The Story I Was Asked Not to Write
I once heard another writer say that we are living in a time of such cynicism that all nonfiction is assumed to be fiction, and all fiction is assumed to be nonfiction. The fact is that certain people will see themselves in your work, regardless of whether or not you put them there. There will always be the post-publication smirks, the howls of betrayal, the accusations of thievery. In a sense, it's liberating. You're damned if you do, damned if you don't.
And yet, in this case, I'm grateful that I didn't. As I was in the process of writing Vinegar Hill, an entire backstory appeared to me – not exactly based on my father's experience in the san, but springing from it. For nearly a year, I wrote this in, wrote it out. Ultimately, I let it go. How fortunate. No doubt, the reporter would have made that single accurate connection. The effect on my father, on my relationship with my family, would have been devastating. And the effect on my writing? One could argue that I'd be a better writer for the experience. One could also argue that I would not have gone on to write as prolifically, as freely, and with the sense of joy that sustains me, had there been that weight on my conscience, that distracting sting.
I published a second book, a third. Since handicap access to public transportation can be, as my father would say, "a challenge," he arranges to meet me when book tours bring me home to the Midwest. He picks me up at O'Hare, chauffeurs me to readings and interviews in the Chicago area before driving me north to Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis. We take the backroads, the rural highways he still remembers from when he was just starting out, fresh from the san, working as a traveling salesman selling fertilizer across the Midwest. We listen to polka tapes and AM radio. My father points out how the little towns have changed, admiring the Walmarts, the shopping malls, the super-size grocery stores. "When I used to come through here, there was nothing but cows!" he declares, biting happily into a deli sandwich.
By now, I am thirty-two years old, and though I've never received a fully satisfactory diagnosis, my health has stabilized. I'm able to walk short distances unassisted. Instead of using a wheelchair, I get by with a three-wheeled electric scooter. I write on a computer with an ergonomic keyboard and a voice-activated program, which I use when my arms flare up. And I do have flare-ups, bad spells which can last months; still, I've come to trust that, with time, things will settle down. What I cannot anticipate is that, in another year, my eyes will be affected. Everything about the way I write will have to change. I'll need to learn – as I still am learning – how to work in my head, because when I actually sit down to write, I'll never know how long it will be before my vision blurs and the accompanying headache settles in. On good days, I have thirty-minute work blocks; on bad days, only a few minutes at a time. I'll write my next novel in snatches. I'll sacrifice television, movies, all but the most essential reading. And without these past-times, pleasures, distractions, I'll have plenty of time to dwell on the larger issue at hand: what next?