The devil only knows what sort of nonsense it all is! Every man hangs by a thread, an abyss can open up beneath him at any moment, he can create all sorts of unpleasantness for himself, spoil his whole life.” -Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons
At least once during every phone conversation I have with my father, he quotes a line from the Cheech & Chong movie Up in Smoke. Strother Martin’s character is arguing with his middle-age, burnout son, played by Tommy Chong. Martin desperately wants his son to find a job.
“When, boy? When?” Martin says. “When are you going to get your act together?”
Since I started writing and chose to embark upon the first prolonged period of unemployment in my life (in order to pursue this degree, and who knows beyond that), my father and I act out this scene weekly. I laugh, and I have a few rejoinder lines about picking strawberries and bananas, and my dad finds this exchange uproariously funny. He never tires of it.
But however lighthearted his joking is, disapproval lurks nearby. Hidden beneath the surface humor is my father’s confusion, concern and probably a touch of shame. He wants to understand what I’m doing, but can’t seem to grasp it. He wants to be able to answer his friends when they ask, “What’s Richie doing these days?” but right now, he can’t. He doesn’t have an answer that makes sense, anyway.
My father worked 30 years for Ford Motor Company. Work was and is important to him. He retired a few years ago and took a job driving airport vans in and out of Logan. He’s always worked. He doesn’t have a college degree and he thinks people hide-out in academia. He’s scornful of graduate school. He cuts his own grass, stains his own fence, and hardly ever takes a sick day. He also reads, on average, one book every other year. I must look pretty absurd from his perspective. I must look a lot like Tommy Chong. I certainly feel that way at times. This path often makes no sense, and I was on a different path once, too. That’s probably the other part of this that drives him crazy. When I graduated from the Naval Academy almost twenty years ago, I remember what he said to me. He said, “You’ve got the world by the balls.”
What does it mean to be a writer? What does it mean to call oneself a writer? How do you arrive at a point when you can answer the question, “What do you do?” with the unabashed response, “I’m a writer.”?
The poet David Rivard talks about “an on-going betrayal” of his roots, his “original class,” in his essay “Paint Brushes vs. Rollers.” In this essay, Rivard explores the theme of fathers and sons with respect to writing. He describes his own process of becoming a poet this way:
All this (writing poetry) involved a betrayal, one that was both pleasurable and guilt-laden. I was doing something that had no place in the community from which I came. No standing in the pragmatic world of shop stewards and cops and tillermen. So there seemed no use in calling attention to myself. I hardly spoke of it with my family, never called myself a poet (I said vaguely that I was interested in ‘writing’.)
Rivard says that he feels like an outsider in two communities, the working class roots of his home and family—the class he has betrayed by writing, by not becoming a doctor or lawyer—and the more privileged, elitist class of academia and poets. “I still imagine myself as a usurper, a spy under the mill-owner’s son’s bed, an impersonator who has stolen a privilege to wear poetry, as if it were a frock coat.” He speaks of a divided self, half-connected to his working class roots and half-drawn to the world of poets and writers.
I understand this division very well. I share Rivard’s diffidence to talk about writing with my friends, men and women to whom the path I’ve chosen seems, quite frankly, nuts. I also feel this acutely when talking on the phone to my father. With him, my choice to turn my back on the pragmatic world of earning money often feels less than inspired. It usually feels very strange. At what point will my father be able to say to his buddies, “My son is a writer” and have it mean something? At what point does one become such a thing?
On November 9, 1985, the year I turned sixteen, I soloed in a Cessna 150. At seventeen, I passed the FAA flight exam and became a fully licensed private pilot. But I never called myself a pilot. I simply said, “I have my pilot’s license.” At twenty-two, I graduated from Annapolis and went off to the U.S. Navy’s pilot training school. Sixteen months later, I suffered a seizure and was told I could never fly again.
In between that first solo and the time I stopped flying, I logged a few hundred hours of flight time, but at no point do I ever remember saying the words, “I’m a pilot.” In the Navy, I called myself a ‘student aviator,’ an accurate representation of my status. Being a pilot, a naval aviator, meant earning gold wings, something I didn’t accomplish. Had my epilepsy had been diagnosed six months after it was, after I’d earned my wings, I might have felt differently. But I’m not sure. Certainly the gold wings would have helped, but calling oneself ‘a pilot’ has to mean more than a pair of wings.
I am learning how to write now at 41. This is a strange age to be starting out in any field. I recognize that. It must seem even stranger to a man like my father, a man who believes fully in work and diligence and traditional paths. One of the many wonderful things about being in VCFA is that I can dodge the question, “What do you do?” by honestly answering, “I’m in grad school.” But what’s next? My grad-school answer is very time-limited. In three months, it won’t work.
I do not consider myself a writer yet. That title must be earned, and I haven’t earned it. I have a long way to go to even get there. I just don’t know where ‘there’ is exactly, and the intent to become a writer doesn’t qualify.
I imagine the first time you publish a story or an essay to be a lot like the first time you solo in an airplane. Sitting alone in that Cessna-150, the gray November sky looming on the horizon, I stared down the runway centerline and wondered what the hell would happen next. For a long moment, I truly didn’t want to go. Eventually I did push the throttle in, and the plane accelerated down the runway, the nose lifted off the ground at the correct angle. I climbed to pattern altitude, turned downwind, then base, then lined up on final. Somehow, I managed not to snap the nose gear off as I smashed the plane back to earth. It was a huge step, an exhilarating moment unmatched since, but I wasn’t a pilot. I simply had learned to do, at the most basic level, enough things that real pilots do and not to crash. I wasn’t a pilot, I was simply a terrified kid, posing for those glorious fifteen minutes as I circled the airfield in my Cessna, trying damn hard not to kill myself or anybody else.
It’s worth giving credit where credit is due: my father promised to fund my flying lessons, and we were a working class family. It was a significant sacrifice to fund the thousands of dollars it took to pursue my dream of being a pilot.
The day I was told I would never fly again was one of the worst days of my life. I never thought I’d recover, never thought I’d feel equally passionate about anything ever again. It shattered my identity and made the world seem like a very uncertain place (which of course it is.) The slow climb out of that dark place led me to writing. Everyone who writes probably has a similar experience, a similar reason they’ve answered this call.
My dad asks me about writing sometimes. He usually says, “How’s the book coming?” It’s a nice gesture, a respectful acknowledgement of what I’m trying to do, except I’m not writing a book. Most days, I’m not even writing good sentences. I showed him something I wrote once. He read the first paragraph and said, “Whoa, this is way over my head.” It wasn’t, but it probably did frighten him a little. We both knew that I no longer “had the world by the balls.” No one really ever does. But seeing the words I wrote must have made him feel very weird, and it must have been a bit unsettling. Perhaps it pissed him off too, not at me, but at the universe which had yanked his son off the path he hoped I would follow. Maybe he read those sentences and thought about my plebe year roommate from Annapolis who is now the Executive Officer on a nuclear powered aircraft carrier. That was probably more of what he had in mind.
I prefer my five-year old son’s response when one of his teachers asked him what his father did for work. Tom said, “My dad is going to school to become an author.” I think my five-year old gets it better than most.
In a few days, I’ll call my dad. We’ll chat about the Red Sox and the Patriots and we’ll run over his upcoming trip to San Diego. He’ll ask about his grandkids and we’ll ramble on about politics. At some point during the twenty-minute conversation he’ll ask me about school, and before I can answer, he’ll blurt out that line, “When, boy? When?”
It’s a fair question, I suppose.