When my father died, I expected I would receive the old station wagon, scratched up and 100,000 miles old. Or nothing. I really thought I would receive nothing. But what I got was a Nachlass. That is the word…
Writers writing about writing is the stuff of cliché at this point. In my defense, I had tried and failed to write this story in a couple different ways first. A previous version of this story centered around a mother-daughter road trip to visit the father in rehab. The heart of the story—the bit that came to me first and animated the rest of the piece—was the moment where the daughter lies to her mother. The mother is optimistic that this stint in rehab will produce a substantive positive change in their family dynamic. The daughter cannot bear to break her mother’s heart by disagreeing. Another version of the story changed the road trip to a friendly sports betting pool. The family dynamic was much the same: an optimistic mother, a toxic father-daughter relationship that went unacknowledged. Eventually the story comes to a head in a similar way: the main character chooses to lie about the irreparable damage done by the father-daughter relationship to spare the mother. I ended up shelving both versions after I had run out of ideas. I hate to say I do this quite a bit.
I was able to turn a corner when I realized that the story I was trying to tell wasn’t just about intergenerational trauma and fraught familial relationships, it was also about how family stories are crafted. In all families, I imagine, there is a story that gets passed along not because it is the truth, but because it is the most idealized version that survived. I realized that the preservation of a particular family narrative was integral to those previous drafts, but I had a hard time bringing that into focus. Around that time, I overheard a story about someone being left the literary estate of a friend who had succumbed to an illness. The person mentioned how going through and editing the remaining work was its own kind of trauma on top of the death itself. “How do you speak for someone else in this way?” they asked. “Especially when there is so much you still want to hear from them.”
Morbid as it was, that helped this click for me. I was able to go back and rewrite the story. By making the story about a literal story, I was able to more deeply explore the act and implications of telling (or not telling) a story. I was also able to bring in elements of public vs. private family narratives. By making her father dead as opposed to alive, whether or not the daughter’s experience is told is now entirely left up to her. This change also gave me a little more leeway to play around with form a bit. I still had to figure out how to balance tension and conflict in such an internal story, but realizing this aspect of the story made the subsequent revisions much easier.
MELISSA BEAN received her MFA from New York University and is currently working toward a PhD at Fordham University. She has been the Assistant Fiction Editor and Awards Editor at the Washington Square Review. Her work has appeared in Literary Orphans, The Gallatin Review, and Scissors and Spackle among other places. She lives in New York with her fiancé and two dogs. Her website is melissabeanwriting.com.