Saturday, April 11, 2009

E. L. Doctorow "The Writer in the Family" ~ & conversations with Margaret Dawe at Wichita State


One of the benefits of going to an MFA program is meeting writers. Margaret Dawe, the Chair of the English Dept. at Wichita State and author of the critically acclaimed novel Nissequott, will always be one of the most influential teachers I've had. Her workshop and a class I took with her on plot (in which we memorized all cryptic lines in Aristotle's Poetics) left indelible marks, and when she called my thesis (which was later published as Ash Dogs) "wonderful," well, you've just got to take one of her classes to understand this means a lot.

In a conversation with her (me from China, using email), she recommended I check out the following Doctorow story since one of the things I learned about being a writer from Margaret has to do with the role a writer plays in a family, a role that is not always pleasant.

E. L. Doctorow's story "The Writer in the Family" appears as the first story in ''Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella" and is one of the most moving stories anyone can read.

It follows a youth named Jonathan, whose father Jack has died, but whose paternal side of the family, in particular Jonathan's Aunt Frances, lies to Jonathan's paternal grandmother that Jack, failed salesman, has moved to Arizona.

In truth, Jack, Jonathan the narrator's father, has died.

“Years ago his life had fallen into a pattern of business failures and missed opportunities. The great debate between his family on the one side, and my mother Ruth on the other, was this: who was responsible for the fact that he had not lived up to anyone’s expectations?”

Aunt Frances, to appease the whims of Jonathan's grandmother, asks Jonathan to write letters--in the name of his dead father. Jonathan does.

Though published twenty years ago, here is one of the best stories anyone who loves fiction, and who is wondering about the writer's role in a family, can read.

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