After my father died, I didn’t write for six months. Even though I sat in his room in the ICU and took notes on what I saw, what I was feeling; even as I watched and listened to the machines that were keeping him alive whir and click and blink and ring I left my descriptions in a closed notebook. I became aware that the machines had become him. Even before we pulled the plug, he had ceased to exist, become just a hollow body that used to house the man I knew. I put the notebook away and tried to forget.
I was working on--and still am working on—a memoir about alcoholism—a trait my father and I shared. I was exploring not only my own personal history with booze, but also a kind of natural history of the disease. I was looking at the origin of the word, the doctors who first used it, the science of alcoholism and alcohol, how booze affected the body and mind and soul. I knew that my father’s death would have to go into the book. I understood that it would act as kind of a prime meridian—a line that everything else would follow and attach to. It would be the very stout stake of emotion Henry James wrote of. I knew this even while the death was happening. But I told myself that it was too soon, too hard. My emotions were still raw and everything still too new. I needed to step back, gain some space, look at it with fresh, objective eyes. I told myself I would come back to it soon, very soon. But I didn’t. I let it fester.
When I was in graduate school I would wake up early, put coffee on, and sit at my desk and work. I would sketch out an essay. Work on a piece of memoir. I would write and rewrite the first paragraph of something so that the trouble was up front. I would tweak dialogue so it fell on my ear the right way—with a bit of music. I was part of the creative nonfiction program and some of what I did each morning may have ridden the fine line between truth and fiction. But memory is plastic: it bends and stretches, and can be softened and molded and remolded.
I was having dinner with a friend, a writer who, in her work, explored everything from motherhood and dreams to American Idol—in short, all that makes us human—and she reminded me that all of life was simply material. It was the raw stuff from which we make art. “Maybe,” she said, “You should try writing about something else for now.”
“A man is lucky if he has one thing to write about.” Hemingway said that. Or something like it.
My one thing, it seems, is the booze. I write essays about my drinking. I read books about drinkers and drinking and the science behind alcoholism. Even the short stories I would write for workshops had drunks as heroes—or antiheroes—who tried not to but always failed; poems were heavy with images and metaphors of drunkenness. After dinner with my friend, I tried to write about honorifics—the little titles we use to express respect of one another; words that work as a type of coding for a person’s social status.
In Indonesia, Ibu is the honorific for “ma’am,” “madame,” “Mrs.,” and “mother.” But I never called my mother “mother.” I called her Julie, her first name. In the same way, I called my father Rick. Rarely (never?) dad, daddy, pop, poppa, or father. I thought I would explore/examine why it was my parents were Rick and Julie and not mom and dad. I thought it would help me avoid writing about the booze and my father’s death. I realize now that I would always fail.
When I started to write that essay, I thought about how even on his death bed I called my father Rick. My younger brother, twenty-four years old six-foot three, wept while we watched my father die. He wept and he said, “I love you, dad.” Then he said it again, and a third time. Each time a little louder, making sure he could be heard, maybe hoping that they would be the last words our father heard as drifted away. “I love you, dad. I love you, dad.”
I was last out of the ICU room. And when I left, I patted my father’s yellowing hand and said, “See you later, Ricky.”
I am thinking of a game we used to play—my father and I. At dinner, we would have a conversation using the largest (read: most pretentious) words we knew. For example: instead of stinky, we would say malodorous. It was an unnecessary game. The words were empty, hollow. We weren’t having a real conversation; we weren’t saying anything. We were avoiding any real talking.
I was sixteen, taking a 6:30 am Latin class, and in the afternoon an etymology class. I was learning where the words I knew came from and how their separate parts became a whole.
The word failure, the infinitive, to fail. From the Latin fallere: to trip, cause to fall; figuratively, to deceive.
I think about failing every time I pick up a pen, or peck at a keyboard. I think I can’t do this, I don’t know how, it will never be good enough. What I really think is that no one will care.
Every time we try to create, we fail. Somewhere. An errant brush stroke. A wrong note. A poor sentence.
Someone told me once that the man who kept doing was the man who won. What I think he meant was it’s okay to fail. It doesn’t matter that no one else will care. It matters that I care—that I continue to produce for myself.
I am not widely published—a few essays here and there, several book reviews—and the places where my work has appeared are not prestigious (but that is not to say they don’t possess quality; they cared about my work and the work of all the other writers they published). I haven’t submitted any work to magazines in over a year. And I don’t suppose for a minute that anyone, except for my wife, would be disappointed if I never wrote another word. I don’t plan on or expect fame. I write because there is something that pulls from within. Something that tells me to put my thoughts down on paper. And then to shape those thoughts into some kind of meaning. If I don’t, those thoughts will most likely drive me a little more crazy than they already do. I don’t write for you.
