The Story I Was Asked Not to Write
"A clear, cold day," my father says again. When my mother comes into my room after supper, she throws on all the lights, sets up the Scrabble board. But my father stands in the doorway. He does not turn on the light. Halfway in and halfway out, he tells his story, this story, the one I've never heard him talk about before, the one which, someday, when I start to publish books, he will ask me never to write down. It is not exactly a secret. It is simply something not to be discussed. My father is a respected business man, and in this small, German-Luxemburg community, illness and shame go hand-in-hand.
"The writer's only responsibility is to his art," Faulkner wrote. "He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: home, pride, decency, security, happiness, all to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his own mother, he won't hesitate; the 'Ode to a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies."
In theory, it costs nothing to agree. Of course, a great writer will always put the demands of art before the restrictions of life - the shushings, the warnings, the inevitable consequences. But put an honored face on Faulkner's "old lady," and a complicated scaffolding springs up before your eyes, one which must be re-negotiated whenever you sit down to write about that particular mother, her particular situation, the thing that has become your intellect's purest fascination – even as it remains her heart's greatest secret, sorrow, shame. Each writer must find a workable balance between the paralysis which results from trying to please everyone, and the very real impact of art upon the very lives which inspire it. For some, this balance is effortless; for others, it's simply not an issue at all. But for others still, particularly those who seed their fiction with kernels of fact, it is an issue which never goes away. And what of those whose writing puts its subjects' lives in physical danger? Reveals the secrets of religious sects or vengeful political regimes?
Faulkner's "ruthlessness" is less symptomatic of talent than of individual character and situation. And it's relevant to note that while many writers, like Faulkner, have written out of pain, drunkenness and rage, there are plenty of others who write, as I do, out of confidence and safety and well-being. I don't write well when I'm unhappy or anxious. I don't write well when my conscience is bothering me. Before my illness, my father was a stranger, and this story was the first, frail bridge between us. The act of putting it into words would have destroyed the very reasons I have wanted to do so: to chart the obvious parallels between his life and my own. To explore the irony of this connection between us after many years of distance. To return to a theme that has characterized so much of my work: how circumstance forges kinship in a way blood never can.
And so I chose to endure Faulkner's anguish, rather than get rid of it. For eleven years, I kept the promise I made to my father, even though not writing about his illness meant not writing freely about my own.