Its challenges can seem limitless, yet, its joys can stretch to heaven
By Keith Scribner
Special To The Sun
Originally published June 14, 2003
One afternoon 15 years ago, I hiked from the Himalayan village of Old Manali, India, higher up into the mountains. I sat on an outcropped rock looking over the expansive valley spotted with villages and rippling with terraced fields. Never in my life had I talked to myself for hours as I did that day, and though I was self-conscious of the moment’s staginess, I had to talk through the decision that I’d climbed the mountain to make. By the end of the afternoon, when long lines of women, children and goats walked the footpaths from the fields to the village, I’d decided to commit at least the next 10 years of my life to writing fiction. I rushed down the path to the guesthouse, took out a notebook and pencil, and plunged in.
Grace Paley advises that writers surround themselves with people who believe in their work, and that they keep overhead low, so I lived in cheap apartments and drove a rusted-out Datsun to share dinner with friends who took my writing seriously. As I tried to stay above water – working as a carpenter and teacher and buying myself time off – their faith buoyed me. I avoided the friends who could be counted on for the same jokes about my haphazard employment, about sitting around the apartment all day. (“Can you catch me up on the soaps?”)
Before I’d see my first novel in a bookstore, I met the woman I’d marry. I blurted my proposal one night, months before I’d planned to. Together, we took the next plunge. Jen is a poet, and through the years, we’ve composed and revised a dozen times the rhythm, layers and story of our relationship, balancing our commitments to writing and each other. We are each other’s lover, friend, audience, critic and muse. We believe in each other’s work. We’ve kept overhead low.
Nearly four years ago, we introduced a new current into our story: our son Luke. He was a prince among babies, born with a full head of blazing red hair, a ravenous appetite, a mesmeric addiction to Aretha Franklin and hot baths. For years, I’d worked at the relationship between husband and writer, and now I had a new relationship to craft: the one between writing and fatherhood.
Taking the plunge
A few nights before Luke’s birth, Jen asked me what I thought she should pack to wear home from the hospital. We decided on her green and white airy linen dress. That night I had a dream in which Jen and I were walking from a lakeshore out onto a pier. I flipped some food into the lake for the hungry fish, and as we leaned over the edge to watch them eat, the pier suddenly collapsed. We plunged into the water, holding tight to each other. She was wearing the green and white dress.
Three nights later, we plunged in with Luke for real. In much the same way, 15 years ago, I started writing. This is how you do it – hold on tight to what you love, and hope you don’t drown.
Both novel writing and fatherhood can keep me in a bathrobe all day, inside, unshowered. They are both exhausting. Until Luke was born, writing was the most complicated and difficult thing I knew.
As a teacher of fiction writing, I tell my students to raise the stakes for their characters. If there’s not a marriage on the rocks, a promotion on the line, a sick child to sit by in the hospital, a reader is less likely to care. As Luke has entered our narrative, the stakes have shot up wildly.
I refer my students to Flannery O’Connor, who tells us: “The fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal through the senses with abstractions.” Early mornings, barely light, Luke was a fresh reminder to me of the power of smell, the immediacy of hunger, the discomfort of cold feet. Writers ask themselves, “What do my characters want?” So I asked, “What does Luke want?” He wanted the taste of his mother’s milk on his tongue, the sated bloat in his stomach. He wanted a familiar-smelling body to lie on, his back patted before drifting off to sleep in his battery-operated buzzing chair, staring at his mobile of bumble bees wearing capes and goggles, listening to it ding out “Feelin’ Groovy.” This boy did not deal in abstractions.
When Luke was a few weeks old, Jen and I tried to stage “First bath with daddy.” Jen lit candles in the bathroom, set up the camera, and filled the tub. Everything was set for the pastel scene we’d imagined for months. I got in and Jen passed Luke into my arms. But we had committed countless screamable offenses, and five minutes later, dizzy from his cries echoing off the tile, we bailed out as any writer knows you often must. Years of imagining and note taking, hundreds of pages written and revised, and the result is a helpless fuming baby that won’t play along.
