In honor of Father’s Day, five handy-dandy writerly tools bequeathed me by my Dad:
1. A yen for research. Mine was the only dad I knew with a brochure collection. The bottom drawer of his dresser was dedicated to neatly stacked brochures: travel brochures, car/boat/motorcycle brochures, commodity-profile brochures–you name it. Surrounded by these he would sort and browse away many a weekend afternoon. One birthday we bought him a man purse, for collection purposes. There are related habits–getting lost in libraries, historical plaque-reading, more recently a serious Google addiction–but the brochure collection, to me, captures the instinctual pleasures of a true archivist.
2. The art of listening. Dad can find out everything about a person in less than thirty minutes of conversation. He asks the right questions: gentle, leading. He exhibits authentic fascination with the topic, which encourages disclosure. The corollary of such attentiveness is that he reveals very little of himself and (for this reason?) finds social activities exhausting. Sounds like every writer you know, right?
3. An appreciation of the ridiculous. The other day on the phone, Dad could barely choke out the topic of the conference my brother was attending. “Peat Restoration!” he finally chortled. “The International Peat Society!” Sure, he probably browsed the entire program later that evening. But Dad’s academic children (and there are several) have him to thank if, while being absorbed in our projects, we manage not to lose sight of the big picture.
4. Voices. My best friend (who knows I’ll take a parenting compliment wherever I can get it!) recently informed me that my son declined being read to by her because, as he put it, she “can’t do the voices.” Well, I learned to dramatize a reading because my father used to read aloud that way. He could do accents. He had remarkable range and could always remember, from one bedtime to the next, who got a falsetto and who dropped his “h”s. Dialogue comes to life in the delivery; I learned that before I learned to read by myself.
5. Manners. I don’t mean pleases and thank-yous; this is a subtler and more vital kind of politeness. Dad models a suspension of judgment in relation to others that I’m still trying to emulate. It’s not that he’s uncritical or lacks strong opinions. It’s that he is incredibly slow to level criticism at other people, and, with new knowledge, will readily revise his opinion. This basic openness, it seems to me, is a writer’s most basic requirement, the Beginner’s Mind of any creative practice. Without it how can we properly see?
Thanks, Dad (and apologies, Steve, for the peat-moss giggle)!