“After the family broke,
and when the house was about to sell,
I walked around it for a last look.
Under the eaves, on the ground,
there was a path worn in the dirt,
tight against the foundation —
small padded feet, year after year,
window to window.” (excerpt from the poem “Gray” by Philip F. Deaver)
In addition to winning the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and other prestigious honors, Philip Deaver’s work has been published by some of the finest magazines and has even appeared on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac on multiple occasions (you can listen to Garrison Keillor read the poem “Gray” here – he starts the poem around the 2:43 mark).
As a graduate student, I had the good fortune of listening to Phil read selections of his wonderful poetry and his exceptional short fiction several times before I had the even better fortune of getting to know him as a person.
As good as his writing is (and it’s damn good), what has impressed me most about Phil is his sincerity, his generosity, and his compassion.
He’s not just a man in the sense of his being a husband, and a father, he’s also a guy.
I’m not talking about all that testosterone-laden machismo you see sometimes. I simply mean Phil has always reminded me of the men of my childhood, the hard working, blue collar men I grew up around. Yet infused in that down-to-earth persona is a strong, quiet sensitivity, a creativity and a tenderness and an intelligence. He’s quite a bright man, after all, yet spend some time with him and you’ll soon realize he’s also just one of the guys: the sort of person equally at home in the outdoors, on the sports field, in the classroom, or at the page.
If you spend some time with his work (and I strongly urge you to do so), you’ll undoubtedly find many of those same traits – an honesty, a truthfulness, a sensitivity, an earthiness, an authenticity that will have you feeling that “soaring mountain/wind lifting through the pine stand.”
There’s a personal element to Phil’s writing that is neither overly sentimentalized nor devoid of emotion, a sensibility that feels real and true. There’s a reason the New York Times wrote of his short story collection, Silent Retreats: “Written in vivid, spare prose, the best of these stories linger, sad and profound, like songs you sing to yourself.”
You’ll find yourself not merely immersed in a realistic tale, but also witness to “the heart of why” the story was written.
It’s my honor to offer a special Guest Post by Philip Deaver (not just a writer I admire, but a friend I admire) as he offers an intimate and thoughtful response to the question What Are You Writing For?
As a writer, it’s interesting to me how differently each writer approaches that question.
Of course, Phil’s post is also a response of sorts to a talk given by author Tim O’Brien last summer. Enjoy!
309 E. Scott; Or Why Write Fiction?
This blog results from
Tim O’Brien’s fiction v. nonfiction
talk in the Brown Hotel
in Louisville at the May 2013
Spalding MFA residency.
For a number of years, I attempted to write a nonfiction piece titled after the address of my home in Tuscola, Illinois. I would be teaching a class in creative nonfiction, and I would tell the class they had to write a 2000 word autobiographical CNF essay and that I would write one, too. Year after year the class would produce great essays, and I would fail—not because I didn’t write the essay but because I couldn’t hold the line on my impulse for fiction. Why couldn’t I tell a true story for once?
“309 E. Scott” was an essay that really mattered to me. In a previous life, I was a human resources consultant for a company headquartered in Minneapolis. The clients of the company were scattered all over the country and the globe. Even though I’d lived south of the Ohio River since 1974 when we went to Charlottesville for my doctorate, I still viewed myself as a writer from Illinois, a northerner.
My Illinois life, including a very lucky but ultimately star-crossed youth, has remained a big part of me. My home, the actual house, and my hometown, were the center of it. In 1989, my mother, twenty five years a widow, out of money, was forced to sell the old homestead on Scott Street where our family had lived since 1947. She moved at the age of 68 to be in the neighborhood where an old friend of hers from their Tuscola child-rearing years lived, in St. Augustine Beach, FL. Mom lasted three more fairly happy years in Florida living in a gray little apartment on B Street, hanging out with her old friend from the 1950s.
So when, with the consulting firm, I would pull an assignment or business meeting in Chicago, I would try to set it for Friday, and at the end of the workday I’d rent a car and drive the two and a half hours south, in effect back into the past, into the Illinois I once knew so well, where they still called me Danny if they remembered me at all.
Right now I am remembering a specific time I went, in about 1995. It was autumn, and when I got to town I drove through the Tuscola National Bank drive-up (open until 6 on Fridays) to cash a check. I’d always sweat if the teller would remember me and cash the out of state check. I hurriedly wrote it, dropped it with my driver’s license into the tray, and anxiously waited. The teller took the check and disappeared into the bank. Presently she was back. She put the check back in the tray, slid it back to me uncashed. Damn, rejected, it finally happened.
Then she spoke over the microphone: “You forgot to sign the check, Danny.” And I knew I was home.
It was October, this particular time I’m telling you about, and the leaves were changing and sometimes you could feel a little winter in the air. After the bank, I drove the rental car to Scott Street. Parked half a block from my house. I had a beard, I was in an anonymous car, I was older than the last time most everyone in the town had seen me. I wanted to stare at my old house a while, unnoticed. Didn’t want to talk with anyone. It was a way of existentially touching base, a way of getting to certain memories I couldn’t get to any other way. I have an unusual affiliation with the past.
The owner of our big beautiful old house was Bob Brockmeier, and he was my age. In fact, he was the pitcher on my little league baseball team back when we were 12. K of C Cardinals. Brockmeier, who matured early to 6’5”, played football and basketball in high school and was one of the town’s all-time revered hometown boys. After college and the Army we coached a youth league baseball team and played on the town team together. Then way led on to way, marriages, jobs away from Illinois, and I lost touch with him.
Cut to many years later, he was back in town, an attorney, and he bought our house from us and lived in it with his wife Jane. Bob also was a partner in a law firm that bought my father’s medical clinic and made a law office of it and he had his very own law office in one of my father’s erstwhile examining rooms. I went to visit him there once, sat in that old familiar space (all changed, of course).
I should drag you through the grim story of my father. See my story “Infield” in Silent Retreats. He was a local doctor. In 1964, the summer after I graduated from high school, he and my mother’s father were killed instantly in a car wreck in an unmarked country intersection south of Champaign. He was 44. The lad who hit them was going somewhere between 35 (which is what the court said) and 55 (which is what I think) on impact, after leaving 60 feet of straight as an arrow skid marks on hot asphalt. The lad driving the car was exactly my age. Here I was years later, 55 years old, parked along the street staring at the front porch of our house, where on that bad day my sister met me at the door as I arrived home from baling hay and broke the news. There was a black Cadillac in our driveway, recognizable by all as Chuck Brewer, the local undertaker – that could only mean one thing. “Grandpa?” I said to my sister, who was standing there holding the front screendoor open. “Both of them?” my sister replied. “No way,” I said to her naively and charged into the house where my mother the color of ashes sat on the living room couch.
Other memories. My father and I raking leaves in yard, back when we could burn them at the curb. Playing catch in the front yard or on the driveway. My father planting all those evergreens and sycamores, now grown up. My father, in his cups, insisting on me mowing the lawn even though I’d mowed it two days before. My father coming to my ball games, and, this was key (see “Infield”), to my last track meet.
So I sat there staring at the old white house, thinking about stuff, and then I saw Bob’s big Lincoln Navigator backing out of the concrete driveway, the concrete my father had had poured in 1952. I could see that the driver of the big thing was Bob’s wife, Jane, who was a classmate of my sister’s, two years younger than me. When she backed out it was clear she was going to drive right by me, so I scooched down in the seat real low like I was reading something, maybe the newspaper or Anna Karenina. I kept my head looking down, and I realized out the corner of my eye that she had stopped right next to my car. She was even with my driver-side window, only higher because it was a Lincoln Navigator and therefore only slightly smaller than a locomotive. Since she was higher, she could easily see straight into the car and knew I wasn’t reading. I was just sitting there staring down, being peculiar. I really didn’t want to get into a conversation with anybody. She just sat there until I looked up. I hadn’t seen Jane in many years. Still beautiful.
She sat there in her big SUV staring at me. Finally, I pushed the button for the electric window and looked up at her. She said to me, “Hi Danny, how have you been?” “Fine,” I said and tried to smile cordially. “I called Bob and told him you were out here. He’s busy this afternoon and can’t come to see you but he wanted to. Listen, you want to go in the house?”
She explained to me that there was hot water for tea on the stove and tea bags on the kitchen table along with a cup, etc., and that I was welcome to walk around and see the house all I wanted. She was real proud of how they had fixed it up but she knew that I’d be able to see also that they had preserved the essence of the place as we knew it. “It’s a classic prairie house,” she told me, “so in some ways we returned it to its roots.” Jane was really the visionary and master of the renovation.
I said yes I’d like to go in. She said the back door was open. She asked that when I left I lock the door behind me and put the key on the nail—she knew I knew which nail. She said she’d be back in a couple of hours. She still had the famous green eyes and feisty smile. Letting me go in was one of the most wondrous things anyone ever did for me, letting me roam freely through the old house I grew up in, letting me be there alone and take it all in, letting me go room to room remembering my growing up and all the rooms and closets and the hideouts in the attic and the rickety basement stairs and the voices that used to be there of my mother and father now gone. They had updated the place beautifully, and preserved it for another 100 years. I loved going up the grand staircase in the front room, walking the long hallway to the room that had been mine. I didn’t drink any tea, but I did turn off the stove, lock up, and put the key on the nail.
It took only a half an hour or so to see all I could handle. After, I drove out to the cemetery and visited my parents’ graves, stood there a while at dusk remembering both days, twenty eight years apart, when we buried them there. I might even have tried to say a few things but felt hopeless because if anything at all in this world was obvious, it was that they were completely gone and couldn’t hear me.
Reality doesn’t actually contain stories. Our brains make stories from random activities and events. And so the simple act of picking and choosing what to tell in order to make a sequence of events to form a story is to fictionalize what really happened, to straighten out a very crooked line. I think stories must have something to do with how our minds are constructed, how we remember and retell, the fondness for sequence and themes and pattern, for giving the story an ending that resonates. This essay won’t have an ending that resonates. From the cemetery, I drove back to Scott Street, parked in a different place, and watched the house until it was dark and Jane arrived back again. I should have left a note, but I was too out of whack.
I didn’t sit there long after that, realizing someone was watching and knew I was prowling the neighborhood—how else did Jane know I was parked out there in the first place? Maybe it was the bank teller. Tuscola is a small town. I drove down Niles to the one stoplight in town, turned left on Highway 36, eased onto the interstate, and was gone. All the way to O’Hare my mind was alive with memories. I remembered Bob on the pitcher’s mound, throwing heat, his uniform turned from white to dark gray with sweat. I remembered Jane and an underwater kiss at Patterson Springs, a kiss that holds a dear place in the hall of fame of kisses. Bob owned our old homestead and my father’s office, and was married to a high school girlfriend of mine.
Why write fiction?
The fondness for making stories.
The adventure of going into sentences, into memory.
The wondrous feeling of sinking into a narrative when you don’t know where you’re going or how you’ll finish.
The sublime feeling of figuring it out after a while.
The hard work of managing the problems of fiction: pacing, consistency, clarity (staring down the shitty sentences and making them right), dealing with autobiography. In a hundred ways, indulging the pleasure of revising, making a decent manuscript as good as you can get it because you want to and you can.
I think we could say that fiction and truth are complementary, not opposites. Do you think so?
Bob and Jane Brockmeier aren’t the real names of the people who bought our Scott Street house, and Bob’s not the name of my old Little League buddy who also had an office in one of the old examining rooms of my father’s medical clinic. Bob and I did once sit in his office, the location of the old examining room where, age 14, I found my father when I went in the back door to get my $2.50 for mowing the office lawn. He was sitting there with a farmer whose hand had been mutilated by a farm machine. Dad had scrubbed for this procedure so I had to wait for my money, and I watched him fix up the hand, swift and perfect with the stitches he closed the cuts with, effective the splints he braced the bones with, then came the beautiful bandages he wrapped the hand in. It was one of the rare times I ever observed him doing the real work he was born to do, did day in and day out as a small town general practitioner who had to handle whatever came his way. As he worked, he talked with the farmer about the crops and the farmer’s family and hunting dogs. They knew each other. Dad had probably delivered his kids.
Jane is not the name of Bob’s wife, and there really was an underwater kiss that remains vivid in my memory but it wasn’t Jane I kissed that time. Jane in fact was not an old girlfriend of mine and I never kissed her in my life. But Jane, my fictional name for somebody else, really did let me go through our old house that day, set tea out for me if I wanted to sit at the kitchen table and soak it all in, and it really is one of the biggest, most wondrous, most healing gestures anyone ever did for me. Because of this Bob and Jane Brockmeier, whatever their real names are, are my friends for life.
There’s such a thing as being too fond of what really happened. But by being so terribly accurate we can miss the emotional core, the heart of why we’re bothering to write the story at all. This I think was the lesson of Tim O’Brien’s talk at Spalding last May, and for many of us, this is why we write fiction and why our true stories veer off what really happened in search of their emotional center. Tuscola, the home of my formative years and most horrible and sweetest, sexiest memories, is an addiction, like an old girlfriend I loved and lost, without closure or hope of having her back.
Alice Munro, the consummate short story writer and recent Nobel Prize winner, hits squarely on this issue in her new book, Dear Life. The last four stories of the book are introduced by her this way:
The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.
Going back to Tuscola and sitting anonymously in the middle of it for an afternoon, driving the streets, visiting the graves, triggered a storm of memories, and the memories attached themselves to that one occasion when Bob and Jane gifted me with the chance to go alone through my old house again. The story is, as Munro states about hers, “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” Truthfully, writing what really happened wouldn’t even have come close.
Be sure to visit Phil’s blog Long Pine Limited when you get a chance. And keep after it y’all.