Balancing life, writing
The writing life is an examined life. Writing well, and, I began to see, fathering well, too, produced the same self-scrutiny. Being a writer and a father both challenged my assumptions and the values by which I lived, made me feel uneasy about my own limitations. And in these ways, they fed each other. After reading a batch of student stories in which no one was redeemed – evil characters remain evil, and the world be damned – I complained to a writer friend that there seemed no point in creating a fiction in which none of the characters finds redemption. Life is too full, I said, there are too many walks in the sun to leave all your characters slogging through the mud. That, my friend said, sounds like a new father talking.
I couldn’t imagine life without writing. I could no longer imagine writing without Luke. The part of me that writes as well as I can is bigger, really, a better person than the part of me who goes to dinner parties and argues politics. The writer in me is more generous and forgiving than the me into whom I’ve poured a couple glasses of Cabernet at a cocktail party. The writer in me sees the good in those I resent, understands the faults and limitations in those I love.
And what about the me who I took to the side of my son’s crib at 3 in the morning? At those times, I had to be bigger still. If it took generosity of spirit to create good fiction, what did it take to create a boy? I learned to write by studying the lyricism of Stuart Dybek, the surprising characters of Alice Munro and Tobias Wolff, the crackling dialogue of Don DeLillo. But those things are craft, the elements that can be learned. The essential part comes from the gut. I watched my wife, a natural mother in every way. Jen has the long arms of a soul that can reach out to gather all that is good and serve it up in her poems, feed it to our son; hands that can shake off the limitations of ego, cynicism, jealousy and fear. And since the same must be done for the good of the fiction – since settling old scores and dreams of the best seller list will seep in and sully the process of writing well -I’ve hoped that as Luke grows, I’d grow too, and as I discovered the selfless generosity that would let me be a better father, that same spirit would make me a better writer, from which I’d grow stronger as a father, and back and forth.
The art of life
When I was in junior high, I hiked with some friends up a long easy trail to the top of a cliff. Hundreds of feet below we could see the roofs of tiny houses, a riding mower cutting an impossibly small line across a yard. The cliff was sheer down the face, but around the sides it was merely dangerously steep, so one of us suggested climbing down. Ten minutes into our descent it was clear that this was a bad idea. Shale slid out from under our sneakers, we held on to the tiny green branches of saplings. One of us slid 20 or 30 feet before he grabbed a tree. His leg and the palms of his hands were streaked with blood.
When we finally made it to the bottom and cut through a yard, a man stopped us. He didn’t chew us out or chase us off his property. He was relieved, nearly pleading we never try that again. “Kids have fallen from there,” he said. “They fall and land in my back yard.”
In the first months of Luke’s life, I often flashed on this memory, my heart thumping, panicked. How would I protect my son from the bad judgment he was inheriting from me?
The answer is that I won’t. Luke is not a character in my fiction whose life I can absolutely control. He will bushwhack, take risks for the sake of the risk, descend treacherous cliffs. Just as I can unleash the worst of myself at those cocktail parties, Luke, in another few years, when he’s not chosen first to club the pinata, might sink his fist into the birthday cake. As I grow as a father, I hope I can steer Luke toward the loving, sensible, creative, generous, whimsical; and away from the foolish, selfish, rigid, limited, spiteful. I hope that fatherhood will summon up the best of me.
And now we’re writing our daughter Chloe into the narrative of our lives. A beauty, like her brother, she was born with fiery red hair. She’s already 2, no longer a baby, but this morning when I came downstairs from my office, Jen was reading a book to her on the couch, and I remembered another morning when Luke was only a few months old: I’d taken a break from my writing to come down and make another cup of coffee, and I found Jen lying back on the couch, mid-morning, the sun filling our apartment. She was asleep, her blouse open. Luke’s face rested peacefully on her chest, rising and falling with her breath, his arms reaching around the sides of her neck. He had just finished nursing, his lips still creamy and fluted to the shape of Jen’s breast.
I was reminded that as writers we always wonder if our work is good enough, if it rises to the level of art. It can be hard to know. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “beauty” in art requires three things: “wholeness, harmony and radiance.” On that bright morning, when I saw my wife and son lying together, I knew.
Keith Scribner teaches fiction writing and literature in the master’s of fine arts program at Oregon State University. His second novel, Miracle Girl, will be published in August.