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Visiting writer explores father-son dynamic

A July 2017 residency at Red Wing’s Anderson Center has given writer Tim Bascom of Iowa what he said is a rare opportunity to spend long uninterrupted hours working on his new book. Ruth Nerhaugen / Contributor

Writing stories about your own family isn't as easy as you'd think.

The problem, Tim Bascom said, is that he keeps running into what the educator in him calls "a sensitive relational dynamic."

Both of his published memoirs have raised issues with family members, explained Bascom, who is director of creative writing at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa. He is in residence during July at the Anderson Center.

Bascom spent a good chunk of his childhood in Africa, where his father was a medical missionary. His memoirs, "Chameleon Days: An American Boyhood in Ethiopia" and "Running to the Fire: An American Missionary Child Comes of Age in Revolutionary Ethiopia," grew out of experiences there.

Among themes he explored were his feelings of abandonment as a young child attending boarding school, and tensions between Marxism and Christianity in the post-Haile Selassie years — both sensitive topics within the family.

In his new book-in-progress, Bascom is taking a different approach. "Let Me Show You How It's Done: Mostly True Stories about Fathers and Sons" is a fictionalized version of family stories.

Bascom's grandfather and father, brothers and sons all appear in the book.

"It's especially hard to write about my kids," he said. Fathers are supposed to protect their sons, he explained, not expose them.

Making the stories fiction gave him the freedom to write about families and relationships between fathers and sons without being tied to specific events, times and places.

"I am exploring how the father-son dynamic has changed over four generations in a Midwestern family," he wrote in his artist work plan. "I hope to illuminate archetypal ways that fathers and sons take on new roles and interactions as they age.

"And by linking the stories over several generations, I hope to show differences that crop up when traditional values and customs give way to new circumstances."

There's a good reason for a shortage of women in the book. Bascom has lived much of his life in "a male universe."

His grandparents had four sons, his father had three sons, and he has two sons, Bascom explained. Although he would like the book to be something women want to read, it deals largely with the male experience.

However, he added, "I draw on my own experience of marrying a woman who represents (a) sea change in gender politics" by becoming an Episcopal priest. "She has authority. She is a leader. She has a voice. I am the clergy spouse."

When it comes to roles, he noted, "It's all up for grabs. I'm trying to capture that" in addition to his primary focus on the father-son relationship.

Bascom came to the Anderson Center with about 300 pages of material. He has spent considerable time making a basic change. On the advice of friends who read an earlier draft, he is changing the point of view from third-person to the first-person voice he uses to write memoirs.

By the end of the month, he hopes to return to Waldorf with a finished manuscript ready to be submitted to a publisher.

The cycle of stories has several themes many people will find familiar. The title story, "Let Me Show You How It's Done," reflects on the way fathers teach their sons, he said — sometimes with disastrous results.

Later in the narrative, sons emerge while their fathers recede, and by the end of the book, Bascom said, the now-middle-aged narrator faces a need to take over the fathering baton and go on without the support he has enjoyed for decades.

Bascom isn't convinced that his sons, who are in their 20s, will be particularly interested in the book at this point in their lives.

"The book is written for them, in some ways," he explained. "I hope they eventually will sit down and hear the things I want to say to them — to encourage them to be happy, to become who they need to be."