Monday, July 16, 2012

The Truth About My Father

Meg pointed me to a lovely piece in Sunday’s New York Times by Colm Toibin, in which he said, quite beautifully, that of course we write about our families, and of course we embellish them to make them fit into our stories. They say Hemingway had to get a new wife for each new book. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz said, “Once a writer is born into a family, that family is doomed.”

The Everett McCord Claytons, I-IV
For years now, in my writing I’ve circled my father like a reluctant jackal, at first timidly nudging his lifeless flesh, lately tearing into it with what others might call savagery but to me feels like love. What other than love could explain why I would make him the starting point for a character in a novel with whom I live for hours every day? Perhaps it is a form of masochism. Or perhaps I long to understand him. Still. After all these years. Even as I am no doubt concurrently creating psychological mysteries for my own children to unravel after I am in the grave.

Toibin suggests that I torture my father for the sake of truth. Is that why, when I can speak so precisely about the gap in his teeth or the way he laughed as if he were sneezing, I swerve from reality and have him do something horrible he would never (I hope, but am not entirely sure) do? Toibin says such twists of actual truth are in service of the more universally understandable truths we are trying to tell with our stories. Not moral truths, but truths about how we are, how we behave. Each of us takes what we will from the behavior of others. One man’s truth is another’s blasphemy.

If you had known my father, you would say the man in the novel I’ve just finished is him. And you would say: Damn, I never knew he did all that awful stuff. The poor bastard. I’ve twisted him and tweaked him and made him party to outrageous behavior. A lot of what I say about the character that starts with him is total fiction. “And if I am lucky,” as Toibin says, “what comes into shape will seem more real and more true, more affecting and enduring, than the facts of the case.”

There is truth to that high-toned rationalization, to the hope that my story will resonate and endure, but it does not fully explain why I write about my father. There are obvious reasons, of course. I write about him because it amuses me, because I like to think back on our times together, good and bad, because I’m still trying to understand him and myself. But those tepid explanations do not go to the heart of the matter. They do not account for my continuing fascination, both loving and morbid, with a man who died forty years ago.

No, the real reason I write about him, I think, the reason I hold him up before me and by the light of the window examine him from all angles, like a butterfly specimen on a pin, is that it keeps him alive in me. It’s almost as good as actually having him around. Better perhaps, because I always get the last word.


  1. Really lovely. I feel almost like I know him, though he died years before we met.

  2. Be careful fleshing out his character in the name of the truth. You may not know it.

  3. Oh, I love this, Mac! I especially respond to the idea that you write about your father in order to keep him alive in you. He sounds like a wonderful, complicated, fascinating person . . . and you must have been quite young when he died!! I can well understand your yearning to discover him again and again, in new ways.

    It's funny, but your piece helps me think about my first novel, in which I created a figure very much like my mother in certain ways. I still feel guilty about this! because my mother evidently saw herself in the character so quickly, and yet it took awhile for her to realize that of course this character only sprang from her, originated in her -- and was not, in truth, her at all. She did figure this out, and wrote me a beautiful letter about it all.

    This is really different from your situation -- your father could never read your wonderful fiction . . . so you are much, much freer to re-create him into as many characters as you wish. Your piece, in addition to Toibin's, helps me accept the writing I've done where aspects of my own life have blended subtly or not so subtly into my writing.

    Finally -- I'm so excited to discover here that you've finished your novel!! Huge congratulations, my friend!!

  4. Harriet, you are too kind, as always. I would love to be able to talk to my father about the things I write. We had many political debates, but not many personal ones. Toibin and you make me wonder who was the model for the father of Joe Christmas, or Mrs. Burden.

    A fancy agent is reading my new novel. I hope he likes it. If not, I'll find someone who does or get it out there myself. Times a wastin, as we used to say.