Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Mother of All Writers

"A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials, heavy and sudden, fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends who rejoice with us in our sunshine, desert us when troubles thicken around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavour by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts."  --Washington Irving
"Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother's love is not." -- James Joyce

Like many writers, I would be nothing without the two most important women in my life:  my mother and my wife.  For the past forty-seven and twenty-seven years, respectively, both have been the pillars of my life.  But not the hard, cold marble pillars you find holding up the facade of the Library of Congress; they have been the softly-padded ones--easy enough to hug, but firm enough to fill me with reassurance that, yes, all is good with the world.

My mother is there in my first memory of writing a piece of original literature.  I must have been six years old, laboring for hours as I sat cross-legged on my bed with a box of crayons, tip of tongue poking from the corner of my mouth, agonizing over word choice and character development.  Finally, when all was to my satisfaction, I stapled the crayon-illustrated book together and made my way to that part of the house where she was folding laundry.  I stood in front of her, grin trembling on my lips, and held out my first (self-)published book:  "The Lady and the Clock."  (The book is long since lost to the ravages of time and household moves, but I seem to remember it involved a very wealthy woman, an impoverished clockmaker, and the tragedy of a broken spring)

My mother took the ten-page book in her hands and said, "Oh, what's this?"

"Issa book," I said between the recent lispy gap in my teeth.

And then my mother did the most marvelous thing imaginable: she put aside the laundry, sat down, and turned to the first page.  My mother, my first reader.

Jump forward fourteen years to an evening when my girlfriend and I are taking a walk near my home in Jackson, Wyoming.  We'd been dating less than a month and were still feeling our way into each other's hearts.  At the time, I was appearing nightly on-stage in a Western melodrama at Dirty Jack's Theater, throwing all my energy into what I believed was a budding career in acting.  I also dabbled in writing short stories as a hobby--nothing more, nothing less.

In one of those impulsive acts of young lovers which will either make or break a relationship, I shared some of those stories with my girlfriend.  When I handed her the sheaf of typewritten pages, I said, "Here's a little something to help put you to sleep at night."  I'd said it with a joking lilt in my voice, but my heart was in my throat.  She took them with a look on her face like I'd just handed her a booger-filled Kleenex, but she graciously said she'd read them and let me know what she thought.

Portrait of a Writer and His Young Family
Like I said, at the time, I thought I was pretty hot stuff on the stage--the John Barrymore of community theater.  My girlfriend thought otherwise.  She'd seen me prance around the Dirty Jack's stage and she was thoroughly unimpressed.  As we walked along the street that night and I blabbed on and on about my plans for making a career in the theater and my amibitious roadmap to Hollywood, she gently interrupted:  "Umm, y'know..."

"What?"  I said.  "What is it?"

She looked me full in the eyes.  "You're a much better writer than an actor."

Whether or not this was more of a critique of my lousy, hammy acting or praise for my writing, I have clung to those words over the nearly three decades of marriage that followed.

Unlike my mother, my wife is not much of a reader (she needs less than two hands to count the number of books she's read in the past ten years), but that has never stopped her from being a constant, cushy-firm pillar.  She has indulged me hundreds of hours at the computer--hours when I could have been helping with housework, tossing a Frisbee with the kids, or being anything more than the ghost of a husband and father.  She was there to console me when I opened the envelopes of my rejected manuscripts returned from magazines, she was there to do a happy-dance with me when I got a phone call that Esquire would publish one of my stories.  She has spent many lonely nights with a TV as her companion while I selfishly holed up in the basement tapping and pecking at the keyboard.  She has, I'm sure, hated every minute of it, but she's rarely ever protested my time spent with what she only half-jokingly calls My Mistress.

My mother and my wife are my nurturers, my best friends, the wellsprings of my words.  They know when to caress and when to prod.  They have trusted, supported, and encouraged me every step of the way.

And that, reader, has made all the difference in this writer's life.


  1. Sharon NakagawaMay 9, 2010 at 5:39 PM

    I love the stories that revolve around your loved ones, and out of all of your writings they remain my favorites. They're made of the stuff of heaven. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Nice post, David. My mother's gone now, but she was the person I called when I sold my first story and again when I had my collection accepted, and I can't think of either event without remembering how totally and unreservedly happy she was for me.

  3. Jim,

    I'm sure she was justifiably pround of you.

    For those of you who haven't done so already, Jim Nichols' "Slow Monkeys and Other Stories" is a must read:

  4. Yes, David, you are a great writer (and in my eyes also a good actor) but something else all should know - you are a gourmet cook! Thanks for the delicious and innovative Mother's day dinner yesterday! Love, Mom

  5. Thanks, Mom!

    Of course, a cook is only as good as his diner's stomach. It's so nice to have an appreciative audience.

  6. Such sweetness and power. What a wonderful tribute.

  7. Are you familiar with Brandon Schrand? His memoir is titled, The Enders Hotel...he has Jackson ties which are too complicated to discuss here but he is currently teaching at U of Idaho.

    and yes, we women are great nurturers and thanks for the Mothers Day piece.

  8. Julie, I'm familiar with some of Brandon's work (read an essay of his in a previous issue of Fugue) and hope to meet him someday. I never knew he had Jackson ties, though.