Dad, The Maker
My dad started I don’t know how many novels before he finished his first—when he was 52 years old. I would occasionally see printed-out sections of the novels, lying on the big cherry table that served as our family computer desk. I’d read a paragraph or two before my interest would fizzle—surely, more the fault of my buzzing teenaged mind than the engagingness of the writing. Also, I knew he was private, and superstitious, about most of his writing, so I, already halfway logged on to America Online, would happily abide what I guessed would be his preference that I not read it at all. Knowing better now, I know he wasn’t careless enough to leave writing he didn’t want anybody reading lying around on the communal cherry table and that, in fact—and I see this in myself too—he had likely very consciously left it there; either proudly, or simply as proof that he was a writer—his way of saying to us: “I’m writing a novel,” without having to go through the awkward self-back-patting embarrassment of actually having to make such an absurd, grandiose proclamation out loud. Despite his private nature, his hermity side, he did still want to be witnessed. We all do.
There were long stretches of time (years) when there seemed to be little evidence of Dad’s writing on the cherry table, nor in conversation. I guessed then, and still bet so now, that he simply wasn’t writing; that whatever he’d had going had sadly lost his favor and been left to dry and wither in the obscurity of a fistful of floppy disks labeled NOVEL. And the self-pity of that had burned him badly enough that, for his own mental health (it was fragile), he was turning away, at least for a while, from the whole writer deal. Luckily, creativity is, by definition, inexhaustible, and can always be redirected—especially so in the case of my dad, who was almost obsessively inventive and whose sense of fascination and delight was constantly sniffing in new directions. Not only a man of many creative interests, he was also a man of many creative talents—or at least whatever he might’ve lacked in learned skill for a given creative endeavor, he was intuitive and imaginative enough to overcome that lack and succeed in producing something worthwhile—even wonderful. When I was younger it seemed to me there was little he couldn’t do. He could write, he could draw, he could carve wood, he could build a table, he could build a house. Later I came to see that just about all the things he could do well were actually contained to more or less one category (but a category certainly big enough for one man to spend a lifetime working around in): aesthetics. He was all about beauty of forms—particularly constructed, made, forms, because it was that inventiveness of the human mind and hand with which he engaged most passionately. Even more than at the natural beauty of a great oak tree (his favorite), he would revel at the craftsmanship of a lovely and unique oaken desk. His was the kind of mind that can’t simply behold the beauty of a magnificent thunderstorm without being inspired to try to express it in some way—to make something of it. (This is the essential condition of the artist, isn’t it?). He was a maker. Mom wants to put that on his gravestone (the one we still haven’t gotten). Something to the effect of Maker Extraordinaire. She thinks he’d like it, thinks it’s the kind of thing he might’ve made up for himself (if ever given that eerie task). And she’s right. It’s inventive, playful, non-traditional. It has the flair that he couldn’t help but put into everything he ever made.
Writing or no writing, Dad was always making things—almost all of which he finished, quickly and efficiently. When it came to using his hands, he was more than capable, and the inspiration always seemed to be there. It was play for him. Thank god for his hands. I think they truly helped him keep his head above what could’ve been sadder waters. Recently, in going though some of his old file cabinets, I found a typewriter-typed list titled, Works in Progress: 1973. It spans six sheets of yellowed paper and consists of 35 numbered entries. Right from number one it’s clear that it’s more a list of ideas than actual works in progress. Some of them are feasible as projects: a four-poster bed, a rocking chair, a corn starch pillow, a lamp, another totem pole (he had already made one), while others were purely hypothetical: “A community which folds up into something;” “A totem pole skyscraper for Seattle;” “An autobiology” (“dealing with the organic inklings, events and urks (?) which make up one’s own life of fiction”). In a middle ground are some partway feasible, but more long-term, intellectual works, such as “An illustrated book of imaginary beings,” “A magazine of ideas,” and somehow the most heartrending, number 29: “A book of short stories, myth, and little drawings of mine.” Then there are entire homes he wished to build—“A silo house,” “A stone house,” “A house that looks like something organic.” The most poetic entry is one of these—for, “A seemingly Victorian abode.” He wrote this as explanation:
“True built, like back in the those days with the old time tools. Somehow patience is the cause of creativity, its end being the expression not only of the designer but of the craftsman, the carpenter or the mason. Just to experience this would be pure joy, work and satisfaction. With fantasy, as they say, with character, with curves and towers. Stone, I hope, and a central fireplace, (the most basic colonial design) hookin’ up the kitchen and other rooms. A house like a spindly spider, you strike one edge of the web and the whole structure shouts. A combination of many styles, so, colonial simplicity, rustic inklings from the backwoods, a barn in the Dutch tradition, and a study with books. A correct and crazy color scheme.”
1973—he was 23 years old. That he probably never completed (or even started) any of the 35 things on that list is, to me, exultantly beautiful and freeing. Ideas for the sake of ideas. Play. Even if they aren’t pursued and tangibly enacted, just having them is worthwhile, because they delight and teach and expand and give way to more ideas. To conceive is to interact with the way things are—what we already have and know—by way of imagining how you might add something. And all those concept-only ideas are the essential nutrients of the creative spirit; that fertile soil from which more tangible innovation and expression will eventually come to fruition. Dad did build houses, and we did have that central stone fireplace in the house he built for us in Wisconsin, six years after this list was made, when he was just 29—only a year older than I am now. He built us a house. A big, beautiful, awesome house, full of ideas. A few years after we moved to Amherst he built us another one. In the last few years before he died he had been making plans for the next house, that he would build on the plot of land he and Mom had bought, out in the country, a mile away from my sister’s house—which he also designed and was in the process of building when he died. In a way, he was always building the houses we lived in. In the summers would be the bigger additions: screened porch, swimming pool, landscaping, finishing-out the basement, finishing-out the space over the garage, etc.; and then in between he would make smaller additions: hand-made decorative tin fronts for the kitchen cabinets, an elaborate birdhouse, quirky bookshelves, quirky lampshades, everything always quirky, always so very him. The ideas for addition never ceased—and why should they? It wasn’t because he could never be happy with what he had, it was because he couldn’t be happy if he wasn’t in the process of making something. His creativity didn’t come in bursts and lulls, like mine sometimes does—it was perpetual. It was his life force. It was his purpose.
