My mother is a writer by nature. Her e-mails echo the cadences of the Regency and Victorian masters -- or rather, given her passion for Jane Austen and George Eliot, mistresses. Even when she sends on bad news, I open her letters with glee, just to breathe in her virtuosity with semicolons and em dashes.
In the past, she was also a writer by trade. Back in the eighties, she published four young adult novels. In no way, we both insisted, did these belong to that modern-day species of penny dreadful, the teen romance. Nor did she mar them with Hinton's prole-y grit or Cormier's miasmic gloom. No, my mother's work was poignant but upbeat, hip but tasteful, and always literate. Not only did readers come away assured that they could, in fact, dump their meathead boyfriend, or outgrow a doomed crush on their English teacher -- they gained a new appreciation for Billie Holliday, or a civilized queasiness toward the virgin martyrs.
As I grew old enough to serve as her beta-reader, I also learned they contained slices of real life. One day, while poring over one of her manuscripts, my last bag of Fritos turned a somersault in my stomach. One of her characters was behaving very unlike the rest of her characters, but in a way I found eerily familiar. "Move it," screamed the ten-year-old tearaway, as he body-checked my mother's heroine -- as usual, a fifteen-year-old who hid her angst behind the poise of a White Russian emigree -- "I've got to take a shit!"
"Mom!" I cried. "That's me! I said that!"
"He's not you," she informed me. "He's parts of you."
"But I haven't said it in years!"
"Months," she corrected. "And if you'll just be patient, you'll see this character is younger than you. Read on."
I read on. It turned out the young brute was brother to the heroine's love interest, a stoical blue-collar ethnic with aspirations to med school. Worthy fellow, he felt intensely protective of his brother because --
"Mom," I shouted. "He's retarded!"
Sighing, she set her mug of herb tea beside her tower of papers. "He's not retarded. He has a severe learning disability."
I knew spin when I heard it. "He gets a lollipop if he sits still through a bedtime story. That's retarded."
Suddenly, she brightened. "If you can finish the next three chapters without interrupting me, I'll give you six dollars to see Amadeus."
Even as I took the bait -- but not, until much later, the irony -- I felt the gnawing sense that, though my mother's disclaimer was false, her vision of me was essentially true. As a child, I'd been consistently, horribly unmanageable. The parents of my classmates at my progressive kindergarten formed a cabal and demanded I be expelled -- for building a model of that most progressive of labor savers, the guillotine. I went AWOL from day camps and afterschool fencing classes to watch Happy Days reruns and eat butter straight from the tub. Throughout my first semester of fourth grade, I introduced myself as an armadillo. If anything, my mother had flattered me.
As the years passed, and I grew used to seeing parts of my emerging self appear in my mother's characters, I began to realize that my she was doing more than flattering me; she was inventing happy endings for me. Though I despised the insecure, affected, fatherless boys who were my Dopplegangers -- or my partial Dopplegangers -- my mother found ways to redeem them. With the love of one heroine, she healed the weakling who posed as a hoodlum. With the friendship of another, she cured the housekeeper’s son who posed as a Buckleyesque highbrow aristocrat. Even the addle-brained ten-year-old discovered a talent for drawing, through which -- readers were meant to hope -- he eventually went on to scratch out a living while sampling bohemia's delights.
In that way, I came gradually to intuit one practical purpose for writing fiction. By re-inventing her own world for the better, the writer makes her real world feel more bearable. If, in her imagination, she can conceive solutions for her problems -- or for her loved ones' problems -- she breathes life into the possibility that those problems may find resolution in fact. Perhaps for the reader, stories of wishes fulfilled can feed a self-defeating escapist impulse. But for the writer, they can serve as an exercise in faith. And take my word: for the subject, they beat a birching, or being sent to military school and forcibly buggered.
As I grew up and began to feel the first aches and sweats of my own writing bug, I sensed that formula would fail me. For one thing, even I knew that my own wishes were too insane to commit to paper. Readers would simply not accept a hero who wins the Medal of Honor in a third, nuke-less, world war, and seduces Christina Applegate in Conan O’Brien’s green room. It was the nineties, after all, and Gen-X readers were fast making themselves known for their corrosive sophistication These were people who’d been baited-and-switched by the whole culture. They’d learned the hard way that, yes, never mind what the song in The Breakfast Club says, people will forget about you. Their only illusion was that they had no illusions, and shoot, deep down, they knew that was an illusion, too. Unless you could detach yourself from your wishes enough to fulfill them meta-style, you were toast.
Fortunately, it was also the golden age of the memoir and the personal essay. Here were genres that allowed a poor writer some flexibility. Instead of taking the trouble to invent passably ironic dreams, all one had to do was re-invent his past. For the task, he had his choice of tones. Smart and dyspeptic? There’s Philip Lopate. Spare and self-punishing? Tobias Wolf’s your huckleberry. Cute and grotesque with ethnic flavor? Kalispera, David Sedaris! Cute and grotesque with even more ethnic flavor? Faith an’ begorrah, ‘tis himself, Frank McCourt. None of these people had ever won a World Series or built a financial empire. There lives were as modest as my mother’s hopes for me.
And so, in fits and starts, I began to write. As I did, the scenes from my boyhood began to play themselves out with the roles reversed. I became the praise-hungry writer, my mother the affronted reader. But she surprised me by objecting only half-heartedly to my renditions of her. "What do you mean ‘ascetic’?" She once asked, laughing. "Yes, I ate cheese and yogurt for all three meals, but I was also dating a man fourteen years my junior. If anything, that makes me sybaritic."
It was my self-depictions that set her off. "You make yourself sound so mean here," she gasped, after I’d showed her a piece I wrote about my brief vocation for the priesthood. "Please get rid of that line about telling the Franciscans to take their charisms and shove ‘em -- for me." After I’d written an essay for an online writing class, about how working in a bank’s foreclosure department had forced me to recognize my hidden sadistic streak, she called at midnight, begging me to delete. "This tone is horrible," she moaned. "You write with such Hannibal Lecter lip-licking glee! At least send the instructor a note reminding her that you volunteer at a soup kitchen and attend Mass every Sunday."
Being a firmly convinced atheist, my mother would not normally cite Mass attendance or work in ministry as evidence of anyone’s goodness. But in my case, she’s desperate. When she wrote, she created simple happy endings for me; now that I’m writing, she’ll use every ounce of emotional leverage to make me create that simple happiness for myself. She still hasn’t figured out that, when I write, I struggle to do the next best thing. When I proclaim my own ghastliness, from my brief youthful infatuation with the Nazis to my enduring adult infatuation with my own self, I’m apologizing. I’m saying, Sorry, Mom, so sorry, for not giving myself the happy ending you think we both deserve.