I’m reading a narrative written by my brother, when I see the catalpa tree sitting there right in the middle of the page. He has transplanted it from our childhood back yard into the thick of his prose. I snort out a mouthful of tea. That’s my tree; I was already using it. It’s an important symbol in the story I’ve been working on.
This isn’t his first offense. The same thing happened with a lilac bush. I’m the one who accidentally dug up the remains of our pet parakeet while playing in the shade of said bush. Surely this gives me some custody rights. I suffered for those lilacs, and he usurped them.
Every writer I know evokes personal history in the practice of his or her craft, even for fiction pieces. In fact, workshop leaders all over the place are teaching us how to do it effectively. The problem for me comes with having another writer in the family, a sibling near my age. We’re both drawing from the same well.
My brother and I are creating parallel universes, where our characters drive identical Chevy Novas and own twin tortoise-shell cats. Despite my entrenched status as a grown-up, I find myself willing to share no more graciously than I did as a child. Perhaps I could be more generous if he wasn’t such a good writer. I suspect any resentment I feel is rooted in the fear that he’s putting our memories to better use than I am. Showing me up again.
My writing brain is becoming tinged with a new paranoia. One morning, I begin penning a description of a character, basing him on a former next-door neighbor. I stop mid-word, suddenly worried that my one-eyed vegetarian has a doppelganger residing somewhere in the pages of my brother’s notebooks. Worse, the hypothetical double could be a more fully realized individual than my guy, leading a more interesting life.
I falter for most of a day, returning again and again to my computer, only to sit and stare and wonder what to do. Should I call my brother and propose a division of historical assets? Perhaps we could make a list and split it in half, like when we put masking tape down the middle of the living room as kids, saying “That side’s yours; this is mine.”
Or I could stick to events and people I encountered independently of him. Surely I have a wealth of my own material waiting to be garnered from unshared classrooms, solitary outings. I should have enough, I think, without dipping into his past at all. I almost convince myself I can be satisfied with this solution. Then I picture myself, six years old, saying I don’t want anything to do with your smelly old Matchbox cars anyway. The toys in my own room are more fun. Oh dear.
I did want to play with those cars. And I do want to use these memories. I feel the steam building inside again. I have as much right to them as he does. More, in some cases. I should be able to use whatever material I see fit. I’ll just have to get to it first. I’ll out-write him, race my characters through the (dramatically enhanced) events of my own life before he has a chance. I must hurry that girl into the wagon she will crash into a rose bush, shatter that boy’s teeth in a bike wreck, get the elderly neighbor started on her valium habit. Then I’ll have two young siblings race each other to the car, vying for the front seat. Or not.
I do need to be an adult, I realize, if I’m going to get anywhere with my writing. I close my eyes, counting my breaths, clearing my mind. When I lift my lids, I see with a new clarity. There is more than one catalpa tree in the world. There’s no reason the streets in my stories can’t be traversed in Buicks. And as for the one-eyed vegetarian? I pick up the phone, dialing my brother’s number. “Do you remember that old neighbor of ours with the eye patch?” I ask. “Are you using him for anything?”
This is a piece of creative nonfiction. A few details have been changed in the cause of making my life seem more interesting. It originally appeared in the now defunct ByLines Magazine.