A guest post to motivate, encourage, and inspire…
My Son, My Self: Writing in the Family
My writing community is in my head these days: it’s mostly my dad, dead now four years. He was a writer! Fifteen books by the time he died, and the last one published a few weeks before he entered hospice. Growing up in his house, in the Connecticut of the 1960’s, I identified with him completely, listening to his typewriter clacking in the evenings; smelling sweet cigar smoke on his breath when he sat next to me on the staircase landing and explained what was wrong with the cover of his latest book: the background purple was ugly, the halo over the capital building cutesy. Nobody bought the book he ghost wrote for Hubert Humphrey, the one I told him he should have called Huby Baby and the Soul Brothers. I told him he should have a pen name, maybe John Toilet? My mother made it clear to us kids, though, that what he did, writing those books, pounding out page after page, was the wisest, most generous thing a man could do with his life.
Every so often we showed up in his books—Betsy, Cindy, Donny, his kids. What did I think about that? Sure I felt proud to be caught there—a character in a book!—but I also felt reduced—did he think that was all I was, that cutesy adorable Cindy on the page? I was there on the page with him at the African American Second Christian Church in Indianapolis in 1976, listening to Brenda, Carl, and Shirley sing gospel music and introduce the then-unknown Jimmy Carter; I was there sitting on the side of my bed in 1964, reading my letter from President Kennedy’s adviser for Civil Rights; I was there, six years old in 1960, playing in the grass with all the other happy children as their families watched a simulated atomic explosion at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
These days I write about my own child. Though I don’t represent him against a political background, I use him for my own purposes, as my father used me. But I wonder what my son will feel if he ever reads my pages? The essay about how, dizzy after his birth, I shoplifted books in a maniacal way? The essay about reading The Flying Latke to a Godzilla-obsessed nine-year-old? Will he feel—as I did when I saw myself in my father’s books—both pleased and violated, honored and lost?
My father did tell me, once, what he thought about the morality of representing children in writing. What was the line, I asked then, middle-aged but still needing his advice, between my responsibility to myself and my responsibility to my boy? What did he think about his writing about me, my writing about my son? Sweet cigar smell on his breath, Dad sat on the staircase landing with me and asked, was it true when you wrote it? Did you write it with love?
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