A guest post to motivate, encourage, and inspire
The Prism of Parenthood: How Life Experience Shaped My Writing
I recently read that MFA faculty joke about the number of “dead grandmother” stories they receive from students — young writers for whom this may be their most significant event to date. The author recommended postponing an MFA in favor of first acquiring more experiences and life perspective.
I felt an amused sense of recognition. As an MFA student, I’d written a “dead grandfather” story — my thesis, in fact. And though I’d done so in my early thirties, it took me another decade, including motherhood, to gain the perspective I needed.
At first, my grandfather seemed to be a perfect subject. He’d falsely claimed to be a Pearl Harbor survivor, and was even quoted in the Los Angeles Times about it. I wondered what had driven his lie.
To answer this, I talked to relatives and friends he’d known as a young man. I spoke to his commanding officer from World War II (he’d been a U.S. Marine, but not until after Pearl Harbor). And I immersed myself in the world of amateur boxing to learn about the sport that had once been his driving ambition.
But there were too many details I didn’t–and couldn’t–know. I played around with writing the story from my vantage point as I tried to discover what had driven his decision, but realized it just wasn’t compelling. In the end, I opted for fictionalized memoir from his point of view and wrote about 80 pages, enough to fulfill my thesis requirements.
Something about it didn’t feel right, however; I couldn’t inhabit his character with any sense of conviction. The piece moldered in a file drawer for several years. I felt both a sense of failure at having given up and an enduring sense of writer’s block.
I finally felt inspired to try again in 2011, having recently overseen our family’s move to a smaller, more conservative community more than 300 miles away.
The move itself was the catalyst. I started writing about the bumpy process of adjusting to our new home while still pining for our old one, about needing to help my two young children settle in despite my own conflictedness, and about some of the deeper family issues that came up in the process. My own experiences helped me view family legacies in a different light.
I’d also taken up kickboxing for exercise and found it a helpful outlet for letting off steam. Suddenly, I had a flash of what it might have been like for my grandfather. I knew he’d been a boxing instructor in the war, training thousands of young Marines before they shipped out to Japan, and that he’d longed to ship out too. But the war ended before he got his chance to prove himself. Perhaps, I thought, at some point the heavy bag he’d used to hone his punches instead became a target for his pent-up frustration.
I knew too that he’d been ineffectual as a father: when my mother was growing up, he hadn’t been there as her protector. Now, as a parent myself, I wondered what it must have been like for him to look back on his life and acknowledge this failure.
When I was in my early thirties, I’d recognized that his story was compelling. But for me, being able to delve in required a fuller perspective, including a better appreciation of the complexities of parenting. I’m able to view his life from a different vantage point, leading me to ask new questions as I try to understand his lie.
Some ideas take a while to come to fruition. I’m grateful for the interviews and the research I did with sources who are now gone. But I’m even more grateful that I can see the aspects of my grandfather’s story in a way I couldn’t have once envisioned.
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