“Why can’t you write like Danielle Steel?”
This has always been my mother’s reaction to everything I pen. I never should have even started sending her my work, but I always felt obligated.
She worked hard and sacrificed, doggedly determined to give her oldest daughter something she never achieved, a college degree. Unfortunately, for her at least, my education included a minor in Russian lit. and a semester in Russia, where I immersed myself in the lives of all the modern Russian masters.
Upon my return, I tried to express my appreciation to my mother by describing the thrilling visits to Dostoevsky’s apartment and Chekhov’s grave.
“Did you know, Mom, that Chekhov’s headstone is shaped like a little dacha? As if death were his only refuge?”
Mom never acknowledged my gratitude. She knew and continues to know little about the authors I idolize, and she has made no effort to try. I sent her a signed first edition of Dr. Zhivago for her birthday once.
“Why did you get me this?” she moaned. “I’ve seen the movie at least eight times."
Nonetheless, over the past 40 years I stupidly continued to try to find ways in which I could thank her with my delight in literature. But whenever I uttered the word Russian she launched into a lecture about her favorite Steel novel, Zoya. She always relates the rags-to-riches story to me with the urgency of a mama egret regurgitating a meal into the mouth of an insatiable chick. Nothing I have shared with my mother about Anna Karenina ever measured up to Zoya.
Though Mom has two other middle-aged children, I continue to be her life’s project. It doesn’t matter that I married and moved three thousand miles away. Until she retired 25 years ago, she continued to dress me, or try to. I have to admit that she has always had very nice taste. So, for a while, I wore most of her gifts, corporate clothing for the corporate jobs I never took. Instead, I honed my craft on nonprofit fundraising appeals and all the plays and fiction I could manage on the weekends. Finally, at 57, I took an early retirement package from a government job so I could devote as much time to writing as I wished.
“This is what I want to do with the rest of my life,” I told Mom. Naturally, she countered with the same old question.
I tried to explain to her that I couldn’t be more different than Steel. She’s a prolific, bestselling, genre writer who engrosses a billion and one readers on a tireless schedule. Though I have probably penned as many words as Steel has fans, few readers know my work.
But I never saw this as a negative, at least while I was searching for my own voice. In fact, I always believed that I wrote for only one reader, the only one that should count. Jotting down what I observed and felt was the way I attempted to make sense of, or at least tolerate, a world as brutal as it is wondrous.
Five years ago, Mom learned she was losing her sight to macular degeneration. Since then her doctors have tried everything, including experimental surgery, but there is no hope. She gave up her driver’s license after suddenly and temporarily losing her sight while driving. Despite this, her fierce sense of independence prevailed.
She insists on living alone. She has to rely on neighbors and paid help for rides to the doctor and grocery store. She’s learning to get around with barely enough sight to distinguish the impossibly dim contrast between shadows and light.
In response, Mom has upped the ante with me. “Can’t you write something I’d like before I am too blind to read?”
“Mom, you’ve already seen and rejected everything I’ve written,” I reasoned. “What makes you think at this point that this would even be possible?”
“You can learn. I’ll send you Zoya. All you have to do is read it.”
She said this to me in the same way she instructed me on how to use a tampon when I was 14. “Just stick it up there,” she screeched. Her impatient crudeness rang out the open bathroom window and, I’ve always feared, momentarily stopped a nearby Little League game.
As my mother’s universe continued to darken, so has her summation of my talents.
“Your writing stinks,” she told me not long ago. “You’d better get going and write something I like, before I die.”
Finally, I snapped. “I’d rather swim with crocodiles!”
The pause that followed was long and painful. I had failed to remember that it is impossible to be rational in someone else’s irrational world. I don’t remember who hung up first. I don’t remember saying goodbye either.
I began to wonder if my mother was showing signs of dementia. I began to imagine what it was like for the brain to die—soft, moist tissue turning hard, choking off the blood flow, oxygen and normal function. For what other reason would she firmly believe she could make me write like Danielle Steel?
I have never admitted this to anyone, but I once attempted a sort of Pasternak/Steel hybrid. Of course, my heart wasn’t in it. And, the minute I wrote the sentence: “She knew she should leave, but something wouldn’t let her,” my inner critic blew up: “You’re not going to leave that in, are you?”
I immediately tore up the hard copy of the piece and deleted it from my hard drive. Then and only then did it occur to me that that vicious voice in my mind sounded a lot like, well, my mother’s.
I have since stopped sending her my work. I no longer tell her when something is published or presented. I no longer argue with her, or myself. Still, she is right about one thing, and she reminds me of it every time we speak. She will die soon.
Will I always regret that I couldn’t fulfill her most ardent wish? I can only hope that somehow—maybe somewhere in an upcoming Steel novel—she will realize that pleasing her is what I had been trying to do all along.
Send a comment to the author: