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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

After Many a Summer Still Writing My Parents by Thomas Larson, Guest Blogger

Blog Entry No. 11

Guest blogger, Tom Larson, is one of our most accomplished essayist/critics. His book, The Memoir and the Memoirist, is one of if not the finest on/about memoir. We can all learn something about writing and craft from Tom's meditation below on memory, recollection invention as they relate to writing about our parents. Tom's piece might be especially useful to those who teach, write, and/or are currently working on family memoirs.

After Many a Summer Still Writing About My Parents
By Thomas Larson

When I began life-writing in earnest, in the early 1990s, I turned to my dead father—my first, natural subject. Why first? Why natural? In a word, access. Our intimacy, was special, almost motherly on his part; better yet, it was still on my skin. I listed a dozen moments I had with him as a boy in which he transferred some male potency, sorrow stirred with wisdom, to me. I wrote many of these episodes quickly, discovering that this skin-activated memory, attuned more to a felt frequency than any consequential event, had kept our relationship wired and alive.

Those several episodes, time-stopping, and they lingered like a burn—his scratchy-glancing kiss goodnight; his smell of Aqua Velva, soap, and coffee; his telling me I was, of his three sons, his favorite, though my older and younger brothers, reading my work or hearing me talk much later, disagree. Teaching memoir, how often I have demonstrated memory’s rash—stroking my arm and saying, "I can still feel him/his touch on my body. He’s right here."

His intimations of love are stronger, more binding and palpable, than any physical tie with which my mother or my brothers have held me. With my dad I imagined less, recalled more. His hairy-knuckled tap, his baggy blue eyes, his Eric-Sevareid voice, his sober directness—landscaped within since he’d taken the time to come close—imprinted themselves. Or I imprinted them after I’d been scored. Take your pick. Both are true.

Another impetus: by the early 1980s, I had become a father myself—and then, suddenly—a divorced and single parent. To re-inhabit his side of those male-centered moments between us was a salve memoir writing rubbed in when, newly bruised, I needed aid. It was more than the thrill of recollection, of recollected thrills. Shaping the male history of my life (our lives) created a whole cardiovascular system, main and tributary, oxygenated, muscle-blooded. Father as living tissue. Organs throbbing. Limbs invigorated. The bloodedness still arrives—if, as a memoirist, I resist my analytic defaults and prose on the felt memories my body carries.

But for all that—his welcoming my entreaties, his showing up time past and time present, his double life as my father and a character—for all that co-conspiratorial bond, writing him also meant I wasn’t writing my mother. Over time, her ghost began to demand its séance. That I had lived with a ghost while she was alive, I didn’t want to remember. She (as much her as my idea of her) is Dad’s opposite: unavailable, distant, unfledged in life, unborn in memory. A lifelong depressive, nervous around so many ages of men/boys, she was always pulling the covers over whenever the yelling started, my older brother having fucked up royally. Aproned, at the sink, she’d announce, "No, I don’t need any help, thank you. Go do your homework."

My mother died of lung cancer in 1994. In the time since, I have done less writing about her than I had hoped, in part, because her hovering on the periphery does not draw me to her or her to me. She’s a phantom passing in a mirror, a drowning voice, a dream forgotten on waking. In a sense, all I can do with her is write her (speculate, imagine, invent) because we are, like the Christian woman I once loved and lost and also am haunted by, still tethered though I don’t know why.

Writing about my father, I felt the immediacy of his joy and anger, his boyish cheering at an Arnold Palmer putt, his giddy thrill at holding two pair in poker. Writing about my mother, I’m a watcher in the stands, a diviner of silence, forgetting how she’d leave the living room if she heard me coming, neglecting her feigned enthusiasm for Christmas gifts. I think I’ve set it up this way. My dad, a snake in a terrarium who recoils before striking. My mother, a mouse backed into the tank’s glassed corner. The striker, the stricken. When we write about our most unfinished intimates, we are often stuck, sensing we should have seen the choicelessness of their roles. But we didn’t. We puzzle still, as Norman MacLean did, over loved ones who elude us most.

I groked a few things, though. How a writer’s experience overprotects us from one parent vis-à-vis the other. My father was not intimidating. His touch and tack felt unconditional. So whether living with him or writing about him I remain shielded from Mom’s depression. Her enigma a basement stairwell we crawl down backwards in the dark. Since I’ve written a dozen tales about my dad and me, only now do I hope I can get to her and why she got/gets to me. Maybe, going through my father will unleash my mother enough to write about her, minus the memory. That’s the shifting difference, isn’t it: in memoir, I remember my father, I create my mother.

The funny thing, as well, is that parents may insist on different paths the perambulating nonfictionist must follow. Each requires his/her own style, approach, insight—the father, a Boy-Scout narrative, the mother, a 1000-piece puzzle. Though, honesty alert, any of this is hard to claim because I’ve not authored both parents equally. And yet I sense that the more elusive of the two—my ever-door-closing mother—may be the most rewarding to pen. If only I could get there.

Did she fall out of the family photograph? Or was she never in it? Is it any wonder I’ve been saving her until now? Or have I just been avoiding the contention, all these summers, because I still suspect my writing her will fail?

Journalist, critic, and memoirist, Thomas Larson has been a staff writer for the San Diego Reader for thirteen years. His latest book, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” is in paperback. He teaches in the low-residency MFA program in creative nonfiction at Ashland University, Ashland, OH. Click here for his website. Larson.

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