing facts can be—and usually are—true at the same time. It’s possible for someone to be an absent parent and also love their child fiercely. It’s possible for someone to be ruthless in the professional realm and to give giant bear hugs and cry over almost nothing at home. It’s possible for a chill person devoted to yoga and mindfulness to also lose their shit over the smallest of irritants.

The essence of human nature is that these contradictions usually reside within the same person. I will not rewrite that, gloss over it, or omit it, when the goal of my writing is verisimilitude and connection with readers who, like me, are trying to make sense of all these contradictions.

In my own writing, this commitment to realism comes in many forms. In my book reviews, I highlight what is most true and relatable in a book—and also try to only review books that other readers will find ringing of truth—even if those truths are uncomfortable at times. As I practice writing short stories, I attempt to create characters who exhibit some of the contradictions we find in the people around us, though they are not the exact same contradictions because then, well, it wouldn’t be fiction. As I embrace other writing challenges, whether writing for lifestyle publications or this very blog, I’m committed to realism as well. Reading is a solitary act, and so is writing, but committing to truth in our writing is an important way that writers acknowledge the humanity (and the folly that goes along with it) we all share.

An overhead shot of Jen's half-full coffee cup and plate with a spent orange peel.
It’s possible to be lonely, even when drinking from porcelain coffee cups. These contradictions are the real stuff of writing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *