On a hot, sticky Friday in August I stood in the middle of my stuffy bedroom unpacking suitcase after suitcase from our family beach trip when I noticed my phone blinking. I had received an email from a literary agent. After six years of writing novels, getting rejected, and starting all over again, I had a response that was not a polite rejection but instead a question that stole my breath: I’ve finished the book, can we chat?
The Call turned into an offer, and just like that, I, an unknown writer from Kentucky, had a fancy New York literary agent. After The Call, as I unwound my arms from my husband ’ s neck and wiped happy tears from my cheeks, it hit me: I had no idea how to tell most of the people in my life. I talked about my writing online, but rarely otherwise. I didn ’ t know what to say. And I definitely didn ’ t know how to celebrate.
My smile faltered. I wondered, as I had many times before, if it was my lack of a relationship with my father that made these big moments go askew. When I passed the bar, when I signed with an agent, thoughts of my father flitted into my mind, impossible to shoo away. These were the kinds of accomplishments I knew made many parents beam with pride. I want my father to be proud of me, but how can he feel pride for someone he doesn’t know and didn’t raise?
If I grew up with a father who put me in extracurricular activities, who cheered me from the sidelines, who saw a talent in me worth nurturing while my mom was too busy working two jobs, would this all somehow feel less strange? Could I trace the doubt that permeated nearly everything in my life, especially my writing, back to the chasm where he was supposed to be?
I’m haunted by my inability to write an essay about my father. This haunting has taken away more than my ability to finish an essay about him. It’s distorted how I understand myself as a professional writer. It’s distorted a lot of other things, too.
The drive to write about my father has been ever present. As a child, when I wasn’t writing fiction, I wrote poems about him, trying to cope with the absence of the one thing I was sure I was supposed to have: both my parents. A book of fourth-grade poetry contains saccharine couplets in his honor: even though we are far apart/you are always in my heart .
The sugary writing of my childhood is the only writing of mine he ever read. When one of our farm dogs was struck by a car and killed, he told me I should write a poem in the dog’s honor. “I’m not good with words, but you are,” he said. “Write one of your poems, that’d be nice.” I can’t remember that dog’s name, but I still remember how happy I felt in that moment: My dad liked my poems. My dad thought of me as a writer.
I never wrote the poem. The chances of disappointing him made it a risk too big to take. There wasn’t one major disappointment I could point to that I feared repeating. But I
remembered what he said to me when I wasn’t yet four years old and he was already remarried: He hoped my stepmother’s swollen belly contained a baby boy. “I want a son,” he said to me, “someone to carry on the family name.” It struck me that perhaps I was the disappointment. I sensed, even then, that our relationship was tenuous.
I never knew how to talk to my father, even about the little things. Once in elementary school he picked me up early for our biweekly visit, and I climbed into the truck cab, rolled down the window, and rested my arm in the sun. “The fresh air is nice,” I said. My father shook his head. “You can’t get fresh air in the city,” he replied. I rolled my window back up and we rode on in silence.
My father stopped making an effort to see me when I was in middle school. Our relationship died before he could become something more than the mythological giant of my childhood. Then he became a ghost. Every other weekend became once a month, then every few months, and eventually not at all.
I started sixth grade a quiet, earnest student. By eighth grade my report card showed all Ds and Fs, and I spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital after my mom discovered the cuts up and down my left forearm. By the time I was in high school, I had filled journals with poetry. I wasn’t writing about distance from my father, but outright abandonment.
I still have the slam poems about him, written in college, tucked away somewhere with my sociology notebooks. I often thought of mailing him one of those poems, but I never did. Despite everything he’d done, I ached at the thought of hurting him. Poetry leant itself to how I understood my father—in bits and pieces, bright flashes in a story otherwise full of gaps. But there have been no finished essays about him. I cannot see him clearly enough to sustain page after page. I abandon each attempt, ashamed of my inability to capture clear memories and descriptions.
One of the first in-depth conversations my literary agent and I had about my book involved a discussion about the protagonist’s father. I sat on my couch taking notes, phone pressed between my shoulder and ear. We started with basic edits, scenes I needed to cut or add. “There’s also your main character’s father,” she said. My pen stilled. “He feels undefined. He needs more development so we can understand who he is. The reader can’t clearly see his love for his daughter. He’s too much a villain in her mind. He doesn’t seem real.”
“I can see that,” I said, even voice hiding my dismay.
