Dead fathers III, the living grandpa

Mr. McCourt, you’re lucky. You had that miserable childhood so you have something to write about. What are we gonna write about? All we do is get born, go to school, go on vacation, go to college, fall in love or something, graduate and go into some kind of profession, get married, have the two point three kids you’re always talking about, send the kids to school, get divorced like fifty percent of the population, get fat, get the first heart attack, retire, die.

Jonathan, that is the most miserable scenario of American life I’ve heard in a high school classroom. But you’ve supplied the ingredients of the great American novel. You’ve encapsulated the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

They said I must be joking.

This is the big difference between genre fiction and literary fiction. In literary fiction the content doesn’t matter as much as the vision. If you can portray everyday events in a unique way, like only you can express them, you’ve earned a place in writer’s heaven.

So go out, live life, unplug the antenna from the TV and do everything that Jonathan says and quite a lot more besides, as much as you can. And if you still want more things to experience, take over everbody else’s life.

Image of the "Rent Collection Courtyard" sculpture group exhibited at Schirn Museum, Frankfurt (2009)

So, sit with your grandmother. Let her tell her story. All the grandmothers and grandfathers have stories and if you let them die without taking down their stories you are criminal. Your punishment is banishment from the school cafeteria.

Yeah. Haw, haw.

Parents and grandparents are suspicious of this sudden interest in their lives. Why you asking me so many questions? My life is nobody’s business, and what I did I did.

What did you do?

Nobody’s business. Is it that teacher again? […]

Others come in with stories of how they ask their elders one question about the past and the dam bursts and the old people won’t stop talking, going on till bedtime and beyond, expressing heartache and tears, yearnings for the Old Country, declaring love for America. Family relationships are rearranged. Grandpa isn’t taken for granted by sixteen-year-old Milton anymore.

In World War II Grandpa had adventures you wouldn’t believe. Like he fell in love with the daughter of an SS officer and nearly got killed for it. […] All these years Grandpa sits in the corner and I never talked to him and he never talked to me. His english still isn’t good but that’s no excuse. Now I have him on my tape recorder and my parents, my parents for Christ’s sakes, are saying, Why bother?

Even us, writers, are like our Grandpas: we don’t believe our stories matter. Do they matter? McCourt’s story mattered, his books selling by the millions.

Write on. You’re next.

Dead fathers II, moon landing

Yesterday we saw how an apparently trivial scene -an almost unbelievable one- can carry a strong emotional load.And that isn’t achieved through big abstracts words to emphasize the characters’ feelings. Instead, the emotion comes from what we know about the characters and how, through our own experiences in the world, we can relate to that -the pain of losing a parent, the contrast between the dinner and the hospital room, the loneliness. It’s the old “show, don’t tell”. This is how we build stories, scene by scene, adding on what we know from the previous one. No need to underline what the characters feel. Note how the dialogue doesn’t include any speech notes, yet from his words we know that the teacher does not believe the story.

Here’s another of McCourt’s students’ stories about dying fathers, from “Teacher Man”, chapter 16:

photo by Álex Hernández-Puertas

Phyllis wrote an account of how her family gathered the night Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, how they shuttled between the living room television and the bedroom where her father lay dying. Back and forth. Concerned with the father, not wanting to miss the moon landing. Phyllis said she was with her father when her mother called to come and see Armstrong set foot on the moon. She ran to the living room, everyone cheering and hugging till she felt this urgency, the old urgency, and ran to the bedroom to find her father dead. She didn’t scream, she didn’t cry, and her problem was how to return to the happy people in the living room to tell them Dad was gone.

This could be a micro-story in itself, because it tells more than it contains: it starts before the beginning (we can imagine a long sickness, the arrangements for the family gathering) and it continues beyond the end (when the news are passed and the smiles fade).

But don’t mistake a scene and microfiction and a novel. They are different things. You can hardly build a novel out of great scenes unless they are logically (and emotionally) connected and you can hardly say you master the techniques of narration if all you play is the guessing game of microfiction.

If McCourt’s books lack anything it’s direction, but we forgive that because they’re non-fiction. Autobiographical elements can bring colour and feeling into your story, can bring -quite literally- life into your writing, but real life rarely has a purpose, a plot, a direction, a meaning, a theme. Fiction feeds on these. Juggle them all at your convenience. Or as the saying goes, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. I’m sure even McCourt didn’t.

Dead fathers I, the mahogany table

Frank McCourt’s “Teacher Man”, chapter 14:

Whenever a lesson sagged, whenever their minds wandered, when too many asked for the pas, I fell back on the “dinner interrogation”. Government officials or concerned superiors might have asked, Is this a valid educational activity?

Yes, it is, ladies and gentlemen, because this is a writing class and everything is grist to our mill.

First he asks James what he had for dinner the previous night, who cooked it (the mother), who set the table (the sister), what they talked about, whether they used a tablecloth, every details of the process. All the girls are shouting at him, the discussion is lively. McCourt moves on.

Daniel, what did you have for dinner last night?

Veal medallions in a kind of white-wine sauce.

What did you have with the veal medallions in white wine?

Asparagus and a small tossed salad with vinaigrette.

Any appetizer?

No, just the dinner. My mother thinks they ruin the appetite.

So, your mother cooked the veal medallions?

No, the maid.

Oh, the maid. And what was your mother doing?

She was with my father.

So the maid cooked the dinner and, I suppose, served it?

That’s right.

And you dined alone?


At a vast highly polished mahogany table, I suppose?

That’s right.

With a crystal chandelier?




Did you have music in the background?


Mozart, I suppose? To go with the table and the chandelier.

No, Telemann.

And then?

I listened to Telemann for twenty minutes. He’s one of my father’s favorites. When the piece ended I called my father.

And where was he, if you don’t mind my asking?

He’s in Sloan-Kettering Hospital with lung cancer and my mother is with him all the time because he’s expected to die.

Oh, Daniel, I’m sorry. You should have told me instead of letting me put you through the dinner interrogation.

It doesn’t matter. He’s going to die anyway.

It was quiet in the classroom. What could I say now to Daniel? I had played my little game: clever and amusing teacher-interrogator, and Daniel had been patient. Details of his elegant solitary dinner filled the classroom. His father was here. We waited by a bed with Daniel’s mother. We’d remember forever the veal medallions, the maid, the chandelier, and Daniel alone at the polished mahogany table while his father died.

The pleasure of writing

[…] I had the opportunity to share some drinks with several students of journalism in their third year. I wasn’t all that surprised to learn that they had no university newspaper or even personal blogs. In fact, they said, they didn’t usually write.

“Why are you studying journalism, then?”, I asked.

“Most people in my class only want to be on TV” one of the students said. And she added, “Actually, several classmates already had boob jobs.”

Jose A. Pérez on Mi mesa cojea