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Fatherless on Father’s Day

June 20, 2011

I know  I said in my last post I would write part two of Motivating Factors.  I still plan on doing that, but yesterday being Father’s Day got me thinking about my own father, so I decided I wanted to write about that instead. I’ll post the sequel to Motivating Factors later this week.

My father passed away in 2003, just a few weeks before his 68th birthday.  It doesn’t seem that long ago, yet I find myself recently thinking about all of the things that have happened to Valerie and I since he died.  My pursuit of screenwriting.  My district Teacher of the Year Award.  Our trip to Italy in 2006,  and our trip to Scotland (including a stay at Brodie Castle) in 2009.  Valerie and I buying a house together.  A lot can happen in eight years, and I often find it painful when I realize that I can’t share some of these things with him.

When I think about being a writer and a teacher, it’s difficult for me to imagine that either of those things would have happened without his influence upon me.  I grew up in a house surrounded by books.  We had more books than we had room, so books didn’t just fill up our cheap aluminum book cases (covered with a wood colored veneer–very classy!)–virtually every cabinet, closet, bed stand, and any other conceivable nook and cranny contained books.  Most of  them were hardcover, and were purchased by my father. One of the very first books I read cover to cover was Henry Williamson’s “Tarka the Otter”–which I mistook for a children’s book.  And even though it was not “Rikki Tikki Tavi” (my favorite children’s book, also in my father’s collection), I found I could not put it down.  I could see Tarka as clearly as I could see anything, as Williamson’s irresistible prose opened up a whole side of my imagination I didn’t know I had.

When I reached the end of the book only to discover that Tarka had been killed by hunters, I wept for probably an hour.  Then I was angry. I was angry at Williamson for killing off his protagonist, and I was angry at my father for having such a dreadful book.  My father worked late at night, and was napping that afternoon, but it didn’t stop me from charging into my parents’ bedroom and rousing him from his slumber.  He had some explaining to do.

To his credit, he didn’t lash out in anger when he realized all that had upset me was a novel about an otter.  Looking back on it all these years later, his affect seemed to suggest that it struck him as completely reasonable that I would warrant an explanation right then, his sleeping be damned.  So he pulled me up onto the bed and calmly explained to me why it was that Tarka had to meet his demise at the end of the book.  To be honest, I don’t remember what he said to me.  I remember the smell of his musk, and the gentleness of his voice, and feeling much better after he spoke–so much so that when I left, the book in my hand was no longer an object of scorn, but appeared instead to be magical treasure.  I didn’t return it to the shelf–I kept it in the drawer in my nightstand.  I would come back to that book for the next several years–flipping through it, rereading passages, sometimes just enjoying the feel of it in my hands.

The thing is, my father helped me understand what great writing was–to hook an audience, to make that audience feel deep emotion for people (and other creatures) that didn’t even exist, to create a world that audience just could not shake.  Even though I didn’t understand that at the time, he certainly did.  Perhaps that’s why he took me seriously.  He could have easily told me to leave him alone because he was sleeping, or to stop being so silly–it was just a book , after all. But he knew better than that.  He knew what writing could do.  And that’s what I think he tried to convey to me.

After that, what I wanted more than anything was to make someone else feel so deeply for a character as Williamson had made me feel for Tarka.  I couldn’t imagine what joy that would be, but I knew it was something I wanted to feel.  Every time I sit down to write, I think about Tarka and I think about my father, and suddenly I believe anything is possible.

The last time we spoke was around Thanksgiving in 2002. I had just published my first poem in a major magazine, and one of the last things he said before hanging up was that he was proud of me for writing it.   I thanked him, of course– but I really wish I had thanked him for what he said to me all those years before.  Neither of us realized it then, but that was the day he taught me I could be a writer.

Happy Father’s Day.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Meghan Jones permalink
    June 21, 2011 12:29 am


    I am so moved by this entry. You capture the essence of your dad so eloquentlyl. I also lost my dad in 2003 and without his influence I don’t think I would have ever become a teacher. When I think about my dad, I also am reminded that anything is possible for many reasons. Thank you for reminding me of that.

    I also wanted to let you know that your blogs “got me through” so pretty isolating days on my maternity leave this winter. It was nice to read some intelligent writing in between feeding, diapers, and “Old McDonald” at 3AM. Keep writing! You are truly talented.


    • June 21, 2011 8:23 pm


      I’m very glda that the post had some meaning for you. Thank you for sharing that about your own father.

      I’m also touched that you find my blog so enjoyable. Thanks also for your kind words.


  2. Meghan Jones permalink
    June 21, 2011 12:30 am

    It figures, I post without proofreading… Sorry!

  3. July 19, 2014 10:22 pm

    First off I would like to say great blog! I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was curious to find out how you center yourself and
    clear your head before writing. I have had difficulty clearing my
    mind in getting my thoughts out there. I do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?
    Thank you!

    • July 24, 2014 2:41 am

      Thank you very much for your kind words. Clearing my head before writing…I think what helps me is a certain level of ritual. So, I decide I am going to begin writing. I usually decide before hand what I am going to be working on, then I make myself a pot of tea, and while the water boils I am already thinking about what I want to accomplish. Then, after I pour the tea, I head into my office, and put on the music I like to have when I write (select this ahead of time, and have it as a playlist, or a Pandora channel…it’s amazing how much time you can waste searching for writing music!) and then I just get going. I also set little carrots for myself… If I write three hours tonight, I get to treat myself to something as a reward (ice cream, tacos at my favorite taco stand, etc.). That’s my process. I don’t know if I adequately answered your question, but that’s what I do. I hope that helps.

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