A Dangerous Business
She said she would have preferred engineering, but when, as a kid, I insisted on writing, my mom advised that I at least learn the names of flowers.
"Did you really do that?" I asked her recently on a visit home. We were having cocktails on the back deck of my childhood home, a place where memories stretch over us like afternoon shadows. "Did you say that if I was going to be a writer, then I needed to know the names of flowers?"
"Well," she began, sounding vaguely put upon, "I don't know if that's what I said."
"I mean, I wouldn't know a rhododendron if it gouged my eyes out."
Plants bloomed everywhere around us, the bounty of my mom's post-retirement foray into gardening. Insects buzzed ominously.
"That's true," she said. "But details are important."
I was always more adept at historical details. As a nine-year-old I sat for whole weekends at the dining room table earnestly drafting a novel set during that fateful winter at Valley Forge. In fact, I probably called it That Fateful Winter. I also created a comic strip about D-Day.
"You were more of what I would call an indoor kind of child," Mom said, watching me slap at a mosquito.
A writer, in other words, except that I never cottoned to calling myself one. It sounded effete, and I hailed from a family with blue-collar values. My dad was a public school teacher, the kind who changed his own oil and mended fraying suits with masking tape. He was a union man all the way. Writers, by contrast, were so … Iowa City. We lived two counties over, a full sixty miles to the east on Interstate 80, through black, methane-smelling hills that the writers never bothered to notice. Somehow that made all the difference.
My dad grew up around cows and pigs. Perhaps this is why he was the sort of writer I aspired to be, which is to say one who committed words to paper better than most but who would have been too embarrassed to take credit. He didn't write essays; he wrote notes to my first-grade teacher assuring her that I had accomplished the assigned reading.
"Dear Miss Moe," began one scribbled note that was dated on his thirty-eighth birthday. "My rotten little son, Brendan Martin, has finally finished buzzing around here with a work entitled Big Bug, Little Bug. I heard the whole thing, and I want you to know and understand that I'll never forget you for this. Memorably yours, Tom Wolfe."
Writing was fun for him but it wasn't real. Only work was real. The word seemed to vibrate with meaning, to conjure up past generations of Irish immigrant farmers and a life on the land he had chosen to forego. Whether it was mucking out the barns as a kid or shepherding the Davenport Education Association toward a better contract with the school district, work was what mattered. Not writing. "Dear Miss Moe," he wrote in brown marker three months later. "My only begotten son, Brendan Martin has completed yet another milestone on his road to literary fame—the successful reading of Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown, & The Case of the Scaredy Cats. May Allah spare me more. (Vote for Wayne Kratz for Executive Board … please.) Tom Wolfe."
And yet writing can be a form of bragging, can it not? Performance but also one-upmanship.
Not long after my father's death, I found in his papers a typed essay my mom had written, "Good News, Bad News." It's a lovely and at times heartbreaking account of her life composed when I was not quite two. She grew up "pampered and the center of attention," she writes, the lean years of the Great Depression finally behind the family, but she also acknowledges that her five much-older siblings resented her for it. At boarding school she learned independence and upon her return battled her father, who owned a trucking company, for the chance to go to college. He "believed education was for the male species and would not be of any significant benefit to me." She went anyway, immersing herself in Faulkner and earning her teaching certificate.
"By my senior year in college," she writes, "I was sure that I had met the person who would be the right person. He lacked drive for material goods and possessions; he was naïve to social graces; he laughed often; he believed in God; he always told the truth; he said he loved me." Even so, she admits that their first years of marriage were "chaotic and explosive," and the ghost of her parents' failed union haunted her own. Such was my mom's rare foray into writing: honest and vulnerable, nodding at the good news but never shirking the bad. She was a feminist because of her father, she writes, and "a strong person today because of my husband's belief in me and my capabilities."
"This is amazing stuff!" I said to Mom, holding the just-discovered essay out for her to see. "I had no idea Grandpa didn't want you to go to college."
"What is that?" she said, reaching for a cigarette with one hand, the essay with the other. Dad wasn't even in the ground yet.
She glanced at the pages. "You shouldn't be reading that."
Only after some prodding did she explain that it had been produced on assignment for an adoption agency. Yes, my sisters were adopted—I knew that, but not that the agency had required a writing sample.
