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Some thoughts on Joy (part 2)



My dad rowing me across an ocean inlet, circa 2005

I have been reading Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, an oft-recommended work on writing. It has been hard to put down, but I am trying to make myself savor it by reading it one chapter at a time (as I crashed through Stephen King's and Elizabeth Gilbert's books on the subject far faster than I wish I had). In what I have read so far, she has written a lot about her own father, who was also a writer. I actually picked up Bird by Bird while I was at the book store to get a book about writing nonfiction for my father, for our belated Father's Day gathering. I wrote him a little note about why I had gotten him the book: "Consider it peer pressure," or something like that.

Here's the thing: my dad has led a really incredible life, and over the past year or so I have begun to feel the faintest tickling of acknowledgment that my parents are mortal. I can feel that I do not fully acknowledge this--it is like I can see it in my peripheral vision, though I refuse to look directly at it. My dad wrote my sister and me a really incredible email about our grandmother recently, in which he told us the story of how she and her brother came to be in an orphanage, though they were not truly orphans. "You've outed yourself as a writer," I told him. Now, I want him to put himself down on paper.

He called me yesterday. "I've been reading that book you gave me. I know I need to do it, but I think it might be impossible. So instead," he said, "I'm adding a chapter today," and he told me about what he had planned for the day. He joked that I would have to write it for him after he'd died, with my teenaged nephew as my fact-checker. I didn't tell him on the phone what I have been thinking about since the spring. When we hung up I laid in the hammock in our yard and stared up at the sunlight behind the leaves. I told my husband that I haven't stopped thinking about trying to write down some of my dad's life with my dad, who is one of the most charismatic, energetic, scatter-brained genius fools I have ever met. I expected my husband to say I was nuts, which is what we both said the first time the thought occurred to me. Yesterday he said, "I think it will be a real waste if someone doesn't do it."

When you are good at something, and your something has the power to make the world a better place, do you have an obligation to do it? This is a question I have been grappling with in my professional life, outside of writing. In regards to my day job, two weighty elements I have identified as necessary to answer this question are what does it cost you to do the something, and what does it give back to you. (Many of us who are social-justice or world-betterment inclined seem to forget to consider ourselves in the cost-benefit analysis, which is ultimately a fatal error.)

Here, I think I may be so obligated. Obligation is really the wrong word, as what I feel when I think about doing this is not martyrdom, but some kind of water-logged, welled-up excitement. The risk that this project could be damaging to our relationship seems small and temporary (though the risk that I may kill my father bare-handed to stop him from talking seems slightly larger). And it will be challenging academically, in part because my father's life story is so entwined with other people's that it will be quite a knot to untangle and make legible, but also because memoirs and the like are not usually "my thing." But my family is my thing, and stories are my thing, and writing is my thing, so I should probably do the thing.

"Happiness is the only thing that multiplies when it's shared," Albert Schweitzer said (apparently, according to the Internet). I do agree that writing must be done for the writer, first and foremost. But I also agree with Albert, and I want to write for others. As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about in Big Magic, as adults we must be able to hold seemingly contradictory truths in our heads. ("In conclusion, then, art is absolutely meaningless. It is, however, also deeply meaningful.") I suspect there will always be a space in my brain occupied by the paradox that it is absolutely necessary to be both selfish and selfless. I must write for myself, but I must write for others, too. Perhaps both at once. Perhaps this is how I increase my Joy.


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