Anthony D’Aries’s debut, The Language of Men, is marketed as “an incisive, darkly funny memoir about a father’s influence on his son’s attitudes toward violence, sex, family, life, and death.” No biggie, right? In it, he guides the reader through a far-reaching examination of how learning more about his father has helped him learn more about himself. This is exactly the kind of transformation many writers of creative nonfiction strive for when they embark on their own storytelling journeys. The Language of Men reveals many insights about father-son relationships not just for the reader, but for the author, as well. He shared his time with Mason’s Road to offer his perspectives on the concept of transformative nonfiction.
Q: Your book, The Language of Men, recounts your journey through a pretty significant transformation as a young adult—one in which you reluctantly discover that you may be more like your father than you’d ever realized. Was this something you were aware of before you started writing, or did the transformation take shape as part of the writing process?
A: Like many sons, I idolized my father. Still do, in many ways. I admire his work ethic, his “get-the-job-done” approach, which, in part, came from his experiences in the Army when he was a teenager, and from his own father. I respect the practical, efficient, orderly way my father works. I appreciate physical work. While writing is such an internal process, my routine and the things I like to do are often physical and similar to my father’s work habits: rise early, make coffee, work while others sleep. I don’t know if there was a transformation, but there was a shift, a shift in how I communicate with my father. When I asked questions that pressed too firmly on sensitive topics—love or work or dreams—my father said I was venturing into “no man’s land.” Six years later, I’m still curious about that place.
Q: Does writing about transformation inevitably become a transformative act?
A: One of my mentors, David Mura, said, “You write to become the person who can finish the piece.” I think most writers, when the writing is going well, are gradually transforming. There are those Eureka! moments, but quite often I don’t realize my perspective has changed until I reach the end of a story or essay. When I revise, I start to see thought patterns I wasn’t aware of, or connections I wouldn’t have made if I hadn’t allowed myself to write a messy rough draft. With Language, it was different not only because it was a longer piece, but because for a while that book was writing for me. There was something like postpartum depression when it was done, so I didn’t really feel transformed; I felt lost. But now when I give readings, I’ll come across a section I’d forgotten about and it will resonate in a different way than it did when I first wrote it. What I find fascinating about Mura’s comment, what I didn’t initially understand, is that writers are perpetually “becoming” the writer who can finish the work.
Q: In creative nonfiction, where authors often reinvent themselves as main characters, is there an expectation that the work must be personally transformative for the writer? Should there be? Do you think such an expectation exists for writers of fiction or poetry?
A: Readers might expect a memoirist to have been transformed by the writing process or, now that he or she has written about a particular experience, to be able to “move on.” Moving on, coping, personal transformation—these are clinical, “self-help” terms, and readers may use them when discussing memoir because memoir is often misconstrued as therapy or a therapeutic act. It can be, but that’s not a memoirist’s purpose and not why I wrote mine. Keeping a journal or diary to “get it all out” is much different than writing a memoir to search for a form in our memories. Memoir isn’t about arriving at absolute answers, it’s about asking tougher questions.
Perhaps fiction writers and poets experience a similar expectation about personal transformation, more so when writing in the first person. Whether we tell the reader or not that the “I” is us, the reader still has a voyeuristic desire to know how much of the author’s personal experience is in the story or poem and how much that experience affected the author.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in telling the story of your relationship with your father?
A: I sometimes wondered if I was appropriating my family member’s experiences. I knew I couldn’t tell my story without telling my father’s, and I felt sure of this when I was alone writing in my apartment, but not when I was sitting across from him or my brother with the final manuscript on the table between us. I was aware of the sections that might be particularly hard for my family to read, but in a way, that reconfirmed my instinct to write the book in the first place—if a conversation or question is difficult, if it touches on raw memories or dusts off painful events, that’s doesn’t necessarily mean the topic should be taboo. Quite often, it means the opposite. But it can be tricky. A memoir is not the place to settle a score. That needs to be done off the page, and you write from there.
Q: Early in the book, there is a stark assertion from your father: If I had to live my life over again, I’d go back. Despite the challenges he faced in Vietnam, he felt that the experience transformed him into the man he eventually became. Do you feel the same way? If you had to live your life over again, would you go back on the fact-finding mission that changed your life?
A: My father often spoke fondly of the Army and his time in Vietnam, using words like “structure” and “discipline.” He said the Army made a man out of him. I wondered what he considered himself before or what he thought he would’ve been if he hadn’t been drafted. I suppose we all need a rite of passage, an experience that we realize in hindsight changed us from a child to an adult. Birth, death, love, war, sex, drugs—those are the biggies, right? I first started asking my father about Vietnam because I thought it was the defining moment in his life, but, over time, I realized we aren’t defined by a single moment. That’s not to say there aren’t moments in our lives that are more significant than others, but I became more interested in the accumulation of moments, experiences, and behaviors that compose our present selves.
So now, in hindsight, I do think the process of writing my book was one of the significant experiences in my life. Questioning my father, myself, changed my perspective on a lot of the macho behavior I took for granted. My father’s Army experience taught him what a man is; my writing process showed me what a man can be.
Q: How would you want readers to be personally transformed after reading your work? Is this a question that you consider as an author while you write? What book(s) have you read recently that you feel transformed you in some way?
A: The more I answer these questions about transformation, the less comfortable I am with the word. Haha. I always liked the good ol’ term “moved.” It sounds cliché and Hallmark-y, but I often ask my students to think about the word. If we move from one place to another, our perspective changes. In town, we see two cars with rusted bumpers. On top of a mountain, we see a glowing stream of traffic. Same cars, same town, only our view has changed. When a piece of writing or a moment in our work “moves” us, we are transported (momentarily, maybe longer) to another place; our perspective on prison or snow blowers or soccer has shifted. It’s usually around the same time in my writing or reading when I realize my leg is asleep or my coffee has gone cold.
Lately, I’ve been reading the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, which is filled with some incredible essays. I just read one by Jamaica Kincaid about tourists in Antigua. It moved me because she made me feel as if I were squirming under a microscope.
Q: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to writers of creative nonfiction in terms of writing about personal transformations?
A: I think it’s dangerous to expect writing to transform you. That’s too much pressure. I think writers should be more concerned about the person they become when they don’t write. For me, I feel ornery, impatient, dulled. I like some of the yoga language that can apply to writing—daily practice, centered, present. The best advice I can give is: just write. Keep doing it, and do whatever you can to keep yourself from keeping yourself from it. If you’re struggling to write your novel based on your time as a skydiving instructor in Greenland because what you really want to write is a lyric essay about hairless cats, get crackin’ on cats. Any topic, any obsession, has the potential to move you and move readers.