My father was a disappointed man. He graduated from college into the teeth of the Great Depression with a degree in chemistry. He landed a job, married my mother and soon found himself out of work. In those hard times, the last-hired, first-fired doctrine ruled.
After a long struggle to find a job that didn’t disappear out from under him, Dad was finally forced to accept work on his brother-in-law’s farm in Minnesota. He had grown up on a poor southern-California farm, so he knew farm work but hated it. It must have been humiliating, after being the first in his family to graduate from college, to be forced to return to farming and to the near charity of his wife’s family.
My father was a brilliant man. Mother told me once that in college his IQ was measured at 182. That’s beyond intelligent to weird. And when this brilliant man, so scarred by the Depression, finally landed a position as a chemist in an Illinois cement mill, he grabbed on and stayed put. It didn’t matter that anyone with a high school course in chemistry could have done the work he went to every day. “When the next Depression comes,” he said to my brother and me, again and again, “I won’t be laid off. I’ll have seniority.”
He also used to say, “The reason they call it work is because you don’t like to do it. If you liked doing it, no one would pay you.”
Having been so disappointed in his own life, Dad tried hard to protect his two children from disappointment. The way he did it, curiously enough, was to discourage every achievement we reached for. His theory, often stated, was that if we didn’t expect anything good we wouldn’t be disappointed when nothing good came. If by some miracle the good actually did show up, he would add, the victory would be all the sweeter.
So when I had just graduated from high school and the editor of the local newspaper accepted my bid to write a bi-weekly column for the paper, my father said, “But why would anyone want to read it?” Later when I began writing novels for young people and acquired an agent, he asked me how the agent would be paid. I explained that she would get ten percent of everything I earned. “Good,” he said, “because ten percent of nothing is nothing.”
He tried in the same way to keep my brother’s, Will’s, expectations in check.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want good to come to us, only that, from within the framework of his own life, he couldn’t imagine that it was possible.
Whatever his intention, our father’s parenting methods should have guaranteed that neither Will nor I would ever attempt–let alone have the determination to stay with–any effort beyond the most mundane. The fact is, though, that we turned into two of the most determined achievers I know, both of us fiercely committed to our very different goals. And in our separate arenas–my brother is in manufacturing–we have each succeeded.
I believe we succeeded not just in spite of our father’s dark message, but because of it. We both rebelled silently, refusing to let his voice be either limiter or predictor. That we did so says volumes about human resilience. (It also says volumes about other factors in our lives that built confidence and sustained hope, but that’s a topic for another day.)
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been talking here about the good work of writing.
What I haven’t mentioned is the determination needed to sustain a career. Where does that come from?
Mine came from my father, an unintended gift, but a gift, nonetheless.
What about yours?
What gives you the courage, the drive, the against-all-odds determination to seek out a working writer’s fraught existence? And what keeps you struggling with it, day after sometimes discouraging day?
I would love to hear your story and will include a few in upcoming blogs.