Saturday, August 16, 2014

This Writer's Beginning by Jody Casella

Today, on this date forty years ago, my father died. He was thirty four years old. I was seven. His death meant the end of a lot of things.

It was also a beginning.

I heard an interview with Alice Walker once. She was talking about her childhood and why she thought she became a writer. She said that the age of six or seven can be a turning point for some people. Before that age, you're at home, and whatever your situation might be--good or bad--it's the norm for you. You don't have anything to measure your experience against.

But at age six or seven, you venture out into the world. You go to school. You visit friends' houses. You notice how other families live. If it's very different from your own experience, you question yourself and your place in the world.

It can be kind of traumatic. If you're a reflective type of kid, you turn inward. You read a lot. You write. This is what happened to Alice Walker.

Hearing that interview struck me because of course I was thinking of myself, at age seven, losing my father. I was too young to process that loss. Most of what I remember from that time is blurry. Chaos. Confusion. Fear. Other emotions came later.

Sadness. Anger.

I hate to admit this, but another emotion I had was shame.

I didn't want people to know that my father had died. I didn't want to have to explain. I didn't really know him, which is a sad thing to me now. The loss I felt was more about the general loss of a parent and not the specific loss of my father, the person.

I coped the same way Alice Walker did. I escaped into books. I wrote stories--because that was a form of escape too. When people praised my stories, I wrote more.

I never wrote about my father.

My book Thin Space is a totally made up story about a boy who loses his twin brother in a car accident. He's heard about the Celtic belief in thin places, where the wall between our world and the world of the dead is thinner, and he becomes obsessed with the idea. If he can find a thin space, he can see his brother again.

He teams up with a girl who has her own reasons for wanting to find a thin place. She wants to see her father.

There's a passage in the book where the girl, Maddie, is telling the boy about how her father died when she was younger. She can't remember him.

"Do you think that's stupid?" [she asks the boy] "Wanting to see someone you didn't really know?"

"You must've known him a little," [the boy says].

"Not really. If I didn't have any pictures of him, I don't know if I'd remember anything. And sometimes  I think it's just the pictures I remember and not real memories...I have this one picture where he's helping me button up my coat. I can see his fingers on the buttons, you know, and his face bending toward me. He had this very pronounced Adam's apple and a pointed chin. But here's the thing--that's all in the picture. So do I really remember him or am I just imagining that I do?"

I wrote this bit of conversation and never thought anything of it. A few weeks ago, an aunt (my father's sister) called me. She mentioned this conversation in the novel and said it made her cry.

The other day I was doing a bit of decluttering and I found this picture.

It turns out that I wrote about my father after all.


  1. Chills. Great post, Jody. So touching. I remember reading that Anne Rice had a similar experience. She wrote about the daughter she had lost without realizing it. A friend pointed it out to her.

  2. Dear Jody ... just, wow. What a lovely and moving piece.

  3. A famous author who writes both fiction and non-fiction recently said fiction is more revealing because the writer doesn't realize how much she is showing of herself. This often feels true to me.

    Wishing you great peace, Jody. I love that picture of you and your father.

  4. So touching. And I can relate to that feeling of shame. At that age you judge "normal" by what you see around you. When you saw that hadn't happened to your friends, you felt like you stood out, which isn't a good feeling at that age.

  5. How beautifully you describe your reaction to and processing of your father's death, Jody. It's wonderful that you wrote about it without knowing you were doing so.

  6. Thanks, all, for reading and for your kind responses. I don't mean to make it out like this is a sad thing. It's really not. (which I guess IS the sad thing)
    Anyway, I am fascinated too in how these memories worm their way through the subconscious and come out in story. I think we all do this in our writing, one way or another. I taught a class recently on mining your memories and it was amazing the stories people came up with. Very moving--when you can let the memory go and sort of play around with it.

  7. ((((((((hugs)))))))) Losing your dad at anytime is life changing--but so young. Amazing post. <3

  8. I actually went, "ohhhhh," aloud as I saw this picture. What a sweet and heartbreaking story. And I'm so intrigued by the concept of your book.

  9. The subconscious mind is an amazing thing. Wonderful post!

  10. Memory is such a fascinating concept in general. I have many "memories" that I'm not sure are real, especially from early childhood. My mom asked me the other day if I remembered my third birthday party and the coconut cake my great-grandmother made in the shape of a doll--and in purple, my favorite color at the time. I'm honestly not sure if I actually remember my "purple party" or if I've made up memories from other people's stories and from pictures. Fascinating post on the power of memories we don't know we have.

  11. Your post gave me goosebumps. I lost my mom at a young age, and can totally relate to you, Jody, at seven. I also escaped into stories. I also haven't written about my mother directly.

    Incidentally, the anniversary of your father's death is my mother's birthday. I don't know why that matters, but it does!

    1. Shoot, Lauren, your reply gave me goosebumps. So sorry to hear about your mom.

  12. This kills me in the best possible way, Jody. Beautiful, beautiful post.