Writing was play and creation for him too, but something must have made it harder for him in those middle 15-20 years, post-MFA, when he wasn’t producing all that much writing, and not finishing (let alone publishing) even so much as a short story. My best guess (based now on personal, immediate experience) is that it was a matter of stakes being too high—that the expectation of him, as Writer with a capital W, to produce and publish, exerted the kind of pressure under which Dad would say forget it, then about-face and walk away. He refused to be expected to do just about anything. Expectations were too closely related to what he saw as bullshit societal norms. He refused to be expected to at least pretend to enjoy a dinner party. He refused to be expected to wear a collared shirt to go to a ritzy country club in Florida (he would wear one anyway—but, of course, not because he was willing to meet anyone’s expectation that he would, but because maybe the only thing he hated more than expectations was being conspicuous in environments that already made him uncomfortable). He refused to be expected, by friends or family or colleagues, to strive for tenure-track professorship—namely because tenure-track held too many expectations from the University. (That and he thought the tenure system was bad for the students—simple math, really: by making faculty more concerned with the publishing of their own work than with teaching; rewards for the teachers who had bigger fish to fry than measly classroom enlightenment). He was anti-expectations, anti-establishment, anti-bullshit—all little wars he fought in the name of Individuality, particularly his own. Sure, it was a belief he held for everyone, but he wasn’t out there preachifying his gospel on the corner of Main and College, tutting at the passing cars with a home-lettered sign (Honk for Your Right to Do What You Want!). No, he wasn’t a revolutionary—not as I knew him, nor do I think even back in his pony-tailed twenties—but more of a cowboy. Don’t bother me, I won’t bother you. His was a fight of self-preservation. There were many times when I rolled my eyes and shook my head, when Dad’s lone-wolfery came across as anti-social, curmudgeonly, or just a pain in the ass, but on a more general level (especially now with nostalgic distance) I’ve always respected and admired him for it. And for better or worse, I’ve inherited certain shades of it. Particularly, the desire and need to, with regularity, be left alone in the workshop of my own mind.
Because the act of writing insinuated a much larger audience than, say, a quirky birdhouse, I think he would sometimes balk at those implied but invisible expectations—and, even worse, judgments. He just wanted to be able to play around with words and storytelling, to be his quirky, colorful self, without ever having to curtail it to meet the tastes of others. If it was a road block for his thirties and forties, he finally overcame it in his fifties, and I think it’s because he started to feel less put-upon by the world and its people, less judged, less unhappy, less outcast. In the process of building out his haven of creation and quirk—the house; his teaching position, and his idiosyncratic way of teaching (which, as far as I know, was pretty universally praised by his students); his role as father and husband—along with the establishment of his sweet-spot life routine, which seemed to afford him just about all of his little joys (cumulatively, the little joys were his big joy), he had settled into a relative safe space, in which to play the way he wanted and needed to. That sense of freedom is immediately palpable in the two novels that he finished in those years—the feeling of a clever, giddy, creative mind that can barely contain itself and doesn’t think it should have to. It’s wonderful to think of him having all that fun. And maybe it’s better, more pure, that he never really had to face the response of a larger audience. Reading his second book, which I’ve just picked up again after having to put it down for awhile, I’m reminded why I had to put it down the first time: the cleverness, the self-delight in wordplay and figurative language, the incessant creativeness of it… it’s almost too much. The fanciful attention to these elements of aesthetics, and to his never-ending stream of clever little ideas, hold me at arm’s length from the more serious, deeper stuff of the narrative. It is, after all, a book about a man whose mother left and died when he was young and whose father he half-hated—in many ways a book about himself, no doubt. I read it looking for insight and new understanding of the parts of him that were always more obscured, wanting to know him better after he’s gone, wanting him to reveal to me something about his past and his sadness, but instead I am being handed, one after another, his beautiful, whimsical, well-made toys. And I hate to think of how it would have hurt him to know that this eventually grows tiresome to me—and that it probably would for most readers. But it’s especially strong for me, not only because I already know that part of him plenty well, but because it continues to distract from what I know is lurking underneath, from what I am hoping he will just, finally, tell me, without the bells and whistles.
This is what I have of him though, which is a lot—whole worlds. I would never even take a stutter-step towards complaint. I’ll keep reading his novels, the ones he wrote and the ones he didn’t write, until it’s time for me to get planted in the ground myself and someone who loves me like I love him decides what should go on my tombstone. In the gap from now to then which will compose the remainder of my many, yet limited, living days, I reckon I can train myself to be less distracted by the aesthetic flourishes and gizmos, to see into them, and in between them, and past them, to the intricate heart of their maker.
Sam Beebe lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at New York University. “Dad, The Maker” is excerpted from a non-fiction book he is writing about a dark family mystery, which explores the volatility of memory, storytelling, and secrets. In 2010 he earned his MFA in Creative Writing from NYU, where he was a New York Times Fellow.