"They needed to make sure we were good parents," she said.
She took a long drag of her Marlboro, as if the woman who had typed these silly words had long since disappeared.
Then, suddenly, her eyes woke up.
"The lady at the agency loved my essay," she said. "At our next appointment she just raved about it and didn't say a thing about your father's. You should have seen him. The whole drive home he was just beside himself."
What she said next surprised me:
"Of course, he saw himself as a writer. I never did."
It's a dangerous business, seeing yourself as a writer. I spent my college years—how could I have avoided it?—in Iowa City, where tweedy people with stubbly faces chatted loudly about Auden, hoping to be overheard. Where the poet Jorie Graham, operatically flipping back her long hair, almost as a form of enjambment, regularly delivered readings upstairs at Prairie Lights, astride the self-help section, an awed crowd of twenty-five hushed and hanging on each of her uptalked lines. I never understood what she was going on about and more than once left inspired to pen some scathing parody. I never did. I hated the writers, but more than that I wanted to be the writers.
As a result, I often made an ass of myself. I dated a girl named Wendy for several years. She was into computers and wine coolers and she loved the Cure and Garth Brooks. When my dad disappeared from home in the middle of the night, leaving behind nothing but a new address and phone number, she was there for me. It was the summer of 1993, it rained a lot, and when things got really tough, we had awkward, humid sex in the back seat of her pale-blue Buick. This might be it, I thought, but then it all went pear-shaped. We broke up. I burned all her letters and the tokens she had given me in a roaring, Friday-night bonfire and then, as if in repudiation of my dad's midnight minimalism, I typed up a long "Dear Wendy" letter. I did this using my new Microsoft Word program and therefore employed important-looking drop caps. I also quoted Plutarch. Upon the death of their young daughter the Roman essayist had assured his wife that reminders of the departed are not such a bad thing, that they will "bring us a greater quantity and variety of joy than of sorrow."
"I'll buy what you have to say, Plutarch, but only because I'm guessing your daughter never left you and the Mrs. for another set of parents; I'm assuming she was too young to name-drop in bed."
I not only wrote this, put a stamp on it, and mailed it; I printed out a second copy for my archives.
Three years later I was in graduate school, still in Iowa City. One of my classmates was a bony, brackish Dubliner who fired off intentionally provocative essays, such as one on the word cunt, and who once lectured me on what it took to be a, quote, writer.
"These feckin' cunts," he said about no one in particular. "Oh, so sorry if I said the word cunt and your nipples shriveled up. The people in this program, they call themselves writers." He sipped a second-rate stout. "Look, you've got to believe in something. Do you know what I mean?"
For a second I thought he was being rhetorical. "Do you believe in God?" he asked. "I mean it. And if you don't know the answer, you're not a feckin' writer."
He was the only Irishman I knew and one of the few people who seemed to loathe graduate school as much as I did. Yet a declaration like this struck me as a betrayal. My approach to getting an MFA had been to write as well as I could but without taking on any of the affectations of the writer's life. I wrote, sure, but I never actually called myself a writer. I wore Birkenstocks sometimes, but that was it. I didn't know the names of flowers and considered this business about God to be the sort of thing I might hear at a Jorie Graham reading. I treated it with contempt.
Instead, I continued to struggle with long, humorless, unsuccessful essays about my father, about my parents' divorce, and about the cows and pigs and those methane-smelling hills. My master's thesis was all angst and no insight—an open letter to my dad, to whom I barely spoke anymore, and a not-so-subtle poke in his side. I chastised him for that middle-of-the-night note and then the dot-matrix form letter he mailed my sisters and me afterward, which read, "concerning the reasons for the split, I will tell you none." I then related how, during college, I had written about all that stuff and sent the resulting essay to him, and he had responded by telling me (in another letter) that it had hurt him that I would "draw conclusions based upon incomplete information." So I chastised him again—"Well what the fuck do you want me to base my conclusions on?"—this time in a work that would be bound, catalogued, and forever shelved in the university library.
And then I sent that to him, too. Mine may be the most passive-aggressive writing degree ever earned.
In the meantime, members of my extended family began to grow suspicious. "Watch what you say around this guy," they muttered, not really under their breath. "He's a writer."
