‘Write As If Your Parents Were Dead’

Phillip Roth is said to have tendered the following advice–on the art of writing–to Ian McEwan : ‘Write as if your parents were dead.’ By this, I take it that Roth meant for McEwan to write with a distinctive  fearlessness, one not courting parental approval, not apprehensive of parental disapproval of writerly indulgence, of liberties taken with characters appropriated from one’s lived life, of events drawn on and embellished, narcissistically, sometimes painfully. The writer then, who writes as if his ‘parents were dead’ is unencumbered by the parental superego, whether maternal or paternal, and is free to let loose his darkest self in the words he puts down on paper. Here, the live parent is a stalker, a deadweight on creativity. In writing as if ‘the parents were dead’ the writer writes without a net. He is no longer worried about whether the characters he creates may be viewed as wishful incarnations of himself, whether their words and deeds may be imputed back to him. The parents disappear six feet under, the writer rises above the ground, suddenly, miraculously, weightless. Three fingers still hold the pen, the body still aches, but it does so free of the backward glance, over the shoulder, at the looming intervention.

That’s certainly one way to think about writing as if ‘your parents were dead.’ There is another way to interpret that piece of advice.

In his feature article on George Saunders in this week’s New York Times Magazine (‘George Saunders Wrote the Best Book You’ll Read This Year‘, January 3rd 2013) , Joel Lovell writes,

A friend I loved very much died recently, and I was trying to describe the state I sometimes still found myself in — not quite of this world, but each day a little less removed — and how I knew it was a good thing, the re-entry, but I regretted it too, because it meant the dimming of a kind of awareness that doesn’t get lit up very much.

 In response to which Lovell notes,

“It would be so interesting if we could stay like that,” Saunders said, meaning: if we could conduct our lives with the kind of openness that sometimes comes with proximity to death.

So, ‘write as if your parents were dead’ can now be understood as: Write as if you are not quite of this world, write as if you are possessed  and lit up by a rare kind of awareness and openness that may be yours with proximity to death. Write as if the special vision given to those who find their deepest, most fundamental link to this world sundered is yours for the keeping. Make that into your muse. Write as if we, your readers, were to find in your writings dispatches from another world, one where by being confronted by death, we grow closer to life. Write as if you have suffered the deepest loss of all, so that you may in your struggles to give it written form, find many other things worth bringing forth. Write as if your parents were dead.

2 comments on “‘Write As If Your Parents Were Dead’

  1. My parents are both deceased. However, in a significant way, they were rather cadaverous long before they physically perished. My mother frequently asked me, as a child, to talk her out of suicide (that she was obsessed with). My father was very abusive to us and even set my mother’s hair on fire.

    Was my book written in a boot-licking, constraining way… with some kind of unconscious notion regarding needing requisite approval by elderly superiors and scholarly authorities?

    The problem with many of us… is that we think that — through movement from our parents via the distance that space, time, or death provides — we are independent from them. For many of us, however, we still (unawares) carry a huge load of the learned patterns from our parents and elders. So, in essence, many of us actually “are them.” Many of us are what we absorbed from them, and though we rearrange things and seem rather unique and creative… we are essentially a continuation of their values, patterns, and positions. To really go beyond our parents and elderly authorities… we have to stop projecting what is essentially merely a modified formulation of what they were.

    Probably most of us are so indoctrinated by what was implanted into us by others… that we are “an extension” of what they were. I certainly hope that such a picture doesn’t apply to me, and I hope that others, too, can be transcendent! “Proximity to death” can be a vivacious, superb, “psychological dying” to the old, cob-web patterns and traditions of mediocrity.

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