I got a thin envelope from Sarah Lawrence on Friday, which contained a letter informing me that I was neither accepted to nor rejected from their program. Rather I was stuck on their waiting list. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know why they were less convinced of my writing ability than Columbia. They were the only school to ask for an essay responding to the question “Why do you want to come to Sarah Lawrence?” Perhaps they could tell that I had a difficult time answering. Or perhaps it’s because I have testicles.
It’s funny, there’s nothing they could have offered me that would have made a difference, and yet I was still a little wounded by their decision. And though I’ve tried to learn, through much trial and error, not to fire off e-mails when my Irish temper flares, I did just that, saying thanks but no thanks, Columbia offered me a fellowship, please give my spot to someone else.
I admit it. I am human. And vindictive. Frankly their decision was a little dose of humility, and good practice for me.
All notions of rejection or half-hearted acceptance aside, I asked for it. Not long ago, before I heard from any of the schools, I was driving home and (naturally) obsessing over what would happen if I got into more than one school; what if one school gave me more money than the other, which one should I pick? What if I made the wrong choice? So as I sat at a red light I asked God to give me a sign, preferably a very clear sign. I got more than one.
This whole school thing is already changing my life in unexpected ways. My father, who is absolutely brimming over with pride that his son is going Ivy League, asked if he could read the work that got me admitted. I hesitated. Remember when my father found my website about a year and half ago? He read the whole damn thing. Then he told me he couldn’t read any more. “I went from knowing too little about you to knowing too much.” I’m pretty sure he’s kept his word.
So I had to make a decision. Send him the essay about my mother and my HIV. Or the cum-on-the-tank-top essay that includes my first sexual experience. I chose the former. At least he already knew most of the details.
I sent it off on Wednesday. A couple of days passed. I was getting nervous. Normally he’s very quick to reply to my e-mails. What if he hated it? What if he hated the fact that his son is writing memoir, drudging up unflattering, messy personal details for public consumption? What if he thought Columbia made a mistake?
Sunday night he finally replied. He said it was very well-written. Then he said he wasn’t sure how to react. He said he sometimes wishes that he were more than a footnote to my life.
He said he hoped I didn’t wish that he had died instead of my mother.
I sent a hasty reply (we both prefer e-mail over the phone). I tried to reassure him that the essay was just a slice of my life. That I valued his privacy over my right to tell a story. That I didn’t wish he had died. I told him that we’ve only just begun to get to know each other. I told him that he has to tell me if I can write about him.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about him lately. I was accepted into Columbia’s nonfiction concentration. And while I can take classes in fiction or poetry, I will be required to write a book-length manuscript in nonfiction. Which means, at this point, that I will probably keep writing memoir/personal essay-type stuff. And if I do write this memoir, it will seem pretty strange if there’s nothing about my father in there. After all, he, my mother, and I all ended up gay. Which is somewhat interesting, to some people. And that’s where it gets sticky.
He and I weren’t particularly close growing up, for many reasons. Some of those reasons, if written about, would only cause him pain. And yet many of those reasons shaped me.
I’ve read interviews with several famous memoirists, who are adamant that the truth must always prevail, hurt feelings be damned. My guess is that most of those writers have less than brilliant relationships with their families.
I can’t justify hurting him just to tell “my story”. Not after the last couple of years. Not after his gestures of reconciliation. Not long ago I mentioned that I had been e-mailing him all sorts of questions; about my childhood, about his marriage to my mother, about his own coming out. And he’s answered every single question. And I’ve seen more of myself in him. And I understand why he did the things he did, just as I understand how alcoholism sometimes made my mother a different person.
Writers are often accused of being parasites, and anyone who is close to one has probably unwittingly provided the writer with raw material. But while novelists can hide behind the thin facade of fiction, those who write memoir have no such disguise. When you write memoir, you make a pact with the reader that what you are writing is the truth. Betray that trust and you betray the reader. Truth, like memory, is of course subjective. And some memoirists feel comfortable conflating characters or incidents to suit their “art”. I’m less comfortable with this practice.
Memoir is like formal poetry. The truth provides certain constraints. And like rhyme or meter, sometimes these constraints force the writer to create something beautiful, something that never could have been written with more freedom.
This probably sounds pretentious. I’m not trying to prove that I am good writer. I’m just trying to make sense of the messy intersection between writing and my personal life. How to tell the truth, how to honor the pact with the reader, without causing my family and other real people harm.
I could just not write about my father. But I don’t think that’s what he wants. He doesn’t want to be a footnote. He wants to be let into the main story. He wants to know that I love him. And he’s savvy enough to realize how I best express my love. I guess I’ll figure this out, as I go along.