Which is to say, not exactly one of us.
That's a familiar enough position for me. Never a joiner, never a believer, I've always preferred the outsider's gaze, the sense of clarity and truth it affords (however illusory) and, inevitably, the tension it evokes. The outsider secretly longs to be the insider, after all. The son writes not to chastise but to find love.
And yet writing—when it's not honest enough or rigorous enough but also when it is—can be a poor means of winning love. One is tempted to quote Plutarch at all the wrong moments, for instance; to be a writer at the expense of being, first, a human being.
I spent so many years admiring the easy humor of Dad's Miss Moe letters—I even read them aloud at his funeral—that the straightforward sincerity of my mom's essay, "Good News, Bad News," took me for a turn. On that recent visit of mine to Iowa, out on the back deck, my eyes nervously tracking a bumble bee through the shadows, I asked her about those early years of her marriage. I was curious to know what fifty years had wrought on her memories, and I wanted to know how those memories spoke to my own experience of marriage and divorce.
"Oh, for God's sake," she said, slurping a gin and tonic. "Leave an old woman alone."
"What do you mean?" I asked. There was a new digital recorder in my luggage. There were dreams of conducting a family oral history.
"I mean, for the first time in years I'm happy and I'm not going to ruin it by talking to you."
Mom had just quit smoking, a habit she'd picked up all the way back in boarding school. The gin and tonic served as a phantom Marlboro. She took another gulp.
"You know I mean that with love," she said.
I said that my dad didn't write essays. Not true, as it turns out. In the spring of 2005 he composed and emailed me four of them; others I discovered on his hard drive after his death. All of them are set amidst the pimply hills and cornfields of his childhood. "My life's journey began on December 20, 1940," he writes in a piece titled "Memories," "in a now non-existent hospital in Maquoketa, Iowa, the fourth and last child of Ray and Gladys [Wolfe]."
He continues: "Being the baby and the only boy in the family, especially after my father's death a year later, I became something of an anomaly, rather like a circus animal. No one quite knew what to do with me, so they mostly left me alone, which was OK with me."
These were lean and lonely years. With his father lost to cancer and his mom overwhelmed with the farm, the local priests and nuns rushed to fill the void. They beat him with rulers and terrified him with sin, and when one half-deaf pastor heard young Tommy Wolfe confess to having eaten meat on a Friday, he bellowed, for everyone to hear, "You what?!"
"I nearly crawled out of the church," Dad writes.
It's interesting that this anecdote comes in an essay occasioned by what my dad considered to be the ironic and outrageous statement of some friends of his. To wit: "You Catholics have it made. You can sin all you want but can be saved simply by confessing to your priest."
"The irony," Dad responds, "is that I haven't been a Catholic since the Carter Administration, and the outrageousness is that they were truly talking through their collective hats because their heathen minds simply could not comprehend the crushing burden that Holy Mother the Church placed upon us in those days. When I said as much to them, they just smiled at me in a superior manner and nodded their heads to each other condescendingly. If they only knew!"
But how could they know? He typed up this essay and then, in a move that runs counter to every impulse I've ever had, kept it to himself.
Nowadays I look just like my dad: semicolon-shaped, ruddy-faced, the same graying beard. It's as if, eerily, I reside inside his body—he has been dead for five years now—and experience the world with his extra bit of heft, his nervous crack of the knuckles. People will actually pause while weeping at a funeral to step back and laugh.
"Jesus Christ. You look exactly like your dad."
Dad left Mom in August 1993, and every day families are ripped apart in more awful ways than ours, only to be pieced back together, imperfectly, differently. I've left a wife myself, and been left, too. It's taken me years, though, to fully understand the way that moment of my dad's leaving continues to live inside me in much the way I live inside him.
It must be something about the way he did it—on paper. How could you do that, like that? Why would you do that?
On principle he refused to ever say. "It's none of your business," he wrote in one of those typed letters of his, but now, scratching my beard in exactly the way he always did, shucking off flakes of dry, irritated skin, I wonder.
Maybe we're in the same business, after all.