It’s one thing to tell myself that I’m the only one that matters. It’s another to believe it. Don’t we all want to be recognized? Don’t we all want to please someone: the student wants to please the teacher; the son wants to please the father?
Who do I want to please? Friends, editors, colleagues, my wife? I think that if I could gain my own approval it would be enough. But it’s never enough.
After each time an editor said yes to an essay or a book review, I felt proud. My sense of self-worth grew and I was able to walk around with my chest puffed out for few days. I got to feel like a working artist—having my work accepted by someone else, someone who wanted, in turn, to show it to other people. But that sense of pride deflated when I thought about doing it again. Would I be able to? Could I write something publishable again? And those questions led to doubt. Led to fear. Led to paralysis. It led to filing things I had written in a box and not showing them to anyone anymore.
My father used to show me things he had created. He would pull out a box that once held 24 x 36 sheet film. It was Kodak yellow and dusty. Like he kept it under his bed or in the back of his closet. Only took it out when he felt nostalgic. Inside that box were black and white photos, and he would talk about shadows, tones, exposures and f-stops. He would talk about how the picture was composed, the way the subject was framed. There were screen-printed posters. And he told me how the screen would have to be exposed for each different color. There were logos and designs that he had drawn freehand in pen and ink. I remember bringing my nose to the edge of the paper, smelling its mustiness and looking for pen strokes. But it was smooth and flat like it had been done with a brush.
I asked him why he did all the stuff that he did—all the pictures, posters, and design. Maybe he gave me an intelligent answer about being an artist, about creating something that mattered to him. Maybe he just said “Because it gave me joy.” That would have been the best answer. But I don’t remember. I do remember that when I asked why he stopped doing those things, he didn’t look at me. He just shrugged his shoulders, put the lid back on the box and put it away.
I heard a story about my father. A story he never told to me. Apparently, he had spent some time in the ‘70s and ‘80s working on a new font. I had no idea he was even interested in fonts. But I can imagine the time and patience it must have taken to create a certain type of a particular size and shape and face. The amount of tweaking, the amount of studying existing fonts: serif, sans serif, proportional, monospaced. And the metrics.
As the story was told to me, my father took the font/typeface he had been working on and sent it off to a famous type designer. I didn’t recognize the name. Maybe it was Doyald Young. Someone famous among type setters, graphic designers, and illustrators. It doesn’t really matter who he sent it off to. What matters is that he was proud enough to do so. To want to show this thing that he had worked hard on, that he had drawn, shaved, sanded down to a smooth representation of the thing that was in his head. And when Doyald Young (or whoever) received this font they felt it compelling enough to write back to my father. They told him that it was a good start—a strong start. They offered words of encouragement, ways to make the font better. And then they asked to see it again when my father had done more work.
My father should have been happy about receiving a letter back. He should have been happy that someone took the time and effort to encourage him. He should have been able to read between the lines and see that someone else was excited about the work he was doing. More than that, he should have been proud of himself that he took the chance to send his work to someone he looked up to. He should have been proud of the work.
Instead, my father quit. I imagine that his excitement of receiving the letter was doused by what he read. That what he thought perfection had not been attained. When he read the letter he did read the words of encouragement, he read that he had failed. That he had not lived up to the expectations he set for himself. Expectations he had no chance of reaching.
He crumpled up the letter. Crumpled up the font. Threw it all in the trash and set it on fire.
Brock Kingsley lives and works in Fort Worth, Texas. His writing and photographs have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Juked, Junk, Paste, Pleiades, and elsewhere. He is a contributor at The Nervous Breakdown and teaches at TCU.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I didn’t know where this essay was going when I wrote the first paragraph. What surprised me was the jumps and associations the mind makes when it is deep in creating something—whatever that something may be.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Lee K. Abbott preached “butt in the chair time.” He meant you had to work—had to try and sit and put pen to paper—if you wanted to improve as a writer. You couldn’t wait for divine intervention. Have I followed that advice? I’d like to think I have, but you’re never really working enough, are you?
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: I am a huge fan of anything by John McPhee, the memoirs of Nick Flynn, and the risk taking of John D’Agata.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own? (Remember, I’ve been there! Hahahahahaha!!!)
A: For me, it’s important to reme mber to snatch any time for writing I can--no matter how small. That often means being able to write where I am: my office on campus, my desk at home, or the wobbly table in the corner of the coffee shop. The space doesn’t matter. Only the work matters.