My computer is a salvage yard of sorts. Look hard enough and you’ll find essays finished and abandoned and others that are a few sentences short, a few sentences long, or badly broken. Poems pause mid-line at some insurmountable “like…” Sketches for stories spotlight part of a character or plot with no clue what’s ahead or why. All of it is junk, experience added to a vast slag heap.
Wait long enough and your writing seems someone else’s. Sometimes I think of walking among the abandoned hulls and fragments and gathering enough for a golem of parts, a Frankenstein’s monster of my life.
Ten years ago I wrote an essay about my father for graduate school. But it wasn’t for school actually. Parents, particularly departed parents, spur words even when the words ride no bigger idea than need. My father was a quiet man. Maybe I meant to give him a voice, but when I stumbled onto the essay, I didn’t hear him. It was my voice instead. I wasn’t begging for his resuscitation but standing over his form trying to account for his silence. I didn’t remember the scenes I depicted and, as I read on, I began to wonder if writing them killed those scenes forever.
Here’s something I found:
When I was in college, on holiday or breaks, my father retired after dinner to my old bedroom, which he’d converted into his painting studio. Stan Getz played on a stereo, barely audible, quiet enough so you could hear the brush whipped back and forth, clinking on the sides of the glass jar of water. Cigarettes periodically renewed the smell of smoke brimming from the room. I’d look over my father’s shoulder at his painting as I passed down the hall, and watch an image take shape from behind his back. He left only to refill his drink, and refill his drink, and refill his drink. Over the evening, his glass of sherry would dwindle and rise again, repeatedly.
Later, he’d begin to mar what he had done before, adding flourishes to a roof or branches, delineating a sketched house in the distance too clearly, repainting the shadows in a bucket in the foreground to “correct” its perspective. His brush stopped lighting on the paper and began bearing down like a broom. The water grew browner, more thick and murky. I saw paintings starting to go wrong and felt the urge to restrain his arm, steal his brushes, shout “Stop!” but I never did. I just stood in the doorway and hoped. Sometimes he quit before it was too late, but some paintings that started as subtle scenes grew muddled and baroque.
Joan Didion once said that she wrote, “To find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” This passage barely hides its metaphor, a message obvious to me now: my father was too much. Immoderate habits marred what he did and made, and, though I wanted to catch his fall, I walked behind him watching instead. Intrusions on his life felt presumptuous, as if he were a stranger.
And, in this passage, he is a stranger. I watch the painting form in purely technical terms, interpret its steps in light of its end instead of understanding his work in the moment. My experience as a visual artist leads me to different conclusions about those paintings now—he was doing what seemed right. He wanted them perfect. They may have been the closest he came to perfection in his sloppy life, and the additional layers of paint and scrubbed colors evinced desperate hope, not the inevitable disappointment I assigned them then. When they felt finished, he stopped. Perhaps he couldn’t tell how good they were at all. Maybe time had to tell that.
Similar feelings arise when I look through work I’ve dumped. The missteps are a charming dance of their own, and, behind everything I try to explain is someone aspiring to speak truth and put the past to rest.
When the past doesn’t really rest. The only tragedy was thinking myself finished, that, having written about my father and every other past spirit, I might bury them. If writing killed those scenes of my father, it was because I let myself believe I could paint them perfectly when really, it was always about hope, about trying to make something good to counterbalance my own sloppy life.
Walking among mistakes, you hope to salvage something because you think everything in that graveyard is somehow wasted. But none of it is wasted really. You do the best you can. You hope, this time, to get it right.