Pursued By A Bear: “Is it a bad idea to write about my troubled relationship with my father?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“Hey Adam, this is a bit more personal than most of the questions you get, so I understand if you don’t want to answer it.  I have a really difficult relationship with my father.  I don’t know if I should go into too much detail here, but he had some serious problems – both in terms of his choices and his mental health.  I feel like I’ve come to terms with it now, but this really fucked me up when I was younger.  And I joke that this gives me great material to be a writer, which is true.  But when I sit down to write about him and us, I feel really stuck.  He’s estranged from pretty much the whole family, so it’s not really an issue of ruining our relationship.  Sometimes I think about reaching out to him, and I wonder, if I’ve written a play about him, would this make things easier?  Harder?  When I was growing up, no one had any idea how bad things were at home, because the whole family was really good at keeping up a appearances, so part of me wants to let it all loose and finally be honest.  But it’s really hard to overcome this upbringing.  I’d love to write something really searing and honest, but I don’t know if this is who I am as a writer.  This would be a big departure from my other work. I guess the question is should I write about my father, and how do I do this?”

First of all I’d like to say I admire your honesty in putting this question forward. It’s never easy talking about our personal demons and family issues, but as writers we’re often told this is expected of us.

We all admire those playwrights who are able to put their lives down on the page, conveying their most painful personal experiences honestly and unflinchingly. I’m sure every writer worth their salt has tried to write something so raw at some point in their career.

It’s worth bearing in mind everything we write is coloured by our personal experience. We may not be basing every play on actual events we’ve been through, but we’re still in there somewhere. I could write a play about the assassination of Martin Luther King, a man I never met, killed in a place I’ve never been over a political struggle far removed from my own life, and it would still be framed by my experience. It would be my interpretation of that story, and my interpretation would be shaped by my own relationship with the world around me. Another writer given exactly the same facts about that story would inevitably come up with a very different play.

So my guess is that, although you haven’t yet consciously written about your father, your childhood experiences of him will have seeped into your work in some shape or form already. Our parents are hugely instrumental in forming our worldview from a young age, whether good, bad or absent.

I’d like to explore the practical implications of your question first because I think it’s important you think about what you’ll actually have to do before you decide if you’re emotionally ready to do it.

In order to write honestly about such a personal topic it’s essential to have some distance. I don’t think it’s possible to ever feel completely neutral about something which has obviously had a lasting impact on your life, but you need to be able to look at the situation objectively as much as you can.

You say your father made some bad choices; in order to recreate him as a believable and nuanced character, you’ll have to examine those choices from his point of view. Why did he make those bad choices? Did he feel he was doing the right thing? Did he feel he had no choice? Did he consider how his actions would affect others? Did he later regret what he did? This won’t be easy, it basically means being able to put your own feelings aside and see the situation through his eyes.

From an audience perspective we have to be able to understand your father. His choices have to be believable to us, and the only way for this to happen is if his motivations are clear. This will probably involve some painful soul-searching on your part but what you’ll need to do is try to pinpoint what was behind his behaviour.

You also mentioned in your question that your father was having some mental health issues. Mental health is a very sensitive area for a lot of people, but I don’t think that’s a reason to shy away from writing about it. I haven’t personally dealt with anything like this so please don’t take what I say here as an expert opinion, I’ll offer you my advice based on plays and films I’ve seen which deal with mental health issues. For me, the key to writing about mental health is to remember that the fact a person has mental health problems isn’t a motivation for their actions.

I’m sure you wouldn’t treat your father in this way, but I have seen some portrayals of characters with mental health issues in which the only justification for what the character is doing is “She’s not well.”

In order for a character to be believable their motives need to be powered by how they’re feeling. If a character has agoraphobia and refuses to go outside it’s not enough to just treat agoraphobia as the cause of their behaviour, you need to show how the prospect of going outside makes that person feel. Maybe open spaces make them feel insignificant, maybe the noise of traffic terrifies them, maybe they’re afraid of pigeons. Whatever it is, make sure their actions are motivated by genuine emotions. This way we can relate to them and sympathise even if we’ve never struggled with mental health issues ourselves.

I hope the above has been helpful with the question of how to write about your father. I really think it’s about getting enough distance to be able to see things from his point of view.

Now I’ll try to address whether you should write about your father in the first place.

Obviously the only person qualified to fully answer this question is you. If you feel writing about this will give you some clarity or help you move past issues then I’d say go for it. The only instance in which I’d say you really need to be careful is if there’s a strong possibility the play will hurt others who may feel differently about the situation. Again, that’s something only you can decide and I really don’t want to sway you either way because I only know the few small details you gave in your question.

