(Disclaimer: This post is not meant to cover fathers who did not earn your trust and respect.)
In my version of family lore, my father told us kids before we decided to go off to college that there were two ways to approach college. One option was to study something you enjoyed. The other was to study something that would lead to a job. I have always wondered why we can’t be lucky enough to find something that covers both categories. Sadly, for many of us it just doesn’t seem to work out that way, so in his odd way, my father offered true words of wisdom. Sage advice. A decision that drew in stark relief something that was impending – adulthood and choices that could have a huge impact on your life – decisions, none of which lead to perfection.
I followed his advice. Both pieces of it. My undergraduate degree was in Government (also known as Political Science in most universities) because I enjoyed the subject. It did not, however, lead to a post-degree job. I ended up getting a job as a word processor, receptionist, man of all office trades at a local law school because my only marketable skill seemed to be that I could type really fast. After a year, I enrolled in a Masters in International Relations program and continued working. Why that subject? Because I enjoyed it. I quit after about a month because I realized that it would have simply been impossible to work full-time while meeting the program requirements – I mean, seriously, papers and presentations due at all too frequent intervals, hundreds of pages of reading each week, and all sorts of other things. It was unworkable.
But, I didn’t want to be a secretary the rest of my life. By that time I had promoted to an Executive Assistant position, working for one of the school’s deans. It wasn’t bad, but I was pretty sure I was meant for something more than that (not that there’s anything wrong with being an executive assistant or secretary). I just didn’t want to spend my life filing. Seriously. I’m a stack person, not a file person.
I looked around and saw all of these other fools who were making it in law school, so I decided, if they could do it so could I. I enrolled in law school, got my degree, passed the bar, and got a job as an attorney. Not because it was a subject I enjoyed and wanted to study, but because it was a path to a job that was hopefully better and had more upward mobility than the one I had.
I can’t say it was the worst decision I’ve ever made. The truth, however, is that I have spent most of my 20+ years as an attorney wishing I had picked something else. Social work, elementary school teacher, financial advisor, chef, and most recently and for a longer duration than any of those other options, writer. Actually, what I’ve really wanted all along was to be retired, but for some reason that’s frowned on in our society. At least until you’ve slaved away for a few decades.
Which leads to the second pearl of wisdom my father gave me. After I finished writing One Night in Bridgeport, I started working on something else and then wanted to change gears and work on something else, and then I had this “great” idea for a short story. Suddenly, there were all these ideas ping-ponging around in my head and I couldn’t stay focused very long on any one. I talked to my dad about it and he told me that I should finish a story that I had started before I moved on to something else, otherwise I would never finish it.
Turns out he was right about that too. I have too many half completed works in progress that I can’t figure out how to get back into. The Irrepairable Past is the one that breaks my heart. I had something beautiful going with that thing and after taking a break because it was getting too hard and because I wanted to write Deviation and then Northville, I can’t figure out how to get back into it. I’ve re-read it over the past couple of weeks and absolutely love what I’ve done with it, but I can’t get my head back into the story. It’s not there.
I posted a few days ago about an omen that suggested I needed to return to Sullivan Bay. The problem is that I think I have lost the directions. And I think I know one of the reasons why. It has to do with why I write the way I write.
When I read a book and I’m done with it, the story for the most part disappears from my mind. When I watch a movie, same thing. When my kids were younger, I coached one of their baseball teams with two guys who could sit there and spout lines, and entire chunks of dialogue, from movies as though they had roles in them. I could never match them because I simply don’t retain those kinds of memories of what I see on the screen. It’s there while I watch and then gone when the story is over. For the most part anyway. There are some exceptions to this.
The same is true when I read. My kids used to ask me questions about books we all have read. Like “Hey dad, do you remember when Harry was doing X in the third book and Y happened?”
“No. I don’t. I never remember those kinds of details . . .”
“Oh yeah. Never mind.”
They’ve stopped asking me questions like that, because it is a simple fact for me. Nine and a half times out of ten, once I’m done reading a story, I’m done with it and I lose a whole lot of memory of the thing in the transition to the next story I’m going to read.
I think this applies to my writing. It explains why I write the way I do and why it is so important for me to finish something once I’ve started. For the most part, there’s no going back for me. Let me use Northville as an example. I’ve spent months working on it. I edit and re-write as I write. Typically, when I sit down to work on something, I’ll go back a few pages, maybe more and read through what I have already written. I do it to re-familiarize myself with the terrain. I also edit as I do so, cleaning things up, tweaking this, fixing that. Sometimes, I go back further. By the time I’ve finished writing a story like Northville, I’ve probably read the entire 30,000 word piece, in bits and pieces, at least ten times. The reality is that every time I write on a work in progress, it’s about taking a couple of steps backwards before I can go forward again. As a result, when I type the final word, I view the piece as pretty damn close to final. And I’m done with the story. It’s gone. Time for the next one.
Which makes the next few weeks for me extremely difficult. I’ve asked some people to read Northville. They’re coming back with edits, comments, suggestions. Things for me to consider. Good feedback. Really good. I knew that this would happen. Hell, I knew I needed to do some things to the story even without their input. It was, even with my involved writing process, not as final as my final drafts usually are. This story represented something I knew would need additional work after I typed that last word. And I dread going back into it and tweaking it and fixing it and doing all of those things that will make it a better story. I’m done with it. It’s gone.
I have to, however, do what needs to be done with Northville. I want this story to be better than anything I’ve written. I’ll be pulling out a lot of hair in the weeks ahead as a result. Forcing myself to sit down with Northville and considering the comments of the readers. And finishing a story after it has left my head.
There’s another problem with all of this. It goes back to The Irrepairable Past. I put it to the side almost a year ago and, as I said, I don’t know how to get back into it. I’d like to think I’m not done with the story. In fact, I know I’m not. I’m just flummoxed by how to continue. To do so will basically mean a re-introduction, a re-consideration, a re-telling of the story from the beginning. Even if I don’t actually re-write a word of it. And after so much time away from it, it just feels too much like what I try to avoid. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. On some level, although not complete, the story has left me.
Maybe my father was right. It’s important to finish what you start when you write. Otherwise you may never finish it. The Irrepairable Past seems to be a perfect example at the moment. I started it. Then I stopped before it was done. I got sidetracked and now don’t know how to get back on track.
Which leads me to this. I wish my sons would learn this lesson. Always listen to your father.
We are currently dealing with my oldest son’s desire to life with his girlfriend. At a time when he is only now completing his first year of college. At a time when they have no real savings and no real earning potential, they want to live together. I’ve told him it’s not time. That they’re not ready. That the only way it could possibly work is if one of them were to quit college and go to work full-time and that simply should not be in the equation for either of them at this point in their lives. They should be focused on their education, committed to the idea of getting their degrees, and then starting a life together. There is so much more that is wrapped up in this, but I’m not going to blare it to the world. I only wish he listens to me. Sometimes a father actually knows what he’s talking about. And usually, it seems, we only realize that after it’s too late.