My dad was a storyteller. Campfires were his pages, and he filled them with tales of pursuing grizzlies and threatening moose and marauding porcupines, all of them real. From my earliest years, he was, I realize, training me to use my eyes. And my heart. And my willingness to believe with a wide-open mind.
He was also teaching me something else.
This is a lightning-bolt moment for me, this realization. In what my father did without knowing it—at the campfire and away from it—was to teach me the dance of emotion, that frank manipulation of structure that is Plot.
The “wait for it” moment. The “no, that isn’t happening” gift which suddenly materializes. The “Santa is coming” suspense. The hiding. And finding. The revealing. These are the things that parents do. I always found them a little cruel.
Now I understand.
My father did these things to reassure himself of his place in the heads and hearts of those around him. My father was never confident of his impact on people; he looked for the approval that did not come to him in his growing-up. He brought that need (and the answering of it) to his parenthood, and he cloaked it in love.
My dad loved being a dad. He was better at it than he had any right to be, as the son of hard-living parents. He gave of himself—and instilled in us—the goodness of heart that he’d hoped to be recipient of in his own young life, yet which was never quite received. The need materialized in ways that became moments of suspense and tension and relief. And these were the things I translated, as a writer, into the mechanics of plot and character.
I am his carbon copy—genetically, emotionally, psychologically…and apparently, too, in a way I never understood until now.
The writer as Need. My dad, who was inclined to it, but never knew the reality of it. And his daughter. Who lives it. Every day.