Negative Inspiration

By Kevin Richard White

This is about my dad. He used to have a voice, but now he’s only someone who takes up space in a yellow photograph. He’s the reason I write. There will never be another reason.

I still respect him for telling me flat-out that Mom wasn’t coming back from the hospital. He could have sugarcoated it, but he didn’t. He could have lied and said she’s with God, but he didn’t. I had just turned nine years old—two days after the party, even.

He changed after that. Anyone would, I guess, when something like that happens. But it got nasty. It got spiteful and bitter to take. He spent a lot of time sitting in the dark, ranting about how everyone was out to get him. He didn’t help me with school projects anymore. I began writing in a diary, listing the changes I saw in him. It’s the first time I can remember looking at something I wrote and thinking, I just did something concrete. I did something real, and even my dad can’t take it away from me.

He once attacked a lounge chair with tomahawk because a bill collector kept calling. One Christmas, three guys jumped him in a mall parking lot, and he said that he broke all their arms. There was no proof, but it became a dinnertime tale. He once fired a gun into the mattress, although he claimed it was accident. Sometimes he wouldn’t pay the electric bill out of spite. I remember this the most during summer. I remember the humidity, the scowl on his face. I wrote it all down with as many words as I knew. But I kept them hidden, never showed them to anyone.

Eventually I started writing stories and enjoyed the flow of a narrative, the beauty of a moment, how I could conjure scenes of stars and characters who spoke lines I longed to hear. Crafting my own fiction became an escape from the banal, electricity-less world I lived in. More importantly, writing put me in a position to find what I loved and to get better at it. It helped me find a purpose. It also helped me cope with the death of my mother.

Fortunately, my dad wasn’t a drinker. He didn’t do drugs. He could have been a tornado with his temper. But he wasn’t well liked, he wasn’t respected, and he didn’t love us. Around the time I started taking writing seriously, I realized he was never going to be a man of impact. He just wanted to come home, sit down, and block all of us out. I didn’t want to live like that. I wanted to be someone of impact.

Three summers ago, when he finally passed, I didn’t cry. I didn’t go to the funeral. I was written out of his obituary, and I spent the night instead sitting with a drink, reading a book, getting lost in the flow of beauty and the magic of moments. I was so relieved not to have him as a weight on my heart anymore. I don’t care if this sounds harsh. It’s true.

My dad is the reason why I sit here at the kitchen table at this moment, writing all this down. “Thank you for submitting, but this isn’t the right fit for us.” I’ve gotten more than 500 of those so far. But I still manage to keep writing. I still want to prove him wrong. Sitting with my thoughts, in ugly patches of silence, I feel like an actual person with something I can do. Even at seven years old, with shitty yellow-lined paper and a pencil whose tip broke at every fourth letter, I knew I could create an alternate reality so different from my own.

Every day after work, I come home, eat dinner, write a thousand words. No matter what. Taking even half an hour to write—ignoring doubt and getting what’s inside me out before the past drowns it out—is a way to move forward and become better as a person. That’s how I view it, no matter how many times something gets rejected. The process itself is important, even if the result is not always what I wanted.

My dad didn’t understand that part of it. When he found something I had written, he thought I was disrespecting or even making fun of him. He once took a notebook out of my hand and asked why I wanted to waste my time with this nonsense. I didn’t know what to say then.

Were he here to listen, my work itself is now my best response to him. I may have yet to find a wide audience for the three novels and twelve short stories I’ve already published. But they’re still there. I know how to speak. I know how to craft a reality in which I am finally able to see—with no darkness, spite, or hate—how my dad was, how I was, and how I’ve evolved without him.

Literature is something that I can read and look back on, even when there’s nothing of his left. I want someone to read this days from now, months from now, even years from now, and gain something from this. If someone else is going through the same thing as I did years ago—writing in secret, learning how to tell a story, struggling for the right words in the midst of pain—then I want them to be able to understand there’s a way out. I want them to know we’re given a voice at birth. We’re given a chance to use it. All you need is paper and time.