“Writer’s block?” someone asked me. “Do you ever have writer’s block?”
“What’s that?” I answered.
If I were in my 20’s or 30’s, I’m sure I would have it. But in my 70’s? … I don’t have time. … There’s so little time and I have so many stories to tell! Furthermore, every time I meet a “character,” by which I mean a really interesting person, by which I mean a person who starts telling me his or her life story and it sounds like a novel, I immediately start imagining a new novel, based on that person’s life story.
For example, after mass last Sunday, I was sitting having coffee and doughnuts outside the church, when the assistant pastor happened to be passing by. “Father, do you have a minute? I asked him. “Yes, my mass doesn’t begin for a while.” “Father,” I then said. “Today’s Gospel is about forgiving your enemies. Can you forgive the Communists in Vietnam?”
I had pushed the right button. He stopped, stood next to where I was sitting, and started telling me his whole life story. “I was born in Saigon,” he began. “I was three when the Communists came into the city, which was in 1975.”
It turns out that the Communists had three strikes against his father: Strike one, he was a Catholic. Strike two, he was a millionaire. And strike three, he was a high ranking official in the police force that had cooperated closely with the Americans. Which meant that he would be executed by the North Vietnamese soldiers as soon as they found him.
Fortunately, because of his work for the American government, he was eligible to be helicoptered out of the American embassy to safety. His wife told him to go—escape before the Communists came for him. He hurried to the embassy. But then he came back. His wife was furious.
“For better or for worse,” he explained. “When I married you, I promised you that. … I can’t leave you and our eleven children.”
Miraculously, when the Communist soldiers came for him, they arrested him, instead of executing him. They sent him 1,600 miles north—to a “re-education” camp near Hanoi. He was there for five years. His family saw him only once during those years of torture, indoctrination and starvation.
After five years, he was released and came home. “For a decade,” the priest told me, “we lived in constant fear. One wrong word, and any one of us would have been shot on the spot. We went from being among the social elite to being pariahs. I often fainted at school from not eating. You see how small I am. I should be a big man, but I’m stunted from years of malnutrition.”
Then another miracle. After a decade, Senator John McCain sponsored a Bill in the Congress to allow Vietnamese who had worked for the Americans to come to the United States.
“By the time I got here,” the priest told me, “I had lost my faith and hated the Communists. But my mother and father never said a word of hatred against the Communists despite all that they had done to our family. They said that Christ said to love your enemies. I got my faith back, went to the seminary and became a priest. My father is still alive—he’s 92.”
The priest told me that once he gave a talk telling his story. When he finished, an elderly man who had been a soldier in the South Vietnamese Army raised his hand. He said with hatred in his voice, “I can’t forgive the Communists! They killed my family. I’ll never forgive them!”
It’s strange. When I was driving home from the church, I started imagining a love story. First of all, I marveled at the love of the priest’s father for his wife and children. He could have escaped to the United States. But he stayed. And he stayed alive in the camp where thousands were dying in despair. The love of his family kept him alive.
Then I thought about the man’s son that later became a priest. In Vietnam, he had lost his faith in God and humanity, and he arrived in this country full of hatred. But the love that his father and mother had for each other and for their family, and the forgiveness that they had for their enemies—this gave the son back his faith in God and in humanity. He went to the seminary and became a Catholic priest.
In my imagined love story, however, the young man did not become a priest. I started imagining how he had fallen in love with a young lady in Vietnam, but had to leave her behind when his family was allowed to leave. I imagined her as Eurasian—the daughter of a French soldier, who went back to France when the French Army was defeated in 1954, leaving behind his Vietnamese girlfriend, and his daughter, who was despised by all of the Vietnamese people, except for this young man, who loved her and told her when he left for America that he would find a way to get her out of the country and that he would always love her and be faithful to her. And so on.
That’s what always happens when I meet a “character”—a really interesting person who starts telling me his or her life story, which sounds like a novel. And I’m always meeting such persons. And I go home imagining a love story based on that’s person’s life story.
So … writer’s block? I don’t have it. … Too many stories to tell!