Fathers of writers

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(HOST) In honor of Father’s Day, commentator Philip Baruth examines the strange and mysterious connections between fatherhood and the writing life itself.

(BARUTH) In honor of Father’s Day, I want to pose a series of deep philosophical questions: Do writers have especially complex relationships with their fathers, more loving, more troubled, more like a high-speed-bullet-train-wreck just waiting to happen? Or is the writerly preoccupation with fathers just another form of self- obsession, a way of answering the most profound question of all: How exactly did I get to be this person whose books no one buys?

I don’t know. But I do have two short anecdotes. I’d like to think they shed light on the deep philosophical questions, but they probably don’t.

The first story takes place two years ago, when my daughter Gwendolyn was four years old. She and I had always had races and wrestling matches, but somehow we’d gotten into this new thing: before every wrestling match, we’d try to psych each other out and call each other goofy, made-up names. So she’d call me Carrot-Head, and I’d call her Dinosaur-Feet, and we had a great time.

Anyway, on this particular night, I called Gwendolyn something goofy – Gogurt-Girl, maybe. And she locked eyes with me and started really concentrating, trying to come up with something wild and powerful to call me. I remember her forehead scrunched up with the effort. And she sputtered, “Yeah, well, you’re a…you’re a….”

I egged her on. I said, “Come on, give me your best shot.”

And that’s when she said it. “Yeah, well, you’re a…a bad narrator.”

Aaagh! That really hurt. I’d actually spent about six hours that very day working on this piece of a novel, fiddling around with the narr- ative point of view; but now, suddenly, I could see that I’d been kidding myself: I was a bad narrator. So I told Gwendolyn that I had to lie down; and that led to us establishing new rules for the silly-name game, like you can’t say anything about anyone’s narrative technique.

The second story is about a writer I know named Chris. Chris’s father, Daniel, passed away suddenly about three years ago. So Chris decided to honor his father’s memory with a writers’ retreat on his property in Calais. Called the Tall Rock Retreat, it would be built around a massive stone monolith. At a nearby granite quarry, Chris picked out a 28-foot-long, 17-ton stone shaped like a huge rock knife.

Now, if you go to Chris’s website, tallrockretreat.org, a mini-docu- mentary shows that massive rock being trucked to the retreat and then lifted into the air by a 100,000-pound crane. You watch as the rock is lowered carefully into a hole 11 feet deep.

Midway through the video, though, the amazing thing happens. Suddenly, the rock seems to break free of its chains, starts to plummet – but for no apparent reason, it stops dead after falling only a few feet, without snapping the chains. I’m no engineer, but it looks impossible. Or maybe this sort of thing is possible only in a world where a father and his child are both writers, where imagi- nation has become the agreed-upon language.

In that sort of world, if the child manages to raise a 17-ton stone to the sky to honor the memory of his father, the father will find a way to catch it somehow should it fall.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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