“I don’t have a father.”
This is the story I tell myself for most of my life.
But it’s not much of a story.
For instance, there’s no beginning (“Once upon a time, I had a father…”), no middle (“…and then my parents split and he went nuts and he split…”), and no end (“….until eventually he drifted completely out of my life except for the occasional bizarre letter or empty envelope with a question mark drawn inside the flap, until I was on MTV in 1993 on the cusp of literary traction and he dropped a dime. For a few months my mind and heart were open to him but then I felt so utterly freaked out and repulsed that I slammed the door again until soon before he died.”)
And yet “I don’t have a father” has done it just fine for me.
Mostly I don’t talk about it, or think about it. Or, more to the point, I think that I don’t think about it. Or I used to think that I wasn’t thinking about it, but now I know that I was in fact consumed with it, I was living the bitch.
Now I sit in the middle of my life, writing this blog. Cross-legged on the island of my life, reminding myself of that Joan Didion quote about being on an island in the middle of the Pacific at the Grand Hawaiian hotel, losing her mind in a crocheted bikini, or something like that. I mean, I wish.
My island isn’t tropical, and nobody’s handing me a pina colada. It’s what is left after all the stories I have ever told myself collapse, starting with “I don’t have a father.” I am utterly exposed and terrified. The broken shards look kind of like dorsal fins.
There’s the one about the nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn with the European pedigree.
When you meet me at a cocktail party, I will tell you I’m from Brooklyn. But that’s not really true. I am born in Manhattan, but from kindergarten through my sophomore year in high school I live in Tenafly, New Jersey. It’s really a terrible time, with a stepfather at its fearful hub. My father long gone when the stepfather takes over. And I love to tell you about the whole first-generation thing. This allows me to conveniently skip over the years 1974-1982.
There’s the one about the red leather suit.
When we move to Hollywood, in 2000, I bring with me a tear-sheet out of W magazine of a red leather suit. No model wearing it, just a portrait of the suit, thrumming with aggressive life and accomplishment. I tack it on the bulletin board over the desk in the office of the house we’re renting in the funky Hollywood Dell. That red leather suit is a portrait of what a badass I am and all that I represent. Power.
Flashback, won’t you? To 1989. I am a senior at Barnard College, an English major with a concentration in creative writing. It’s the end of the year, the end of this precious era, and more than anything in the world I want to graduate and become a writer. I am sitting with my advisor, Elizabeth Dalton, and I am asking her how to do it. How to go out in the world and become a writer.
“First,” she says, “you have to learn how to tell a story.”
But I have written many short stories in college. A collection of them was presented as the thesis for my degree. And I have won prizes from them. Including the Teichmann Prize, not given every year, but given to me, with a big pile of cash.
“You lure your reader with your command of detail and language,” Professor Dalton continues, “but it’s not hung on anything. There’s no spine there. Without a skeleton, you have no story.”
This is the most terrifying thing I have ever heard, and I have no idea what she means.
Or what to do about it.
What I don’t tell Professor Dalton is what my mother told me yesterday: that I am not welcome to come home after I graduate. Not even for one night. I don’t tell Professor Dalton that my mother is living with her long-time boyfriend, an unemployed former junkie. That my mother’s house has been consumed by darkness, and that I need help, and that my sister needs help. I don’t tell Professor Dalton that I have no plan for what I will do, where I will go, how I will live, and on what. I don’t tell Professor Dalton that all I have in this world is my Teichmann Prize money and my fear. And with them I will both start and delay my life.
1997. “What’s the theme here?” the entertainment attorney-slash-erstwhile independent film producer asks me. I have turned my energy to screenwriting because I have told myself that I will never survive as a novelist or short-story writer. That it would be irresponsible for me to go down that path. I need to survive. To survive you need money. Screenwriters make money. They make lots of it. So I will become a successful screenwriter. And once I have arrived at the top of the A-list, then I will be free to write novels and short stories.
The independent film producer has hired me to write a feature screenplay based on a local R&B band whose life rights he has secured, and he has just read through the first draft. His tone is Socratic. He is both pointing out a flaw in the script and inviting me to consider a larger issue with my craft. I want to reach across the conference table and bitch-slap him. I don’t want to hear that nine years have gone by and I still have no skeleton.
2009. “Your dialogue is wonderful,” says my friend Goff (not his real name), the newly minted Hollywood literary manager. He used to be my agent, but he got fired and is reinventing himself. I have just spent four months on a TV pilot which my own manager has deemed drawer-worthy. I am devastated and confused and humiliated, and with this disappointment the structure of my life seems to be dissolving around me. I’m just a mass of quivering details with no compass. I’ve asked Goff for a second opinion on my failed script. “And your characters, they’re so real,” he’s saying. “They breathe. I feel like I could walk into a restaurant and pick them out of a crowd.”
So what’s the problem?
“But your story,” he continues. “There’s no conflict here. Scene after scene, no conflict. And as a result, no dramatic energy or tension.”
“I have no father.” This is not what I say to Goff. If I said that, he would think I was cracked. Even though I’m indeed cracked, I am still poised and witty at Hollywood dinners.
But the dots, they’re connecting. Please let them be a rope ladder out of here, not a noose.
I look around my life and I see stories, stories everywhere. Compelling ones to which I have been devoted, like a blue-haired lady in a Barcalounger with a menthol cigarette and her programs.
When you meet me at a cocktail party, I will tell you the the one about the nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn with the European pedigree in the red leather suit with no father.
I do have a father.
I did have one.
He was born in Berlin and he died last year.
Now I am applying for German Citizenship.
Why am I doing this?
Because I stuffed all the drama and tension – what I really could have been talking to Professor Dalton about — into my life raft. Then I propped a pile of details on top, and I called them my personality, and then I passed off my personality as my work.
Because other than health for my family and world peace, what I want more than anything in the world is to be able to tell a story. A real one. Where you want to turn the page and find out what happens next.
Maybe I can drag my raft to shore (Hi, Joan! Great suit!) and slit open that raft and let out all the drama and tension, and then the drama and tension can become stories on the page, and the gelatinous pile of details can fall apart on the sand, until they dry out, and brush themselves off, and regroup, and sell the red leather suit on Ebay.
Let me start from the beginning and leave nothing out.
This time, let me build a skeleton. From the skeleton of my father.
“Once upon a time in 1938, a little boy was born in the Judische Krankenhouse in Berlin.”