Sunday, November 11, 2012

Why am I Talking?

I heard an Anne Lamott interview recently where the well-known author shared her thoughts about the role of being a mother-in-law. My ears perked up as I’ve now been a mother-in-law for two years and hope to always have a respectful, loving relationship with my daughter-in-law and any future daughter-in-laws.

In her characteristic humor, Lamott says that when she is speaking with her children and their spouses, she recites the acronym WAIT to herself, which stands for Why Am I Talking? At one point in the relationship she realized they didn’t want her advice, critiques, or thoughts on how to do certain things.
I need to zip my lip at times, too, not just with my daughter-in-law but with grown sons as well. I need to WAIT until I’m asked before I offer a mouthful. All those times I find myself commenting on job applications, travels, financial choices, etc. I now hear myself asking Why am I Talking? My job at this point is to be a cheerleader on the sidelines, a listening ear, an encourager, and an advisor when asked.

In my writing life, there are times I need to learn to zip my lip, too. Writing often informs life and life informs writing, and WAIT applies here as well. I have a commentary problem when I write. Surely there’s a 12-step program for those of us who divulge too much.  I place my characters in a situation, give them some actions and behavior, cause other characters to react or not react to their behavior, and then I make the mistake too often of commenting on everyone’s behaviors. Readers can see for themselves what just happened and its affects. They might draw a different conclusion then my intended one, but all the better. So Why Am I Talking? I need to be on a "commentary diet" instead.

I find author Elizabeth Strout to be a master at the understated. Here’s a mother-in-law example from her Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge. How would you describe this character from this brief interaction with her soon-to-be daughter-in-law?
“Do you mind if I call you mom?” asked the girl, stepping back but holding Olive by her elbows. “I’m so dying to call you Mom.”

 “Call me anything you want,” Olive replied. “I guess I’ll call you Ann.”

 A lack of commentary, in other words silence, often speaks loudly in literature and loudly in life as well. Have you ever been falsely accused? Lied about? Met a person who describes themselves one way and lives another? A lack of commentary comes in handy in these situations, as well as when you’ve lost your opportunity to defend yourself, argue your point, convince someone of your goodness or respectability. In other words, if we can’t use words to explain who we are, who are we? Sometimes it’s frightening to be known only by what we do or don’t do.
I’ll withhold any further commentary.