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My father e-mails me a lot. It's an easy way to avoid the awkwardness of calling me long distance - silences, call waiting, the fact that he can catch in the middle of dinner or angry about the past. On the phone, he can't seem to resist telling me his latest thoughts on what I should do with my life. I generally tell him to go to hell. E-mail is safer. Like this one:

"Honey - My main reaction to your articles is that you've achieved a writing style all your own....Short, penetrating sentences that live up to the standards of Clarity, Grace, and Euphony. I hear your Voice.... love"

I was happy for the rest of that day. But barely twenty four hours later, he took the risk of a phone call in order to criticize one of the same pieces.


by Minna Vainio

Talking in a manner that brooked no interruptions, he said the third paragraph should sum up the argument. "Spill the beans," he said urgently. Then, he advised, I should add two paragraphs giving more background.

"Two paragraphs?" I interrupted, protesting. "Just how much detail would I need?" Who was he to prescribe the correct number of paragraphs? I believe in editing. I wanted to hang up on him.

He hadn't said anything yet about the other piece I'd sent him, a personal piece about his marriage to my mother that made him look like a bad husband. He's been appearing in my writing for more than a decade as a man, by turns, self-absorbed, distant, drunk, self-pitying, and angry.

But we have always shared writing. A writer himself, Dad was one of the first people to encourage my development. He taught me that words matter. He taught me that writing well is a powerful gift. I appreciate that. But it can be hard to be independent of a parent's opinions.

Dad has never learned the delicate balance of good editing. Instead of making suggestions for changes, he orders them. A good editor is the loyal opposition in the writer's kingdom, her own work. My father tried to overthrow me.

I guess it's hard for a father to allow a daughter to rule her own kingdom. When I was a child, he made the rules. I haven't been outside the world of curfews and financial dependence for that long. He's not used to my being an adult and it looks like he doesn't want to be.

It's not hard to imagine why. I'm critical and difficult. I can hardly blame my father if he misses an adoring small girl I only dimly remember being. In pictures, her cuteness shocks me. She didn't need her own kingdom. She was princess in his. Maybe his praise had only been the lure to bring me back into his own kingdom.

But I reread the e-mail the next day. He'd said I had a style all my own. That rings of independence and adulthood. He might be ambivalent about some of what I write and say with that style, but he wants me to have it.

The first time I said I wanted to be a writer was when I was eight years old, and Dad has never since questioned that I would be. He cautioned me about the financial complications of a life devoted to writing, but he wasn't disparaging the choice. The extra planning required for the writing life was obviously worth it.

My father and I disagree about how I should plan my writing future. I've been struggling to keep my writing alive in the spaces around full-time work, and I plan to continue to do that. Dad thinks I should pursue an academic career. He's a journalist, but he thinks an academic career's easier, even cushy. I don't share his delusions of ease, but I applied to a number of Ph.D. programs last year. And they all rejected me. I found out why, and once I could see at all through the pain, I was glad I'd been rejected.

My written submission was deemed insufficiently academic, but well written. Dad thinks I should use this information to storm my way into graduate school, to re-write until I get in somewhere. But I don't want to spend years tailoring my subject matter and my approach to the academy's demands. I don't want to work in a world where "well-written" avails so little. I don't want to be subject to the academy's king on the whole route to tenure. It's just as bad as my father telling me how my piece should be. It was actually worse, because I couldn't hang up on the entire academic world.

I want to be sovereign queen over my work. It's the natural consequence of being respected by your father from an early age. He didn't prepare me to compromise. Holding a full-time job that pays the rent without interfering with my writing's content, subject, or style, even if it does encroach on my time, is the best way to avoid compromise. For now.

Dad did prepare me to take advice, as a good queen might have a cabinet of advisors. I went back to the article and made the changes he'd recommended, if not in exactly the number of paragraphs he'd said. I do rule the piece. When the indignation over its presentation fell away, I considered Dad's critique on its merits. And, like any good ruler, I employed it when I saw it was good.

Also in Song and Story:
Shamanism    Toy Story    Letting Go, Again

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