I’ve been writing nonfiction books for many years now, everything from parenting to politics. When I decided that I needed to write about fatherhood, however, I decided that I needed to turn to fiction. The result was my novel When You Went Away.
I remember seeing a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up routine a while back where he talked about the difference between nonfiction and fiction. He said that bookstores should actually be divided between “truth” (nonfiction) and “lies” (fiction). With all due respect, I have to disagree. We’ve heard plenty of stories in recent years about writers embellishing their memoirs with all kinds of lies. And, for me, writing about fictional characters allowed me to get to some truths about fathering that I hadn’t uncovered before.
The conceit in When You Went Away is that Gerry, my main character, is the suddenly widowed father of a sixteen-year-old runaway daughter and a four-month-old son. Fiction allows you to do things like eliminate the mother so you can talk about being a father exclusively without any of the baggage that divorce brings along with it. Of course, making this kind of decision makes the story as much about the grief of losing a beloved spouse as it does about raising a small child, but even that helped to amplify the parenting messages. I then avoided all of the goofy Mr. Mom stuff. Gerry gets it as a parent. And do we ever really need to see another scene where a man blows up a bottle in the microwave? I also specifically chose to write about a father with a teenager and an infant because engaged fathering is so utterly different during these two stages. I also removed the daughter from the scene because I wanted Gerry to think very hard about what fathering her had been like to this point, and I wanted to do it without the distractions of the everyday.
The experience was ridiculously instructive for me. Writing fiction gives you a chance to work things out in ways that nonfiction rarely does. It was like an especially intense form of therapy with the added benefit of my being paid to do the processing. Among the things that came clear to me about my fathering experiences (I have four in real life) is that communication is important at every stage. When my first child was old enough for course corrections, I would explain everything to her. If I were taking her out of a dangerous situation, I would let her know there was a reason I was doing this. If I wouldn’t let her have something she wanted, I would tell her why. My friends suggested that doing so was somewhat pointless, since my daughter was much too young to understand what I was saying. My response was that I was practicing. I wanted to become so accustomed to doing this kind of teaching that it was second nature when it mattered. By the time she was a teenager, our open lines were well established, which was hugely important, because having anything at all open between a teenager and a parent is a significant thing. I hadn’t really stopped to think about that until I wrote this novel and had Gerry do the same thing with his son.
Another thing that emerged for me while I was writing When You Went Away is that children are the most reflective of mirrors. We all know the stories of people repeating toxic cycles when they have kids. To a lesser degree, we’ve all heard stories about parents seeing themselves parenting in a way they hated being parented and making a conscious effort to change. But I think there’s another side to this that we don’t relish as much as we should. Sometimes our kids reflect back to us qualities in ourselves that we genuinely like. In the novel, Gerry steps out of his grief to revel in a rudimentary game of catch with his infant son. This is a reminder that the joy he had always taken in play is a restorative thing and a personal quality he should embrace. Again, I found an analogue in my own parenting experience that I’d missed before I wrote this novel. My real-life son was intensely passionate about things from the time he was three. I loved this about him, and I finally came to realize that he’d picked this up from me and that I should appreciate this in myself more.
Perhaps the most poignant fathering truth I uncovered in writing When You Went Away was that there’s no room for being jaded when it comes to introducing your children to the world. The world is entirely new to them and they have the right to see it with their own fresh eyes without your clouding it for them. Of course your children should benefit from your experience. But if you find parts of life tiresome, you owe it to your kids to keep this to yourself. Gerry finds himself in situations with both of his kids that drive this point home. Writing this made me reflect on an adjustment I needed to make with my third child. I’d been showing less enthusiasm for her discoveries than I had with my older two because I’d been through this a couple of times already. When I realized I was killing her buzz a little, I got my act together.
To write When You Went Away, I made up an awful lot of stuff. But I also think it might be one of the most truthful things I’ve ever written.