Awhile back I read somewhere that Philip Roth would never have become the writer he was without the help of his mother. When he came under attack by the neighbours and relatives for using them as characters in his fiction, it was his mom who stood by him. It was Mom who said: You’re a writer. Write.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not. For lots of beginning writers, it’s the hardest thing to get over – that urge to not tell the truth, that silent contract signed with parents or partners.
I’m no expert on this. Sure, I hear stories that people tell me and slot them into the must-remember-that space in my brain (a corner that is regularly, despite my best intentions, dusted and vacuumed by my cerebral cleaning staff). And once, in University, my roommate J.M. skewered me with his best impression of Uma Thurman out of Henry and June after he shared some tidbit from his past with me and I rubbed my hands together in glee. “You’re a writer. You make love to whatever you need,” he drawled, in his best Jersey accent.
But this is hard for me. And I’ve had a lesson in it recently.
While out at my uncle’s in Oregon, I went through his boxes of articles and poems, letters and notes. He let me read his journals, mostly travelogues from various long-distance walks or brewery tours in England. In the process, I learned a lot about him, about his life. It was a profound experience for me.
By the time I left, staring out into darkness on the shuttle bus from their town to the airport in Portland, I felt a lot of stuff inside me that I couldn’t really understand, so I just jotted a few things down. Weeks later the whole thing started to make some sort-of sense. My feelings began to come into focus and I pulled out those notes and wrote an essay that’s now slated for the Globe and Mail’s Facts & Arguments page (date unknown, but I’ll post when I know).
In the essay, I was honest. I told the truth about how I’ve felt about my uncle over the years and about how hard it is to be around him now, old and suddenly so changed, so slow. Writing about it felt necessary. It was necessary. It’s still necessary (I feel there’s more to come).
I didn’t think that he might not like it until after I’d sent it off and the acceptance email came. As the editor was going about the process of commissioning an illustration, I was sending it off to my uncle to give him a head’s up, to let him read it.
Twenty-four hours went by.
I wondered if he’d hate it, if he’d ask me to stop the presses or if he’d draw on his own experience, realizing that people get written about, that not much is sacred, that this is the reality of the role. I thought a lot about that story about Philip Roth, written, I remember now, by Betsy Lerner in her book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. “Unless you have sufficient ego and feel entitled to tell your story, you will be stymied in your effort to create,” she writes. “You think you can’t write, but the truth is you can’t tell. Writing is nothing if not breaking the silence.”
And in the end, I decided not to be afraid. This is who I am, I thought, with a shrug in the bathroom mirror. Part of me trusted him. After all, he’s a writer, too.
My aunt finally emailed me. He’s very pleased, she wrote.