Why I Write
I was seven years old when my parents gave me my first diary. I promptly filled its pages with whiney complaints—like the fact that my mother always sided with my do-no-wrong sister or that a recent asthma attack had me feeling especially sorry for myself.
So while I instinctively enjoyed the therapeutic process of writing from the very first days that I could put pen to paper, I don’t think there was anything particularly impressive about my writing ability.
Luckily for me, my dad would disagree.
A retired high school English teacher who still never misses an opportunity to turn the mundane into a metaphor-filled teaching moment, my dad is the reason I write.
Good writing, according to my father, begins with avid reading. Dad is the kind of person who carries a library of literature in his head. Not only has he read every British and American classic several times over, but also he has dissected them before an audience of adolescents in an effort to help them make better sense of themselves and their world.
I am fortunate enough to have been his student for 34 years and counting.
It was the summer before junior high when he handed me a lengthy reading list and the challenge to check off as many of the “greats” as I could manage. Hardy, Hemingway, Melville, Austen, Updike, Woolf, London, Alcott, Steinbeck, Salinger, and on and on.
By summer’s end, I had made my way through most of the list and unknowingly sat in his informal classroom. At the breakfast table or on our family sailboat, he had revealed those clever literary insights that only a true scholar can—some tidbit about the author’s background or a view of world events going on at the time.
I will never forget the brand new copy of Jane Eyre that Dad gave me one Christmas. I settled into bed around 10 pm to read the first few chapters.
The next morning, he popped in to find me turning the last pages of the book, tears streaming down my face. I had stayed up all night, falling in love with Mr. Rochester alongside Jane, sobbing at life’s misfortune, amazed by the power of those Victorian sentences.
I wanted to command words like that.
Over the years, my dad showed me how. Wielding an invisible red pen and an endless supply of encouragement, he coached me through seemingly infinite pieces of writing:
“Eliminate the verb “to be”….this sentence is beautifully written…nice image…get rid of that passive voice…excellent comparison…you’re a really strong writer…great transition…watch your tense shifts…flesh out that idea…you’re getting tired now…no excuse for the dangling modifier…you write better than I ever did.”
When my writing was lousy, he told me so. When he knew I could do better, he demanded a rewrite. But when my words exceeded his expectations, he let the compliments fly. When my conclusions taught him something new, he opened a conversation and asked me to elaborate. When I grew into an adult, he honored me with the task of editing his work.
Today, I still write for some of those same therapeutic reasons that applied in grade school. Instead of chronicling life’s pressures as a child, though, I muse about the stresses and joys of a parent.
But I also write because I have a dad who taught me to appreciate the human spirit through the lens of literature, and to master the process of writing through the cycle of practice and praise. I write because my dad is always reading.
Happy (belated, of course) Father’s Day!