Writers on Writing #67: Anna Leahy

by JHow on January 2, 2014

in Announcements, Blog, Writers on Writing

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Why I Write This, Now

Perhaps the first to use the title “Why I Write” was George Orwell, who claimed to know by the age of five or six that he’d be a writer. When I was that age, I hoarded paper, pulling pristine sheets from my parents’ wastebasket. As a youngster, I sat on the floor beside my mother’s desk at home, while she drafted the Illinois State Constitution. She’d give me a pen and a yellow legal pad so that I could replicate cursive handwriting, something like Spirograph art without the plastic pieces necessary for patterns.

One childhood summer, I wrote what I called a novel. My main character was a fresh-faced co-ed studying to be a veterinarian. I wish I could remember her name. The central scene involved her hearing the doorbell, rushing from the shower in only a towel, and opening the door to find the fellow veterinary student upon whom she had a crush. He looked like the best guy behind the magic door in the Mystery Date game. The towel slipped from the woman’s body, she became flustered and re-covered herself, and he asked her out for dinner, knowing better than I did at the time what was really going on. I was influenced by Charlie’s Angels, especially images of Cheryl Ladd in a towel. On their first date, my characters drank Chianti from a green bottle in a straw basket, just like my parents did on vacation in the 1970s.

Chianti is an Italian blend of grapes that became popular in the United States in the 1950s. By the 1970s, when my parents were drinking it, winemakers had reduced the amount of white grapes in the mix (now there are none). Back then, people would stick a candle in the top of the empty bottle, letting it drip down the sides to form kitsch art. Traditionally, the bottom of the bottle is encased in a basket called a fiasco, a word that in Italian meant flask, but in English means a debacle or a great big failure. The loser of a game would buy the next bottle.

Italian physicist Enrico Fermi and his cohorts drank this wine after they achieved the first self-sustaining fission chain reaction under a defunct squash court at the University of Chicago, where my mother earned her law degree a little more than twenty years later. Under Stagg Field on December 2, 1942, the experiment went on for twenty-eight minutes before Fermi halted it and a fellow physicist pulled out a bottle of Chianti. The men—and one woman—drank from paper cups garnered from the water cooler, then signed the bottle’s straw wrapper. After others dispersed, Leo Szilard turned to Enrico Fermi and said the event would be recorded as a “black day in the history of mankind.”

The Cold War, in fact, unfolded out of that day. Less than twenty years later, the United States had nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. My father spent his two requisite years of military service overseas, in Pirmasens, a German town with an Army supply depot that provided support for tactical nuclear devices. He cleaned nuclear weapons.

***

I write for the same reasons as others before me. And I write because of my father. My father majored in English and, later, put himself through law school while teaching eighth-grade English. Now that I teach English at a university, I wonder what he was like in the classroom, in those years before he was married and I was born. I cannot ask him; he died of cancer when I was in college. The only story I remember him telling about his teaching years was about taking Silly Putty from a student. Silly Putty could ooze, be torn like paper, and bounce. You could flatten it out, press it on newsprint, and lift a story right off the page. After reprimanding the boy, my father put the lump of polymer in his pocket and forgot about it. When his clothes were cleaned (something he did not do for himself), they were ruined. The Silly Putty must have melted, stuck to the fibers, then returned to something like its original consistency. At the time, he was irate.

Later, when my father recounted this story, he appreciated the irony. The lesson seemed to be about undermining authority. Or about the risks of being in authority. I was of the age that a joke on the teacher, especially one without a culpable perpetrator, was thrilling. Or maybe the story was about being careful what you wished for. He may well have been conveying to me the law of unintended consequences.

At about the time I first heard that story, my father decided he would write a series of short books. Each book would draw together ten stories about famous people with a particular first name. He began his research—in days before Google—by scouring the phonebook to determine the most popular male names. Because he could easily think of several famous Davids—King David, Davy Crockett—he chose that name from his list of top names. He began to gather information about ten notable, role-model Davids. He took notes. He looked for variety and quirky details. He talked about his idea to see whether others found it interesting.

But he never wrote that book. He had other ideas for books too, and he was a good storyteller. For bedtime, he made up adventures of Annabelle and Brigadoon for me and my sister, Brigid. Maybe everyone has a story to tell.

