My Dad, a “Real” Writer

When I was first learning to meditate, I used a CD from the meditation teacher, Jack Kornfield, a great CD to use when you are first learning. One of the meditations that he introduced on this CD was, what he called, a meditation for dying, which he said Buddhists practice when they are on their deathbed. In this meditation, you bring to mind two things that you did for other people with no thoughts for yourself. This has stayed with me because so often, in the Western world, deathbed scenes are filled with regret – for things you said or left unsaid, for things you wished that you had done or that you didn’t do, for the sled you loved as a small child and lost. The idea of filling your heart, just before it stops beating, with memories of actions that you took that made a positive difference to people, seemed like such a gentle alternative, that it inspired me to look for ways that my actions and daily interactions with people could leave a legacy. One has to have things to remember in those last moments of life.

My mind returned to this, this week, when my father died. For some reason, one of the memories that keeps emerging is about a visit that he paid me, maybe 10 or 15 years ago. I had taken time off from work to spend with him, but there was one meeting that couldn’t be postponed, and I brought him to the office with me. He didn’t really understand what I did at work but I thought it might interest him to learn a little more. I introduced him to my team and showed him my office; I introduced him to my boss. (If you are lucky enough manage others, one of the gifts you will receive is the opportunity to praise your employees to their parents; to reassure their parents that they succeeded in their mission to produce a useful member of society.) And then, while I was in the required meeting, I asked one of my colleagues to spend an hour with him, talking about what she did and answering his questions.

My father had always aspired to be a writer. When I was a small child, he spent any hours that he wasn’t working, in the loft over our garage, at a desk, avoiding writing by highlighting medical journals. I remembering lying on the floor of the loft in a square of sunlight, the smell of the wood, the indoor-outdoor carpeting rough against my tiny elbows, carefully hand-lettering my own stories and illustrating them myself. He must have helped me write the submission letter and prepare the SASE that led to my first – well=deserved – rejection letter from Random House. Who else can say they’ve earned a rejection letter before reaching the age of 5?

He continued avoiding writing throughout his working career and into retirement. He complained, as many people do, that if only he had quit his job, he would have had time for writing. My response was the same that I give anyone with that plaint: if you want to be a writer, you must write. Write when you are not working and, when writing so fills your life that you don’t have time to work, then it is time to quit your job.

My father could not take this advice for many years because he suffered from PTSD, from an abusive childhood, from the time he spent as a flight-surgeon in the Vietnam DMZ. Writing required access to a part of himself that he kept walled off inside him. And it wasn’t until he had exhausted all other excuses that he finally began to write.

I loved his short stories, vignettes from growing up, from college, medical school and Vietnam, from his residency. My father was a funny guy and a great storyteller, and the way he saw life was interesting. But he refused to see the relevancy of these stories, to him, they were exercises that he did to warm up for his Real Writing; things no one would be interested in or want to read. He could not see the relevancy of his war experiences to soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq; or the relevancy of his medical stories to young doctors: sometimes it is just really helpful to know that other people have been through what you are going through, and that they suffered, and then survived.

His Real Writing was the Great American Novel. A LeCarre-ish fantasy, involving snipers on the roof of Blair House, and taking place in Kosovo, a place he had never visited. It ballooned out to an unsellable length and eventually, with patient — and my father complained, sometimes brutal — editing by his wife, diminished to something that would be thick and heavy but was almost a sellable length. Then he set out to get an agent. I suggested, based on what I had gathered at work, that he try to lure them in by building his brand but he sluffed that off. The path was set in his mind by old issues of Writer’s Digest and advice from successful writers in the bi-weekly writer’s group his attended: write your novel; get an agent; get published.

Only the agents didn’t respond.

So I thought it would be interesting for him to spend an hour with my colleague, Diane, where she could tell him about her job, while I attended my meeting.

Diane had the thankless job at Barnes & Noble, of dealing with all the people who had written books that weren’t published by the big publishers, and dreamed of seeing their work on the shelves of a bookstore. Many of these books were self-published or published by very small, local presses or – something then just starting – published electronically. Diane reviewed the giant pile of submissions and, if there might be a home for them in a store, stores, or available to order, she advised the author about very basic things like how to get an ISBN and how to get into the supply chain that would enable Barnes & Noble to order their work, as well as make their book available at other local bookstores. Sometimes – very rarely – she discovered a gem that she asked a buyer to review for the possibility of national distribution and, if the buyer agreed, she might work with the author to connect them to one of the Big Publishers. But mostly it was a thankless job. If you are a writer, it is your job to believe in your work – as my father believed in his work – and fight on it’s behalf, and Diane bore the brunt of their disappointment.

By the time I finished my meeting and made it back to my office, Diane had gone on to her next meeting, and my father was alone with his reflections. Over lunch, I asked him for his thoughts about his conversation with Diane.

“Very interesting,” he said, in a tone that I recognized. It told me he had absorbed much of what she had said and would be sharing it with his writer’s group and his wife and possibly other friends. He had gotten a glimpse behind the scenes of a world that had been inaccessible to him. And he was alight, uplifted about writing again. I don’t know when I had ever seen him like this.

On my way into the office on the following Monday, I stopped at a florist that I used only when I wanted the best flower arrangements and had them whip up a confection of blossoms. Diane dropped by my office between meetings later that day.

“Thank you for the beautiful flowers – what was that for?”

Because, I said, you made my father happy.

A few years ago, Dad finally ePublished his book about spies from Kosovo. I don’t know how many copies he actually sold — it certainly never reached the shelves of Barnes & Noble or any other bookstore — and I’m not sure that’s important. The mayor of Kosovo, he told me, discovered the book somehow and said – according to Dad – that he was flattered that an American had written a book about his city and could he get a copy. Dad sent him the link so he could order it.

Diane is long gone from Barnes & Noble, as I am too. And Dad died this week from a progressive battle with Parkinson’s that finally won. It seems sad that a man to whom physical health and storytelling were so important, died from a disease that robbed him of physical control of his body and the ability to speak. And sad that his last year was separated from the wife who loved him and made him so happy for so many years.

I treasure the memory of how happy Diane made my father that day, by talking to him about publishing, and treating him like the “real” writer he always dreamed of being. It was a small thing to her – an hour doing what she did every day – but it was huge to me.

And it made my father happy.

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