Adoptee, writer: how adoption can shape a creative life

I had an epiphany when I answered this question on Yahoo Answers recently: “Did you feel selfish meeting your birth parents?” I was surprised that my answer was chosen as the best, but I was thrilled that the question was posed in the first place. People don’t ask enough questions about adoption; it’s incredulous to me that in this day and age there is still a shroud of mystery around it. Adoption is one of the last taboos, spoken of with the same hushed tone that people used to reserve for cancer. How can we clarify, educate and share the experience if no one asks the big questions?

I’ve been working on a book about my experience of being adopted at birth and meeting my birth family off and on for a few years now, but answering this Yahoo question made me realize that being adopted greatly contributed to my creativity and influenced my decision to become a writer. If you read this blog, you’ll know that I’m obsessed with creativity in all shapes and forms. Like the nature vs. nurture debate, you’re born with some creativity and some creativity is borne of your life situation. I believe that adoption is one of those situations.

Here is how the experience of being adopted at birth in a closed adoption contributed to my creativity and set the foundation for me to become a writer:

Cultivate a strong sense of story. My adoption was an iron-clad door that was never to be acknowledged, let alone opened. My adoptive mother could not handle speaking of my adoption without fear or anger once I became old enough to ask the hard questions. This made me curious: why did we have to keep it a secret? Why was I given up? Who did I look like? Why couldn’t we talk about it? I wanted to know my story. All of it.

Complicating things, I was told a birth story that made no sense–the facts just didn’t add up. My true nationalities were a moving target; the only one I knew for sure was Irish. Living with lies, secrets and half-truths makes you want to dig deeper and find out what’s really going on. You learn that there is always a deeper story if you know how to listen for it. That’s what writers do. We see the whole world and the people in it as a story just waiting to be told. I had to work a little harder to get to mine, which made me want to write even more.

Confront the elephant in the room: In an interview with the Academy of Achievement, playwright Edward Albee’s described his relationship to his adoptive parents this way: “I never felt like I related to these people, which is interesting because most kids are trapped into feeling an obligation to their natural parents.” While I wouldn’t go that far, I knew my personality was out of sync with my adoptive family’s. I learned to suppress it so that I could fit in and no one’s feelings would be hurt. It was not good to be different. It reminded everyone of the Elephant in the Room: my adoption.

This is what writers do. We listen and watch; we mimic the dialogue, voice inflections, gestures, moods and tones of others so that what we write rings true. Writers see the elephant in every room. It’s at the heart of all good writing. It might be what drives some writers and artists to drink, but it’s the only way to get to the good stuff.

Peel back the layers. I knew from a young age that I would look for my birth parents someday. Did I have a fantasy about my fairy birth parents running toward me in a field of daisies, clutching me to their bosoms and crying out, “Ah, there you are! At long last! Our daughter!” Uh, no. I wanted to know the unvarnished truth about how I got here. I wanted to know where I got things like my goofy laugh and my love of books. Who do I look like? Who do I sound like? Where did I come from? How the hell did I get here? I wanted to know the truth of me. All of it.

Writing is exactly like that. It’s about peeling back the layers on every front: your characters, their emotions, fetishes, secrets and dreams, desires spoken and unspoken, so that you can find the heart of the story between the lines. Not everyone is happy about this peeling back the layers business. But if you are a writer, it goes with the territory.

Adoption is fraught with emotion from every angle of the triage: adoptive parents, adopted child and birth parents. Much of it is not under your control. But what you do with those emotions, how you channel it–that you can control. I choose to connect the negative aspects of a closed adoption with a positive connotation. I can’t help it. It’s the creative in me. And as I explained in my Yahoo answer, you might feel guilty about meeting your birth parents, if your adoptive parents make you feel guilty about it. But it’s not about betrayal. It’s a need to know, with no more secrets and lies and half-truths. It’s not about flesh and blood. It’s about living an authentic life. This is why I write. This is why I create. This is my story.

How about you? What shaped your creativity in unexpected ways?

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8 thoughts on “Adoptee, writer: how adoption can shape a creative life

  1. Chris, love your articles, and love the idea of living an authentic life and needing to know where we come from. I thought of this a bit later in life and now both parents and all grandparents are deceased and there are so many questions that I’d like to ask them about my childhood, their childhoods, etc. We are shaped by them so much without even realizing it, and I come to realize it more and more every day.

    I’d love to see the response you wrote for yahoo.

    1. Thanks, Laura. It’s amazing when you stop and think about the people and events that helped shape who you are today, isn’t it? To your point, it’s hard when the people you’d most like to question are no longer around. That’s why I love organizations that help people, even those with Alzheimer’s, capture their life story. Regarding the response to Yahoo, the link was in the first sentence but here it is again: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index;_ylt=AsVDFSeNpGV.Tf4SUHNk8T3sy6IX;_ylv=3?qid=20100607203313AAIPo0G&show=7#profile-info-Uz4V7Jckaa

  2. Chris,
    Love love love this! Being a parent who adopted a child at birth (although it is an open adoption), helps me to think about what the child is or will be thinking. We try very hard to embrace Ethans’ differences from us and make him understand that it is ok to be different. I hope someday he will meet his birth parents in person and will feel comfortable to talk to us openly about them.
    Thank you for writing this, you are an amazing woman!

    1. Debbi, I so admire your willingness to be open with your son about his adoption and his birth family. I’ve never walked in your shoes and I’m not sure if I would, or could, handle this as gracefully. I only know the adoptee side of things. I often wonder how different things might have been between my mom and I had we been able to talk about things, including our differences. I feel bad that she was so afraid for so long. She passed away in 1994, so we’ll never know. But I’m glad to know this might help someone else. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, it means a lot to me.

  3. You’re story moved me to do something I had been thinking about for years. You never know who’s going to influence your life and shape it. Sure your parents and siblings have an impact, but I’ve never forgotten that I owe my creative path to one high school teacher. I Googled her today and tracked her to Southern University in Baton Rouge, LA. I sent her a note. She may not remember me, but I live with her wisdom every day. Thanks Chris for the push.

    1. Hey Susan, that’s wonderful! Even if you don’t get a reply, it’s nice to send that positive message out into the world. Let us know if you hear back from her! Teachers need to hear when they make a positive impact on someone’s path in life.

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