Monday, March 31, 2008

How the Dinner Table Made Me Write

In the French Catholic world where I grew up in South Louisiana, there was only one ritual more important than Sunday Mass, and that was the dinner hour. True to our heritage and locale, in the house that I grew up in, dinner was the most important time of day, partly for the food – my Momma’s incredible Creole cuisine – but mostly for the conversation. Or should I say storytelling.
Because that’s what it was: long, detailed, funny, and illuminating stories. And God forbid you didn’t have one.
My father started first. Every night, my four older sisters (yes, four, and no brothers!) and I would sit quietly, eating our dinner while Daddy told Momma about his day. We were expected to pay attention. We were expected to learn and understand what Daddy did running the insurance company, which I never did until a few years ago. But we were not expected to be part of that conversation.
Then Momma talked about her day. My mother had her own life of running the Arts Council and working on her Ph. D. and writing, but at this point, we were more than just a silent audience because we were actually players in some of the stories of her day.
Then finally it was our turn. All five of us. And let’s just say that with four extremely verbal, intelligent and expressive older sisters, getting a word in edgewise was not an easy feat. So I didn’t. At all.
Until finally when I was about six, Momma and Daddy realized that I rarely-to-never spoke at the dinner table, so in an effort at equality and to stave off me being a future dinner-party-mute, they enforced a new rule: Every night, I was to get my own time to talk with no interruptions, no cutting off, no shouting over.
Ready? Go!
There I was: the youngest at the table, the one with the least schooling, the least experience, and the least stories as it were, but with the time to talk. I cannot think of this memory without a visceral sense of four bodies literally sitting on their hands with their mouths clamped shut. And possibly bored. Or indulging. But regardless, I got to talk, to tell the story of my day. And boy, did I. From the beginning. Because to me it was very clear that each event flowed to the next and the next wasn’t possible without what proceeded it so how could I tell them about the red-headed woodpecker at the park with Gracie Mae if I didn’t tell them how hard it was to decide which shorts to wear that day, purple or pink?
It never really got much easier to talk at that dinner table, and when I got older, the enforcing of that nightly rule fell away, and I either fought my way in to the conversation or I didn’t, but something amazing had happened. I was able to feel what it was like to have the time and the space to be heard.
As far back as my memory goes, I always knew that I would be writer. I come from a family of writers: my mother, my first cousin Andre Dubus (House of Sand and Fog), another cousin is New York Times bestselling mystery writer James Lee Burke, so that world was always around me. But that experience at the dinner table is what has made me need to write, and made me keep writing. I need to be heard, and doesn’t everyone? Even if it is only on a piece of paper or a computer screen. And if I’m not interrupted, if someone reads my stories, that is a glorious bonus. But what’s most important is that I give that time and space to myself in the dinner party of my life.
And it’s no surprise that Spoken Interludes, the reading series that I produce in NY and LA, is basically a reconstruction of the dinner table. People come together, have a meal, and writers tell a story by reading their work.
So, if you pick up one of my novels, I’d love to hear what you think. And it’s okay to interrupt me. Promise.

1 Comments:

Blogger Jamie Rose said...

I hear you!

xo
Jamie

April 7, 2008 at 9:36 PM  

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