ESSAY: ‘Why my fictional parents are such unutterable shits’ by Samuel Wright
‘Why my fictional parents are such unutterable shits’ concerns Samuel Wright’s short story ‘What Was Left’, which features in Dan Coxon’s new, fatherhood-themed, Being Dad anthology. Find out more here.
You tell stories about your parents. You just do. You tell them in school, at work, over a pint, in the same well-turned phrases, until something cracks, and a nugget of unexpected truth falls out, and you feel a sudden sharp guilt for all the time you treated the people who made you as a punchline. Then you brush it aside and carry on telling the stories, because you wouldn’t do it if they could hear, so that makes it OK.
The thing is, I know they’ll read this. I know they’ll read everything I write. Hi Mum. Dad.
Only I’m not, of course. I’m not sorry. If we all tell stories about parents, writers go further, and they can’t pretend they don’t mean to. If I was really sorry I wouldn’t do it. In fact, I’m sorrier about the casual anecdote than about the short story, the novel, the poem. At least I’m trying to honestly work through my issues. Now I come to think about it, they should be sorry for making me like this.
My first attempt at a novel involved a family in Edinburgh (I’m from Edinburgh). A lecturer in English Lit (I was studying English Lit at the time) has an older brother who he’s always feared is more charismatic than him (I have an older brother who I’ve always feared is more charismatic than me). He discovers said brother brutally murdered and investigates, uncovering a network of familial betrayal and incest in his past.
My brother is alive and well and living in Leytonstone. As far as I know, there exists no network of familial betrayal and incest in my own past.
This is what I would call problem number one.
The demands of character mean we take refuge in types we know and understand, but the demands of story mean we push them to extremes we may be less familiar with. This extends to the external indicators of character – descriptions, jobs, verbal tics, all things that I shamelessly lift from my circle of acquaintance – but also to the internal ones. An emotional tone, a persistent bias in the way the world is seen, a habitual self-justification. Not only do I borrow dog-ends of conversations, but I find myself taking the way a friend reacts to an off-colour remark in the pub, and transposing it onto a tale of destructive jealousy in a Tottenham council estate. And it is at its worst with family.
Tolstoy was right. Happy families are boring. We want conflict and drama and people doing bad things. So my tale of fatherhood for the forthcoming anthology Being Dad is not about how me and my Dad rub along nicely, or about how I enjoy being a parent to my two children. It is a story about letting people down and leaving. That is the outline, the shape. The plot in pen and ink is far from my experience, yet I have still filled it out in the colours of my own family life – a wash of my own sense of loss at each passing moment with my boys, a shading of my feelings of guilt at things not said to my parents, highlights from my stock of treasured moments. And I fear that in doing so I undersell the reality. Looking for drama, I forget to say how rich and full these relationships are, how I feel now more than ever that the biggest thing in my life is those I love.
So this, then is problem number two. That is the story I really want to write. A love letter to people that matter, telling them who I am and who they are, and leaving us all better. But writing, no matter how important we make it, never matches the life it describes. I never will write that story, because I know it too well.
And yet. There’s always an ‘and yet’. Because that is exactly the transaction of fiction, isn’t it? It’s all, on some level, Don Quixote. The interface of the real and the unreal, and the knowledge that something both magical and absurd happens in the gap. That’s where my story for Being Dad, my story of failing and leaving, is exactly true. Because fatherhood is failing and leaving, even when you stay and win, and the daily business of it is the business of loss. Fiction lives in elisions and gaps, things not said and paths not taken, and the most powerful emotions are those unstated.
But, seeing as for once I’m not writing fiction, I’d better take the chance to say it in a more straightforward form. To my wife, my children, my parents, my brother. I love you, and I’m sorry you have to dutifully read all these damn stories.
Samuel Wright is a writer and teacher. He has won the Tom-Gallon Award from the Society of Authors, been long listed for the Sunday Times EFG Award and the Manchester Fiction Prize, and had his stories published by Galley Beggar Press and Tartaruga. At the moment he is Head of a new Sixth Form in Sunderland.
Copyright © Samuel Wright 2015. Banner image © Dan Coxon.