A Letter to My Father; Or, Why I Don't NaNo
I started writing this on November 4th of last year, before I found out you had suddenly died in your sleep the previous night. I had wanted to tell you, before it was too late, that I cherish all you did for me. I am basically a happy person, and much of that is because of you.
November is National Novel Writing Month. You know I’ve always loved to write. Or at least, loved the idea of being a writer. NaNoWriMo is the Boston Marathon for amateur writers, the thing meant to get them out of their own way and off and running on writing a novel.
I won’t be participating.
There are a few reasons. I’ve struggled with writer’s block in the past, and my therapist told me, when I mentioned NaNoWriMo, that someone looking to get back into shape shouldn’t immediately jump into a marathon. From the years I did try to do NaNo or similar death-march writing projects, I’ve learned that almost all of what I write is forgettable, unusable tripe, and that trying to block out everything in favor of writing creates a tension with my everyday life that is more psychological hassle than it’s worth.
But there’s a more basic reason I’m not investing time and emotional energy in NaNo: I don’t need to. I don’t have a burning need to pursue the identity of me-as-writer; when I have something to say, I will write.
British author Chris Patten wrote, “Those of us who had a perfectly happy childhood should be able to sue for deprivation of literary royalties.” That goes not just for juicy material but for sheer productivity as well. I once interviewed Sean Stewart, author of the fantasy novel Nobody’s Son, and he said, “You’ll find that most driven people aren’t driven toward something; they’re being driven from behind,” often by their past. The absent father is a theme not just in literary works, but in the lives of writers and artists and entrepreneurs from Stephen King to Steve Jobs.
The thing is, while I felt you never really understood me—my writing, my love of the fantastical, my depression—we did have love, and even more importantly, the knowledge of each other’s love. I think you were honestly surprised one night when, after I got home late to find your note calmly stating you had checked yourself into the hospital for a ruptured hernia, I rushed to the hospital at 2 a.m. to check on you. I guess up until that point you never really knew, for sure, that I loved you. I made it a point to say it outright to you as we spoke on the phone, and it was so deeply gratifying to hear it in return from you.
It’s not like I grew up as Little Lord Fauntleromney. There was a lot I went without. But you were indulgent, and willing—perhaps too willing—to protect me from the world of adult responsibility. That’s hurt me, for sure, as I am more grasshopper than ant and will ultimately pay a price for that; but everything you did, or kept yourself from doing, came from a place of love.
So what does this have to do with writing? I was always eager to make you proud with my writing, to show you that I was Somebody, that I was respected for this thing that I did. I think you were always a little disappointed that I was unable to learn your trade, and was so bad with machinery as to spell ruin for any car or bike I used for any length of time. But you were able to take some pride from my pride in my writing, and that’s good enough. We had that love, and that’s good enough.
I love the act of writing, of turning a phrase, of finding the mot juste while inching a word count along. But I realized I don’t need it. I’d love to be a published author and to get approbation and praise for my work. But I don’t need it.
You helped me become the man I am, and I like that man. And that’s good enough.