Thankfully, she had saved the comments on the main character’s father for last. I sat on my couch with my notes and laptop, everything I needed to begin revisions. But I was too mortified to actually start. The labels I’d wrapped around me to convince myself the past no longer mattered—agented writer, attorney, adjunct, mother, wife—fell away. I didn’t see a list of things to fix about my character so much as I saw a list of failures.
Did my daddy issues seep onto the page, even in my fiction? Was I incapable of writing fathers you could see, smell, and believe because I could never bring my own into focus? Did I fail at illuminating the depths of a distant father’s love for his fictional daughter because I doubted so greatly my own father’s love for me?
I made a list of all the things I knew about the father in my novel: wealthy, smart, quiet, religious, ashamed, into golf, incredibly distant from his only daughter. I compared this list to the things I knew about my own father: not wealthy, though smart and quiet, one who can build a house and a barn, play the guitar, drink and drink and drink, distant from his only daughter.
I still see my father in fragments, pieces. Those small slivers, the ones I can grasp, made it into the book that landed me an agent. But they don’t really belong there, resulting in a fictional father that’s by far my weakest character. I can revise and fix the character in my novel, even when there is no revising and fixing us.
If I were a character in one of my novels, I would overcome my own personal haunting and pen an exquisite essay I’d then mail to my father. I would bravely lay my truth before him, line by line, paragraph by paragraph. He would read it and cry, then call me. He’d apologize, and explain why exactly he disappeared all those years ago. Finally, I’d see him. I would forgive him. It would be like breaking a spell, and I would go on, happy with my chosen family, grateful for my loving mom and stepdad, satisfied with the life I’ve built without him.
Sitting on my couch and staring at my agent’s notes that day, I felt none of those things. There was no triumph to be found, only a resignation that for some of us, there is no closure, no tidy ending. There was barely even a beginning.
If you leave Louisville, Kentucky and travel north on Interstate 71, past the sign in Carrollton memorializing the fatal bus crash of 1988, exit at Sparta and follow the twisty road for thirty minutes, you’ll reach my father’s farm. The one-lane road that leads to his house used to be dirt and gravel until the county paved it a few years back. His house sits on a hill. With its log cabin aesthetic and lovely two-story design, you can’t tell it was once a trailer. He built a foundation, knocked down walls, and constructed a home around a double-wide. My father can build anything.
Don’t take that small fact as evidence I know my father; I don’t. The rare times we’re together, I’m tempted to extend my hand and see if it passes through him. My memories of him are sparse. He and my mom were high school sweethearts, married for eleven years before they divorced when I was only three, and my mom and I moved back to her hometown an hour and a half away. I can tell you what he looks like—tall and slim, a chin that comes to a point under his short beard, curly hair I inherited. He always wears faded blue jeans, T-shirts in the summer, flannel in the fall, and thermal shirts in the winter. He is the quietest man I have ever met.
There is no word that explains how girls love absent fathers. No single definition neatly wraps up the way instinctual love and generational grief dance together in broken father-daughter relationships. How can I finally be free from a haunting when I can’t name the spell I want to break?
I busy myself with obsessively reading other writers’ essays about their parents, paying extra attention to the ones about fathers. They’re everywhere, when you start looking for them. They’re front and center in my favorite literary publications, and they pop up regularly on my Twitter feed. I dream of joining the ranks of writers who have successfully untangled their fathers. Writing about your mother or father (whoever fucked you up the most) is some sort of writer rite of passage, as if we’re all trying to understand how our stories grow by feverishly digging down to the root.
Even when the relationships are fractured, or involve abandonment, these writers bring their fathers to life, black-and-white text forming brightly colored images. Their fathers read like men in novels. I know how they dress, what old-school actors they most resemble, and how they smelled when the writers climbed into their laps for scruffy kisses on the cheek. By the end of each essay I want to scream and weep, because I know these strange men better than I know my own father.
Maybe the most I can do when it comes to my actual father is stop believing the myth. He is simply a man, one I’ve never known and never really will. Perhaps giving voice to that is more important than describing him with enough clarity so that his insubstantial form takes shape.
Writing about his absence is the closest I can get to knowing him. If I write about the ghost, and stop searching for words to describe memories that don’t exist, I can make room for new essays, and new characters in new books. I can free up the time spent desperately wanting to write an essay about my father and wondering what it means that I can’t. Finally finishing this essay means I can more fully realize why I write in the first place: to be seen. Only my hope that my father will read this outweighs my fear that he will.