The Rivers and Roads of my Life
or: Why I Don't Want to Self-Publish
So, my dad was a writer.
He always called himself a writer, and whenever he did, people would ask him what he wrote, and he would say: "I write words." He would laugh, and everyone thought that was pretty funny, at the time. Now I sometimes wonder if he really found it funny at all.
For most of the time I knew him, he wrote advertising copy. He worked for a number of advertising agencies, and once or twice he ran his own agency. (By the way: I don't remember it being anything like "Madmen," except for maybe the quantities of booze. To tell you the truth, it was more like Darren Stevens's environment in Bewitched.) He wrote for Schick razors and Rockwell power tools and Coleman camping equipment, and in 1976 he wrote massive quantities of interesting historical stuff for the Pennsylvania Bicentennial, which is still in use by the Pennsylvania Tourism Board today. He wrote all this stuff to put food on the table and a roof over our heads.
One day, under said roof, I opened the little door in the alcove in my bedroom and began to explore the dark, cobwebby cubbyhole under the unfinished eaves. My parents had stashed several boxes there, the day we moved in. I rearranged these and, between them, I built a nest of blankets and pillows and stuffed animals and, taking the lamp from my night stand, turned it into my little reading haven. Mostly I read horse-stories, there, and my mom's massive collection of gothic romances that I smuggled, one at a time, up from the cellar.
It was inevitable that I would open the boxes and nose through their contents. One of them contained old stuff my dad had written. This was not advertising copy, though. These were stories. Some of them were about growing up in the 40s with his brother, and one was a snarky satire about, apparently, a former employer with whom he'd had a falling out. It was titled "Alf the District Sales Manager and the Good Fairy" and was full of clever but acrimonious wit involving things like chopped liver and steam rollers.
One story, in particular, stands out in my memory. It started with the words "Let me take you to a place..." It took me to a place, too, right out of my little blanket-lined box-cupboard to a moonlit riverbank where mysterious characters, each of whom had a story of his own, paused beside the dark, glittering water to sip clear liquid from mason jars and let the river carry their cares away to parts unknown, if only for one night. This riverside retreat was presided over by a scrawny old black man cooking ribs on a half-drum barbecue grill. His name was Jerome, and he was famous for his barbecue sauce, which everyone called Hell Sauce.
Dad passed away at the age of 60 from a massive coronary. I found out some years later that Jerome and his Hell Sauce and his barbeque grill by the riverside were all actually quite real. One of my brothers brought some of Jerome's famous ribs to share with us at a Thanksgiving dinner after-party at Mom's house. They were still being made by Jerome's son, who had inherited his dad's operation and had moved from the riverbank to a bricks-and-mortar storefront in sight of the Monongahela river. I didn't think the Hell Sauce was all that hellish, really.
I did remember Dad's story, though, but the boys told me not to bother looking for it. The box was still there but, in preparation for selling the house, my old room had been remodeled and the cubbyhole paneled over without removing any of its contents. The house has been sold, since then, to someone who probably doesn't even know there's a cubbyhole under the paneling. My dad's stories will be among the detritus that gets bulldozed into a landfill when the house is eventually demolished.
All this means that I am the youngest person alive who has ever been to Jerome's by the riverbank under the moonlight (and almost certainly the only female, because women were not allowed. It was considered to be far too rough a place for the fairer sex.) I have been there only because I read my dad's story, which is lost forever now because his stories, his real writing, had had to be stuffed into a dark, dusty corner to make room for the business of business, for writing the words he got paid to write.
He probably hoped that, someday, he would be able to retire from writing the kinds of words he didn't really dream of, in order to write the words in his heart, but he never lived to see that day. Did he ever really mean to resurrect those old stories, anyway? I'm sure it's just a coincidence that the spot on the kitchen floor where his heart exploded and he fell down and died was almost directly underneath the box stashed in the cubbyhole.
Everyone has always told me I inherited my dad's proclivity for words from him, and this is probably true. But I do not want to inherit his fate.
This is why my flesh absolutely tries to crawl right off my body every time someone tries to tell me how I should self-publish because "even though I insist I am not a good marketer, if I really work hard at it, I can learn to become really good at it and make a fortune!" My dad worked hard at becoming a good marketer – he did it all his waking hours for the entire time I knew him, while his real work, his stories, languished in a box under the cobwebs under the eaves. I have already wasted too many decades of my life making money doing things I am good at but which are not writing my stories. The old things I used to do: copy editing, technical writing, website development, are still, always, trying to suck me back in, and I fight them on a daily basis. I do not need to learn a new skill to fight off so that I can do what I'm meant to do.
I know I can never re-write Dad's stories so they can see the light of day and give others the same feelings they gave me but, somehow, I have managed to retain Jerome. He's taken on a new life in my work, beside a different river. A very different river. And yet, somehow, the same river...
Note: Women are allowed, now, at the real-world Jerome's, though moonshine is no longer available!
Stay tuned for Why I Might Have to Self-Publish whether I Like It or Not, coming soon...