I am a secret novelist. Playwright, too. Short stories. Tens of thousands of words are sitting on my computer, in my notebooks. They see light sometimes in my writing group, very rarely in rejected manuscripts, and of course, in my imagination, bound up between two covers. The chances of “it” happening now are for many reasons much less than when I was thirty, when I started writing seriously. Even if I were to get up the courage to get into the biz, my novels have a diminishingly small chance of being read. Sending something “out” (Where is that, anyway?) is like entering a lottery, where there’s statistically less of a chance of coming out ahead, if you do enter. And times are against it now — people in publishing are full of gloomy predictions about books, about the death of reading, the end of serious writing.
It’s important to me that my son doesn’t know what I’m doing. I don’t want him to think of me as a failure, one of those nutty Berkeley women who wander around town in sincere garments and graying hair, who actually check books out of the public library. But he’s twelve now and getting a clue. We use the same computer, and sometimes I leave the manuscript up on the screen. And there are the scraps of paper around the house that he could pick up and read. The other day he brought home a note from school. “What’s this, Mom,” he says, waving the paper, in that knowing tone of voice that means he’s on to me. On the back of the note was part of a story I’d written, full of “curses,” as he called them. With its giveaway title, “I Am a Secret Novelist” was sitting underneath the list of documents he’d been writing for school. Until now I’d been protected by the complete and wonderful self-absorption of the preadolescent boy; he wasn’t really interested in anything that didn’t directly concern him. But that’s changing.
So. A typical afternoon. The house, whose condition is a signature of my… quixotic… devotion to the written word. Spider webs. Dirty windows. I’m sitting here, at the black ugly computer on its green ugly stand, an apple core in front of the screen and the newspapers my son put up in the window to block the sun. It’s time for him to come home, and he’s there, with his friend, walking down the street, looking happy, alight with the kind of excitement that comes from being released from middle school. My son’s voice carries even from the end of the block. He’s using foul language — cursing — and I make some comment about it when he arrives. He says, “I do it to boost my street cred.”
His friend says, “You don’t have any street cred. You’re a nerd who carries books around that he doesn’t even have to read.”
My son has announced that he wants to write a novel — he’s written a chapter of it for his English class. He asked me how many pages he needs to write, information I was qualified to give him, having counted and recounted unwritten pages many times. He reads — when he’s not playing Magic or Dungeons and Dragons or Halo. He likes books, and I feel sometimes as if I’ve hung a millstone around his neck, done it personally, tying it on. Picking the stone up, slipping it over his head — here boy, here’s my gift. But he’s different from me. When he writes he does it with confidence, punching it out without pause, without question. Two fingers (he ignores the typing program I gave him for Christmas). And he doesn’t hide what he’s written. He’s not me.
The other night at a dinner party he launched into a story he’d written, blow by blow. In the telling he left out all the good parts, and so the tale was pretty dull, but he kept at it, piece by piece, paying no heed to the inattention or the boredom on the faces of the adults. If this was a little embarrassing to me, it wasn’t to him. There was a quality to his storytelling that was entertaining in itself. He believes in his ability to entertain. He talks when he wants to. When he gets bored with us, he leaves.
When I was growing up I never wanted to leave the dinner table, not wanting to miss my father’s stories. When he was in a good mood, he was a wit, an intellectual performer. He kept his inner life hidden; there were no anecdotes about his childhood; he seemed to come from nowhere; sui generis. No sisters, no brothers. He was close to his mother but hated his stepfather, and his mother died when he was young. This is what we knew about him. My mother told us that he was deaf in one ear, so in WWII he didn’t fight. Instead, he joined the merchant marines, sailed around the world, worked as a freeway engineer in Iran, and then landed in Shanghai in 1949 in time to see the People’s Army march in on bare feet. The only story he ever told us was about the stray bullet that broke his shaving mirror that day. Later I learned that he worked for a friend who ran a newspaper in Shanghai. But, his friend told me, “It was always hard to get old Bill to sit down at the typewriter.” High times in old Shanghai. I got the impression that my father was a bad influence. He always liked a good party, a good drink. At the parties I gave as an adult, he would end up smoking weed in the back room with my friends.
At the age of sixty he developed Parkinson’s disease, and this is how I remember my father: sitting in his armchair in our living room, opening the mail, his heavy head moving from side to side with a heavy rhythm, occasionally interrupted by a pause, head lifting up for a moment, then back to nodding, dropping the junk in a wastepaper basket. This was when I was in high school, after he’d retired and he and I discovered that we had things in common, or perhaps that was something I discovered on my own, because I still don’t know what he thought of me. I know that we read the same books, liked the same movies. We connected that way.
After my father died, I found a poem he’d written, titled “Mahamot.” It is written in smudged pencil on a page that is browned and torn at the edges. The poem itself recalls Yeats, and so was old fashioned even then. The second draft, attached to the first, is typed, dated New York, 1945. When I read the poem I wasn’t surprised, but saddened; why had he kept this hidden? This in the first draft: “I have seen action, where I was free to act. They told me that I clearly lacked the strength of body to wear a uniform. No, they did not want me.” Now a little shock. I had always thought he despised armies, governments, groups. I never thought that he regretted his inability to fight in WWII. This makes me think he may have regretted his 4F life, his inability to betray himself in any way to please others, to compromise his inviolate self, even to satisfy what I suppose were his own ambitions. He wrote the poem and kept it, but hid it. He was a tough customer. There is an impulse, when you are being hunted, when you are hiding from your pursuer, just to stand up, to reveal yourself because the tension is too much. To put an end to all that secrecy. But my father died keeping his secrets, died long before my son was born. I have the sentimental idea that they would have liked each other. My son is also tough.
Today my son comes in with his friend. Gangly and absorbed, they crowd around the computer, ignoring me, talking to each other, eyes on the screen. They’ve just come in from writing class, and they’re talking about comic books.
“Why do you want to write,” I ask them, “If you don’t read serious literature?”
My son says, “Well, Dickens didn’t read anything.” That’s true. I told him that myself.
“Yes, but Dickens was. . . Dickens.”
“Oh Mom,” he says, “Don’t be depressing.” That’s his favorite line.
So the boys talk, filling the room with this D&D narrative, full of extraordinary, mythic creatures, and thousands of stories.
The artists’ role in today’s world is diminishing; their sacred place shrinking. A friend, whose son is a filmmaker, told me that all her friends’ kids are in Information Technology. “And they’re happy,” she said, ruefully. But still. . .
My son’s novel is an adventure story, set in an imagined world like most of the books he reads. And probably much of it was lifted directly out of them. Some of the writing, though, was actually good — even exciting. Of course I had suggestions for improvement, because I’m always full of suggestions, and was wondering if he’d take them — he did.
And the other day after dinner he said, “So, Mom, you’ve written a novel?” I hesitated. My husband answered the question for me. I’m still trying to keep my secret, but I’m not going to be able to much longer. We can’t really hide from our children.
Marian Berges is a secret writer in the San Francisco Bay Area who continues to work on an unspecified number of novels in undisclosed locations. A short story of hers, The Children’s Park previously appeared in Literary Mama. She has two children and reads as much as she can.