***

Terry Tempest Williams, in her two-page version of “Why I Write” says, “I write because then I do not have to speak. I write with the colors of memory. I write as a witness to what I have seen. I write as a witness to what I might imagine.” Though I’ve grown to enjoy the company of others, I am shy by nature, as my grandfather once lamented in a letter to my aunt. But I’m willing to say things in print that I would not say aloud, that I might never organize in a way that could be said aloud. I desire to see things both as they were and as they might have been—and might be.

Williams says, “I keep writing and suddenly, I am overcome by the sheer indulgence, (the madness), the meaninglessness, the ridiculousness of this list.” I want to indulge in a conversation about the collisions of notions and moments that are the contemporary American life. Suddenly, I remember the childhood novel I wrote and indulge the leap from the Chianti my characters consumed because that’s what my parents drank to the Chianti Enrico Fermi drank in my parents’ hometown to toast the beginning of the nuclear age into which I was born and from which my father died. We write because the individual voice and story intersects with something larger, in solitude born out of community. That’s what Terry Tempest Williams said; that’s what Natasha Trethewey said; that’s what George Orwell said. Each writer is a pin holding the thread that is the ridiculous string art of our lifetime’s history.

My father’s single string art was a ship. He could not swim.

***

At this same time I was pondering the question of why I write, my mother was sorting through letters she and my father had exchanged over the years. My father was a letter writer, his letters figuring out things for himself as much as they were an account for the recipient. Among these missives to her, my mother found one written on Augustine’s Motor Lodge stationery, from a trip in 1971 she doesn’t remember him taking. He must have been serving as an attorney in a Pollution Control Board hearing. He was probably gone only overnight, while she remained in Chicago, working on a different case and coming home to her two daughters at night. I was five years old.

The opening paragraph of my father’s missive is a love letter to my mother. He did what Terry Tempest Williams talks of doing: “I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love.” No motivation could be more compelling, more necessary, nor hold a writer more accountable for his—or my—words.

The second paragraph of my father’s letter reveals, “I sense a danger that we may become controlled by things and people and circumstances around us. I hope that we can do the things we want to do.” My husband and I face these same worries, at times a panic. That’s, in part, why we took a leap and moved to California.

Still, I worry about what my father referred to as being “in the habit of deciding these things rapidly when they come along.” He worried about getting carried away by work he enjoyed, leaving little time to contemplate decisions. I pursue too many things, even at the same time that I am excited to be doing all these things. Time, my father reminds me years after he’s died, is limited. When I first read my father’s letter, I was dismayed that he had articulated his sense of things as they were for me now, forty years later. As he said, I can’t “delay what must be done.” And what I most want to do is write.

Had he wanted to have a conversation, he could have called my mother. No, this letter was a record and plan of sorts, an essay that found a wider audience in me. In the third paragraph, my father wrote, “I also think that we should take time out to analyze the […] talents we have and the expertise we have developed and write some books.” Write some books! “I think we have a great deal of knowledge and that we simply have to find time and do the job.” Were those my father’s words, or had I said them to my husband in the bar at La Fonda hotel on our drive west to start a new life more focused on writing?

A couple of summers ago, months before my mother shared my father’s letter, my husband and I cut off cable television so that we could spend more time writing. Our families thought this decision was drastic, as if we were becoming hermits. Our colleagues were already flummoxed that we weren’t battling traffic to visit museums, beaches, and the theme park of all theme parks. How could we not watch TV, the product of our local industry? Even I was nervous about missing out on the shared experience of seasonal, episodic television, let alone round-the-clock news.

My father’s perfectly timed sentences—for him then, for me now—compel me to take myself seriously as a writer. This was the clincher, which I read only after my own TV decision: “I often reflect that we got along well without TV in our first year together. I think maybe we’d be better off without it.” Decisions about how to live come down to these moments, to happy accidents we make, to words on a piece of stationary and words yet to be written. How could I not write when my father had wanted to but hadn’t been able to see it through? How could I not risk fiasco? How could I not write this, now?

Anna Leahy’s book Constituents of Matter won the Wick Poetry Prize. Her poems and essays appear widely in journals and anthologies, including as a Notable in The Best American Essays 2013. She teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University, where she directs the Tabula Poetica reading series and edits TAB: The Journal of Poetry & Poetics. With Douglas Dechow, she writes Lofty Ambitions.

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