Telling the Truth About Your Father

“Well, Erin, I don’t suppose you want my feedback.”

I had been expecting his call. Every time the phone rang, I was sure it would be him or Perk or Charlie wanting to give me their reaction to my finished manuscript. I had already warned Perk before I e-mailed her the .pdf, “Best to make an appointment with your therapist now.”

I know. I’m touchy these days. These things happen when you finish a book and are sure you’ve said something, somewhere in it that will break someone’s heart in all the wrong ways. This week, it’s the dandruff. I’ve been waking up at four o’clock in the morning thinking about the dandruff. Did I really think it necessary to tell the whole world he had dandruff?

I pull my legs up to my chest in bed, the phone already hot against my chin. “No, Dad. No feedback. It’s still too soon.”

Does this feeling of creative exposure ever relent? In her book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, memoirist Dani Shapiro shares, “When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder.” No matter how much I write or how much I’ve written or how much my mother tells me she loves my writing, I still get mini-hot flashes every time I’ve published something true – and not just common sense true – but my truth kind of true. What’s easier is choosing not to tell my truth. What’s easier is saying, “Okay. Nevermind,” when people tell you they’d prefer you not tell the truth about them at all.

“I’ll just say this then,” Dad continues. My family might be a lot of things but we are not shy. We do not dance around what needs to be said although we are prone to drama, sometimes delusion. His voice sounds calm this time as he shoots me straight. “I haven’t read the whole thing yet but the parts I read about me, well, I liked what I read.”

I’m told this is not the point of writing, that is, for people to like it. I’m told that if you make likeability the point of writing you will be miserable and terse and afraid to check your e-mail after breakfast. The point of writing, the artists say, is to be faithful to the way you see the world even when other people say “you’re wrong” or “you’re warped.” But I am a Christian, too, which means I also want to be faithful to the way the world can be. I want to tell the truth about realities yet seen. I want to write about  people who may be flawed but who are good, imago dei, in their bones.

You see, telling the truth about people doesn’t mean telling everything. Sometimes, we leave the juiciest parts of a story out – the parts that might have made a good script for some after school special –  because we know that just because something happened does not mean it is true. Truth is fuller than a series of events or a list of facts. Truth lives in real, live bodies. Sometimes, it lingers in dead ones, too.

photo-1Yesterday I sat down with Jeanette Stokes, founder of the Resource Center for Women in Ministry in the South and author of a new book called Flying Over Home that chronicles her search to learn more about the charming, flighty, mostly absent doctor that was her father.  Although he’s long gone now, Jeanette tells me, “Writing was a way to make him present for awhile.” What started in 1976 as a series of letters she wrote “at” him after his death turned into a multi-year writing project that reads both like a journalistic history and haunting love story. Leaning back in her chair, Jeanette reflects on how writing about her father changed her perspective: “I like him better now.”

I think Jeanette’s on to something. I like my father better now, too, having written about him in a way that feels true and honest and charitable. Over the course of the book, I learned things I never would have known – like how he once thought to become a priest or that he remembers telling me the divorce wasn’t my fault. After reading the manuscript, he says he understands more about me, too.

That’s the thing about telling the truth. Ours may not be the whole truth, but if we can risk courage and bear humility in the telling, it promises to set us free. 

*To hear Jeanette read from her new book, head over to the Durham Public Library tonight, Monday, June 16th at 7:00 p.m..

4 responses to “Telling the Truth About Your Father

  1. Great honesty, Erin! Love it.

  2. I love this. Thank you for reminding me to be brave with my words as I just begin the truth-telling process. xo.

  3. Cara Strickland

    Thank you for this, Erin.
    It’s always such a balance, isn’t it? I’m learning about all of this too.
    And I love the way you talk about sometimes leaving the juiciest bits out. That it’s not always true, even if it happened.

  4. Great post, Erin! So much truth, and very inspiring as I continue to work on the memoir of my grandfather!

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