Writing Dad, a decade on

For the last year and a half, I’ve been working on a novel. It’s not a terribly serious novel (a vampire romance with an intentionally ludicrous premise, which had no hope of marketability until the announcement of the newest Twilight book) born of a fun dream and the thought of what it might be like if Dad stuck around as a ghost. This story is the first time I’ve been able to write Dad.

I actually wrote the first three chapters only a year or two after he died, but I wasn’t ready. I had to let it sit. It took me a long time before I could get back to it.

Which is just further confirmation of the fact that I can’t really write a thing until I’ve processed it. Or as a latter stage of processing. If I ever figure out that particular order of operations, I’ll let you know.

Dad would have been 77 this year. We celebrated his birthday with cupcakes (chocolate and whipped cream frosting: the same as the last–maybe only–birthday cake I ever made him) and a candle (shaped as the number two to symbolize his eternal mental age and because that’s what was handy). I try to do something to mark his birthday every year. Usually just by grabbing a milkshake at his favorite takeout, but this is what we decided, between the global pandemic and my kid’s request.

He had a family before me and my sister, and he liked to occasionally say that was what made him able to see or predict accidents when our mom couldn’t. Except he was a pretty crap father the first time around, so I highly doubt he learned any of that with my half-sisters. It probably had more to do with life experience, being 42 when I was born and my mom a month away from 25, plus his ridiculously strong spatial awareness. Of course, Dad never had the self-awareness to acknowledge how bad he was as a husband and father the first time (or the second, or the third). He was reacting to an oppressive, abusive childhood and couldn’t see past his own self-gratification. I didn’t need to hear my sisters’ stories to figure that out, once I started paying attention to what his stories didn’t contain. (My sisters, for one.)

Maybe telling you these faults of his seems strange in this sort of post, but I can’t change who he was and who he was included a whole lot of faults. Honesty in life is a good quality. Honesty in writing? Essential for telling the kinds of stories I want to tell.

I loved my dad. So much of my identity revolved around him, but he certainly wasn’t perfect and I don’t want to romanticize him on the page. That wouldn’t be Dad; it would just be some cardboard cutout of a character. (There’s a writing lesson here how flaws are what makes characters most dynamic and compelling, but this post is for my dad and that is for a better discussion of the characters he inspires.)

I’ve finished a first draft of that first story with Dad. Now I have a new project and again he’s making an appearance. With different emphasis on certain personality traits.

I’ve spent years trying to write Dad because it helps me remember and memorialize him. Because I’m still working through this shit and because he is still so much of my truth that not writing him feels dishonest. Now, ten years on, I think I finally can.

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