For Mother’s Day, I posted an essay I wrote about how to raise a writer, and gave my mother most of the credit for raising me, which is how it usually happens in my head. My mother and I have so many complicated, overlapping, knotted strings of love and need and expectation and time between us that, like a baby, I’m still not sure where she ends and where I begin. I’ve been writing about her since I started writing, and I’ll probably never run out of things to say about her.
But being so close meant that a huge part of finding my voice — and figuring out who I was, as a person — involved separating myself from her, first 250 miles to college and then 1300 miles to a little house in the mountains of New Mexico, where I picked at the strands that bound us together and tried to identify which opinions were actually hers, which beliefs of hers I didn’t actually share, which ideas and beliefs came from me, just me.
My dad and I have a simpler relationship. I think he’s great. He seems to think I’m great.
But when I was thinking about this blog post, I realized that perhaps I haven’t given him enough credit. When I thought about becoming a writer, I thought about my mom, my step-mom, my cousin Ann, the great teachers I had, the writers I loved — but surely my dad was there too, somewhere in the mix?
Of course he was. It just took me a little longer to see it, that’s all.
In honor of Father’s Day, here are the top five ways my dad helped me to become a writer.
He Gave Me Books
My dad gave me books for every birthday, every Christmas, every “un-birthday” (aka give the other kid a present so she doesn’t cry at her sister’s birthday), and often just whenever the mood struck him. He frequently bought them off the book table at the Unitarian church — this, I’m sure, is where he picked up the copy of Brenda Ueland’s IF YOU WANT TO WRITE, which was incredibly influential in my early years as a writer. (He also gave me a book called MASTER DATER — say it out loud — when I turned 23, because he was worried about how single I was.)
Books from my dad are always special, because they inevitably have some incredibly long inscription — sometimes covering more than one page — in his loopy, scrawling handwriting. Last year, when I culled a bunch of books from my shelves, I had to cut the dedication pages out of them before I could take them to the resale shop, because I couldn’t bear to get rid of them. Aww.
He Told Me Stories
My mother and step-mother both tend to live in the present, and rarely tell stories about things that happened more than a week or two in the past. My dad, on the other hand, has a story for every occasion. Just this weekend, I heard him telling stories about 1) working in a mortuary as a teenager, 1a) throwing parties in said mortuary, 1b) pulling pranks on friends during said mortuary parties, 1c) getting busted by the mortician during one of these parties; 2) flying helicopters in Viet Nam, 2a) the time the pilot got vertigo and became convinced the ground was the sky; 3) stealing cigarettes from his dad, 3a) getting drunk with his dad; 4) the time he lived in the attic of his sister’s house and played pranks on her children, 4a) including something about an evil goat. And so forth.
I tell stories just like my dad does. I have tons of them, I tell the same ones over and over, they’re mostly about me and some sort of absurd situation/trouble I got myself into, and they usually have some ostensible moral that is supposed to help lead the listener to a better understanding of her own situation (and/or distract said listener from her own problems).
He Shared “The Gift of Blarney”
One of my dad’s many stories is about how he kissed the Blarney Stone, which allegedly gives him permission to stretch the truth (other people might say lie) in order to make a better story. My stories are like his in this way, too. There is a reason I write fiction, and the reason is that for me, and for my dad, there’s a very thin, permeable line between truth and fiction, and we’re generally willing to go with whatever makes the better story. But we’re allowed to to this, you see, because we’re Irish, and one time my dad got attacked by a leprechaun. True story! Just ask him.
He Taught Me To Consider Other People’s Motivations
In addition to being a major yarn-spinner, my dad is also a social-worker-counselor-type, and one of the things he’s always trying to get you to do is to think about why you (or other people) believe the things you do, and act the ways you do. When I was a kid, instead of grounding me like a normal parent, my dad would force me to talk it out. “Why did you make that choice?” he’d ask. “What were you thinking in that moment?” It was torture. “I don’t know, I just did it! Whatever, just ground me!” It was even more annoying in junior high and high school, when I’d be fighting with friends and trying to get my dad to take my side, and he’d ask, “How do you think she’s feeling? What might make her say that kind of thing to you?” (I’d say, “I don’t know, Dad, maybe because she’s an evil bitch?”) It was completely annoying when I was a kid, but I think it helped me to cultivate an interest in analyzing people and trying to figure out what made them tick — which led pretty directly to wanting to create my own complicated, complexly motivated characters.
He Showed Me The World
My dad’s theory of traveling with kids: give them a broad survey course of the world — give them a taste of all kinds of places — and let them come back to the ones they like in adulthood. Which means that trips with my dad were always marathons; we rarely spent more than a day in any one place. These were usually car trips, and usually involved camping. We’d start from our house in Wisconsin and drive in some absurdly large circle across the country: Wisconsin to Minnesota to South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, and back in under a week. Or Wisconsin to Ohio to every major city on the East Coast to Montreal to Quebec City to Toronto and Niagara Falls and back in — once again — a week. Or Wisconsin to the Grand Canyon to Tijuana to every major city on the West Coast up to Victoria and across Canada back to Wisconsin — two weeks!
They were whirlwind trips, huge portions of which I often spent perched on top of a pile of sleeping bags and pillows in the very back of my dad’s Nissan Stanza, reading books that were slightly too hard for me or writing page after page in my journal. I usually spent more time writing than sightseeing, which in itself was helpful to my writing career, but I also came to understand that the world was much bigger and more diverse and complicated than my small Wisconsin hometown, and that all these people in all these places had their own stories, their own dreams, and their own reasons for doing what they did.
So even though I write about him far less than I write about my mother, I definitely wouldn’t be the writer I am today without my dad. Awww!
M. Molly Backes
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