[A cousin who is a poet and novelist requested a short writerly reminiscence of life with my father. It was to be part of a presentation she was making on the west coast, in honor of what would have been Dad’s 113th birthday—which he did not attend, having died 12 years before. I posted it last year, but many writers are new subscribers to my blog, so I present it again, slightly modified.]
Dad was prominent as a poet. When I was young, I longed not to be a poet.
I’d be anything—a quarterback, an FBI agent, a ship captain. But in my soul, I knew I would end up as a chip off Dad’s block. Alas, I was a word-smith, too.
So I watched Dad, to learn how.
Read, read, read.
Read any style, content, genre, author, date—it doesn’t matter.
“We pour our souls into these words, Dikkon. You need to learn to identify writing that’s worth that effort and writing that’s not.”
Once, after Dad breezed through an erotic novel I showed him, drily he responded, “Chaucer did it better.”
"I can’t write it,” I moaned, regarding my short story assignment in high school. “It’s too hard!”
Dad caught Mom’s urging eye, put down his pipe, and asked me, “What’s your story about?”
“When they’re choosing up teams, the boy wants to be picked first but maybe he won’t be.”
“I don’t know! Maybe he isn’t picked first, but maybe he hits the home run.” And then I blurted, “It’s due tomorrow!”
“Try making the story about his thoughts.”
“About his thoughts?”
“Yes. Try starting with the word ‘maybe.’” Dad grinned. “Maybe the story is about maybe.”
So I wrote the story and submitted it on time. Its first sentence was “Maybe I’ll be picked first but maybe not.”
Bring the reader in.
“Do you like it?” Dad asked.
“Not what I asked.”
“Then, no. It’s boring.”
“Do you think maybe the author’s just writing for himself and maybe for his closest friends?”
I hadn’t thought of that as a possibility. The author was a major name in modernist English fiction—the focus of my college class.
Dad pressed on, “Don’t you think it’s important that you be drawn in?”
“You’re his reader, aren’t you?”
I laughed. “I wouldn’t be his reader, not if I could help it.”
“So…that’s my point. Yes, the reader must come to the writer, but the reader will come to the writer only when he’s drawn in, not forced in.”
“That’s not happening here.”
“So when you’re a writer….”
I nodded. “Bring ‘em in.”
Don’t go to sleep until you know what happens next.
“No,” Dad said. “I don’t believe in writer’s block.”
“It’s my first novel, Dad. I can’t get past the point where I am. You’re a poet, not a novelist. How could you know?”
“What’s the last scene you wrote?”
I told him.
“Go back and write it again.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Doesn’t matter. Probably nothing. But write it again--create it over again. Your juices will begin to flow again, and you’ll speed on.”
Turns out he was right—I sped on.
Don’t let it fester.
I called Dad.
Two days before, I had finished my second novel, doing its last sixty pages in an eighteen-hour burst of ecstatic—almost holy—writing. “It’s done, Dad.”
“Of course. Get a rest.”
“Of course. So…what’s next?”
“I read it over. I think it’s good. Gotta do some tweaks.”
“Do that. But then—get it off your desk.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t let it fester. Get it out into the world. If you tweak it too much, you could kill it. Now let an editor tell you what to do. ”
HERE’S A BONUS—one more thing—BECAUSE YOU KEPT ON READING!
A Sixth Thing I Learned, but not from Dad
Sitting in our garden one day, Robert Frost turned to me and remarked, “Dikkon, the work of the poet is to write at least one single poem that they can’t get rid of. They’ll try. But don’t let ‘em.”
If You are Not a Writer,
God has blessed you with a different burden.
But your rules are just the same.
Steep yourself in all available wisdom.
Begin, even when you are afraid to begin.
Engage with those outside of yourself by understanding what they desire.
When stuck, allow your spirit to be refreshed by starting over.
When finished, bring the others in.
And a Bonus!
Keep working. Work hard. But take The Longer View.
You may win.
You may not win.
But you tried.