I once had a cigarette with the poet Donald Hall. Really, this should have been my coming-out party. We were introduced by the editor of the New Hampshire daily where I worked, and for ten minutes one afternoon we stood in front of the office, a couple of shaggy, slightly overweight guys, puffing our fags and staring at our shoes, not saying a thing. He was a widower and an accomplished artist. In a few years he would be poet laureate of the United States. I made a living inserting bad puns into B-section headlines. What could I possibly say to the man?
I didn't want to come off as a sycophant, I certainly wasn't his peer, and, predictably, I resisted identifying myself as a writer. Yet I hoped that somehow through the smoke and the awkward silence he might sense my literary ambition, as if it were a musk I gave off. That he might somehow intuit how sincerely I worked to write good clean prose and not be a drama queen about it, not uptick the ends of my sentences or in any way obscure my meaning. I wanted to be just like him, in other words, even if, technically, I hadn't read any of his books.
"The pose comes before the poet," Hall himself writes in a book I eventually did read, one that was published a year or two later.* He is paraphrasing Boris Pasternak but referring to his own literary pretensions as a young man. "I wanted to be the solitary phantom walking the streets of the city at night," he says, "black cape flowing behind me, eyes burning like coals."
Perhaps being a drama queen—upon reflection, a cruel and gendered insult—is a necessary part of playing the poet. Pasternak, though, was a Russian Jew who had been quietly baptized as a child. That's a different kind of pose altogether, isn't it?
Pasternak himself admitted that these circumstances were "a little complicated" and helped account for his "way of seeing things." He was a Jew and not a Jew—just the sort of paradox, Hall writes, that drives poetry. Emerson, he notes, invented the whole idea that God is dead by suggesting that God was not dead: "Every denial suggests affirmation, every affirmation denial."
Maybe this was it: I wanted to be a writer and not a writer. To hate my dad and worship him. To find him mystifying and every day discover that, of course, I'm exactly like him. To love and honor my family while time and again betraying them.
"You've got to believe in something," the Dubliner had said to me, and only with the greatest reluctance have I come to understand that he was right. You don't have to come down, finally, on the God question—God will forgive a bit of hedging, don't you think?—but you do have to position yourself. You have to acknowledge, you have to embrace, sometimes you even have to forgive your own way of seeing things.
My dad saw himself as an anomaly, a kid born lost into those black, methane-smelling hills of northeast Iowa. In 2005, I emailed him a long, self-important response to the pieces he had sent me: you need more of this, I wrote, and you could really flesh out that. It was teacherly talk, rather than one person responding to another person. To my surprise, though, I found that he had copied and pasted that note into a Word document titled "Brendan's Advice." It made me feel both loved and embarrassed.
Now that he's gone, it's funny how these essays have finally brought us together. He was a writer and so am I. Alike and forever estranged.
In New Hampshire, the aging poet tossed his expired cigarette onto the pavement and ground the butt under the heel of his work boot. He didn't say anything and neither did I. Back upstairs in the newsroom I full-screened PageMaker and returned to my headlines.
That night before I composed my "Dear Wendy" letter, I took all of the missives she had written me, and all of the other mementos I had so carefully saved, and I burned them. I did not simply throw them away, as a normal person might have done. Instead, I heaped them into a pile in the parking lot of my apartment building, doused them with lighter fluid, and set them afire. There was even a teddy bear, and the fraternity boys partying downstairs from me began to chant, "Burn, Teddy, burn!"
I dream about that night sometimes. I dream of throwing everything into the fire: what Wendy had written, what I had written, and what Mom and Dad had written, too. All the half-understood things we've ever said, what we meant and also what we didn't mean, finally disappearing in a single column of smoke.
It's a huge relief, honestly. But then I remember what actually happened. For the next month at least, singed bits of letters followed me up and down the street, awkwardly personal snatches of writing dancing in the wind as I walked to and from class. They were, to quote Plutarch, reminders of the departed—full of joy and of sorrow.
* Breakfast Served Any Time All Day: Essays on Poetry New and Selected (University of Michigan Press, 2004)
Brendan Wolfe is editor of Encyclopedia Virginia, a project of Virginia Humanities. He is the author of Finding Bix: The Life and Death of a Jazz Legend (2017) and Mr. Jefferson's Telescope: A History of the University of Virginia in 100 Objects (2017).