An Unintended Gift

Chester-Dane

Chester Dane

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.

 

12 thoughts on “An Unintended Gift

  1. pete hautman

    Marion,

    I’ve enjoyed your posts on being a working writer. I was particularly struck by this one—it’s a story I’ve heard many times from other writers, particularly those of us whose parents came of age during the depression years. It makes me wonder how the generation coming of age now—many of whom have grown up in a positive, strongly nurturing, you-can-do-anything-the-sky’s-the-limit milieu—will fare artistically. I hope they out-do us, but I wonder whether being beaten down is, in part, a prerequisite for creative power. Not that I would go back—psychological Darwinism is cruel and painful—but I wonder.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer

      It’s a fascinating question, Pete. And I suppose only time can answer it. I suspect, though, that the urge to write–or paint or create music–is primal and that it somehow survives all kinds of parenting, good and bad.

      On the other hand, when I used to have students attempting to write for young people who struggled to get anything meaningful down, I learned to ask one simple question: Tell me about your childhood. If their faces were suddenly bright with smiles and they said, “Oh, I had the most wonderful childhood!” I answered–perhaps cruelly–”That’s what’s wrong with your writing.” Not that you have to have a painful childhood to write, but you have to feel the pain that has to have been there. No art can come out of suppressing strong feelings.

      And by the way, I’m an admirer of your work!

      Reply
  2. The Loon Whisperer

    I enjoyed this tremendously. When I started college, my dream was to be a journalist. Adults I admired discouraged me from majoring in that for a lot of the same reasons you discussed. I was told to go into teaching so that I would have an “actual” job once I graduated. It was all about the security. I was lucky. I ended up loving teaching and have done it for over twenty eight years now. But the funny thing is that the drive to write, rather than teach writing to college students as I’ve done all these years, never left me. I recently began writing a column for a local newspaper in the town where I was raised in addition to my blog. I still teach, but it feels awfully good to be writing. Thanks for your blog! I enjoy your style so much.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer

      A complementary story. My daughter majored in Italian and French in college She intended to move on to a music conservatory and study opera. I found myself saying to her, again and again, “Music is a great hobby!” I was fully aware of the irony of my saying this out of the heart of my own unlikely career, but I was a parent, concerned for my child’s future, and I couldn’t stop myself. She now has a successful career in marketing. Would she be happier if I had supported her in her desire for a career as a singer? Who knows?

      Reply
  3. Donna Gephart

    Marion,

    I can’t tell you how much I’ve been enjoying reading your insightful blog posts.

    Growing up, I watched my single mom work hard every day at a job she didn’t seem to enjoy. When it was time to choose a career path, my mom suggested I go into computers (which was a hot, emerging field at the time) or teaching (which would afford summers off to write). She told me I’d never be able to support myself as a writer.

    I was also told by someone I admired that I’d “NEVER, EVER be a writer.”

    Now, these are good stories to share with students at school visits, because that resilient spirit you mentioned led me to a most fulfilling career as a children’s book author.

    Every day, my own children see me incredibly excited to “go to” work. (I work from home.) And once, when they were little, hubby asked our oldest son what they should give mommy for Mother’s Day. His reply? “Let’s give her more work. She loves her work.”

    Indeed!

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer

      What an insightful comment from your son, Donna! And how right you are that those stories of discouragement are perfect to carry into schools. There is too much discouragement running around those places. Kids needs to know they have a chance to define themselves.

      Reply
  4. Janet Fox

    What a beautiful post, Marion. To take his disappointment and turn it into something gorgeous – what a gift you’ve given the world.

    I have such a similar story, in a way. My mother was a frustrated writer. She wrote children’s stories at a time I was off doing everything else but writing. She died suddenly, and I found a batch of her unpublished work among her papers, and that’s what started me on my path today.

    So now I write for my mother – not because she discouraged me, but because she never saw her work in print. Every success I have, I think, “You’d love this, Mom. You’d be happy.”

    I don’t want to die without having made every effort to write the best possible stories. For my readers, of course, but also for my mom.

    Reply
  5. Carol Brendler

    I have never thought about the courage it takes to become a writer. I know all about persistence, but have never considered how brave it is of me to try this work. Wow. Where did it come from, this courage? From a deep-seated need to prove to an indifferent world that I do indeed have something worthwhile to contribute to it (beside producing one very smart and handsome child)? Is it a play for attention? Or is it simply that I have no marketable skills or aptitude for anything other than playing with words and telling tales? None of these seem courageous. Let me think about this some more, because I’d really like to think that I might be courageous.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer

      If you have any further thoughts, Carol, I’d love to hear them. Or just turn to that other idea, where does your ability to persist come from? So many people want to write–or at least they want to have written–and they can’t manage to persist.

      Reply
  6. Sandra Warren

    Wow! You could have been writing about my younger years; different scenarios but similar message just the same. The fortunate thing for you and your brother and I’d like to think me, was that we all were determined to be different and find success and happiness in what we love to do.We’re all proof that positive things can come out of adversity.

    Our writing isn’t what takes courage.It’s the believing that it’s good enough for someone else to read; good enough to want to get it published; good enough for a publisher to want it; a belief strong enough to sustain us through the process–the rejection that surly comes–to stick too it, persist and not quit; that’s the part that takes COURAGE.

    Where my courage comes from I’m not sure. All I know is that deep down I have this strong belief that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

    Thanks for sharing a most intimate part of your life. Your message was something I needed to read today.

    Reply

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