Before I ever attempted to write about him, people told me that my father was a character. Smoking a Winston lifted from his pack, I sat in the passenger seat of my friend’s car or on a tree stump behind the high school, trying to emulate my father. Eventually, I transferred my emulation to the page, weaving in the details that interested me the most: his loyal squirrel pawing the backdoor for peanuts; the serrated knives, syringes, and jugs of formaldehyde beneath his taxidermy workbench; his quick-witted dialogue still laced with Vietnamese slang thirty years after the war. “Your father’s a character, alright,” everyone said, “something else.”
For years I wrote about my father in confidence that I knew who he was and how to describe him. But after seeing him for the first time after months of writing about him, I was startled that the man I had created on the page differed from the man sitting beside me. My effort to transcribe him had resulted not in an indistinguishable replica, but in “something else.” I had created a character; my version of my father. Compared to the real man, my character seemed stronger, invincible. He was. The page is permanent, blood becomes ink; as a character, my father is immortal.
In Richard Freadman’s essay “Decent and Indecent: Writing My Father’s Life,” included in Paul John Eakin’s collection The Ethics of Life Writing, he describes his early struggle to write about his father as a “curiously vague inner resistance.” My own inner resistance surfaced only after I interviewed my father about his experiences in the Vietnam War. Before that time, I had written personal essays about fishing trips, lazy summer days by the pool, afternoons beneath his Chevy, purposefully smearing my shirt with chassis grease. They were sentimental sketches. Though I was a twenty-five-year-old man hardly blind to my father’s faults, his fear of driving in New York City, his secret social anxiety, and his annual eruption of accumulated anger (all of which I inherited), I had no significant reason to write about him in any way other than complimentary. If I were depicting a scene of us working on his Chevy, I conveyed him to the reader as a god bending over the engine or a flannel-clad deity raising a mug of coffee to his face in the clouds. Even as I stood with a heavy ratchet in my hand while he lay beneath the truck, I was looking up to him. Before I interviewed him – before I asked him to explain himself – his taxidermy studio seemed pure, no conflicting metaphors of life and death.
Writing about my father was an act of preservation. Like the flattened squirrels and raccoons he scraped off the highway and brought down to his taxidermy workshop in the basement, my father could be repaired and posed anyway I chose. Immortalized. But soon I realized that I wanted to create more than just a statue, an owl mounted on a severed tree branch, wings outspread. In order to do that, I had to be willing to show his imperfections and my own.
-Anthony D’Aries, Fellow in Nonfiction