Many writers feel a need to write for therapeutic reasons, whether they’re touching directly on personal issues or not. It can be a very powerful outlet for emotions you can’t otherwise reveal to the world. However, it does require a lot of deep thinking around the topic, and there is a distinct possibility you’re not ready to do this, even if you think you are.

Proceed with caution. I don’t doubt for a second you’ve thought about your father’s situation over and over again through the years, but actually sitting down to consciously explore your relationship with him and write about it will require a different type of thinking. You’ll have to try to see both sides of everything, to view the situation as an outsider would. You’ll have to examine your own actions and emotions as well.

If at any time the writing becomes too much for you I’d recommend you put it on hold. There’s no such thing as failure here, if you can’t finish the play now you can always come back to it in a few months or years.

I’m no psychologist, but I do know we all hold onto certain emotions without even realising they’re in us. Don’t put yourself in a bad place for the sake of a play.

Of course, you may well find it’s a relief to finally unburden yourself of this story.

Before you start, if you do decide to go ahead, please bear in mind that whatever happens you’re not obliged to ever show what you write to anyone.

If it turns out the play is too personal and you don’t want to share it, just keep it for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that. You may find in years to come your feelings change and you’re ready to share it. You may never want to show it to another soul. Either way, it’s entirely your choice.

Going back to your question, I have no idea whether writing the play will make it easier or harder to reunite with your father. I’m afraid that’s something only time will tell. You may realise you’re able to let go of certain feelings and make a fresh start with him, on the other hand you may unearth more negative emotion and decide you don’t want to see him. That’s a risk you’ll be taking but at least you’ll know you’ve put some deep thought into the decision.

If you do go ahead with writing a play about your father make sure you give yourself the freedom and space to do so honestly. Be absolutely honest with yourself about how you feel and you’ll end up with a powerful play.

Finally, I’d like to end by addressing a particular part of your question; “I don’t know if this is who I am as a writer.”

Don’t pigeonhole yourself. You’re not one type of writer. Who you are and the way you write continues to evolve every time you sit down at the keyboard. If this is what you feel you need to write about at this moment in time, then it’s who you are.

If you then feel you need to write a comedy about three talking parrots who work in a butcher’s shop, that’s who you are as a writer at that point in time.

If this is completely different to anything you’ve written before there will be a distinct learning curve to ascend, but don’t let that put you off. Developing your skills in another type of writing is never a waste of time.

You clearly have strong feelings about writing this play, and the fact you’ve written to me about it shows you’re not afraid to explore the idea. The key to writing searing and honest theatre is to be fearless, to bare your soul to the world. Whether that means writing autobiographical pieces or using elaborate metaphors to explore the deep recesses of your mind, your hopes, fears and desires should be in there somewhere. So, even if you find you can’t write directly about your relationship with your father, you should strive to write with searing honesty in all of your work anyway.

Your personal truth is your most powerful asset as a writer, if you can find a way to express it in your writing you’ll always create something unique and honest.

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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

One thought on “Pursued By A Bear: “Is it a bad idea to write about my troubled relationship with my father?””

  1. I would also say, keep in mind that a play has to entertain – writing about depression (for example) can leave people depressed, and people do not want to be depressed they want to be entertained.

    They also, generally, want you not to be fucked up – they want to root for you. They want to think how they would cope in your shoes (or the shoes of your protagonist) – and they want a ray of light.

    If it’s a comedy think of the archetypal endings – things are usually resolved and people are usually in a better place than when they started out – that’s broad but not a bad rule of thumb.

    If it’s a tragedy again think about what a tragedy does for an audience and why they go to see them – there’s a reason we quake at King Lear.

    Decide how much of the story is about what you have learned, and how much is about what you wish you had known, and where you want your audience to be at the end. Not all plays have to instruct of course, and as I mentioned you will want to entertain an audience.

    Plays that deal with mental health issues are treated in certain ways by the press – so read reviews (I know I know NEVER read reviews) but consider reading reviews from plays that deal with mental health – because it will help you unpick the tired old tropes that get wheeled out. You’ll want to avoid the cliches.

    Finally, in my opinion – don’t make the play about mental health. Make it about people and their relationships – and what they want and if they got it and if they didn’t why they didn’t and where it left them.

    And some good jokes and a solid story – and write it from your point of view, so it is always about what you want to say.

    Good luck.

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