Today, we'll be discussing The Secret Life of a Rock Dad by Clay Tarver.
The Best Writing Comes from Shame
Essayist and short story author Steve Almond writes, “Most writers, at a basic level, are trying to wring some beauty from the neck of shame.” The beauty comes from attempting to unravel and understand those complicated feelings through a story. In The Secret Life of a Rock Dad, Clay Tarver, in the guise of a story, unravels the conflicted feelings he has about his rocker past.
Initially it seems as if the primary conflict in Tarver’s essay is telling his children about his other life as a guitarist for the band Chavez. He has noble intentions, declaring that he doesn’t want to be “one of those parents” who force their kids to like what they like. Who hasn’t judged parents who dress their kids in jerseys of their favorite sports teams or sweatshirts from colleges they attended or even worse didn’t attend? Tarver even repurposes his therapist’s words “nothing has a stronger influence on their children than the unlived life of the parents” to justify his secret-keeping. But these are just excuses.
External Want v. Internal Need
Tarver in real life works as a screenwriter, and he employs a common screenwriting technique that juxtaposes external want versus internal need. Superficially, Tarver wants to figure out how to tell his kids about his rock life. But his deeper need is coming to terms with his past and figuring out his identity as a musician and a dad. The turning point of the essay arrives with the eloquent sentence: “That’s when I realized I’m an idiot.” After all the arguments with his wife, the surreptitious Vegas gigs and the therapy, Carver finally owns up to the truth that he’s a “conflicted mess” about his past, and that’s why he doesn’t tell his kids.
No Neat Resolution
The problem of telling his kids about his alter ego is humorously resolved by the end of the essay, but Tarver’s transformation is still a work in progress. Real life rarely includes neat resolutions and neither do effective essays. Tarver’s therapy doesn’t come from visiting the shrink but from writing. The fact that Tarver doesn’t have it all figured out by the end makes the essay more relatable and fun.
I'm having trouble matching Phil's level of insight. Let me focus on some of the stylistic elements I think you can borrow from Rock Dad for your essay.
"What's this article about?" I wondered. I had never heard of Chavez. "Did you even read it?" Phil asked me. He knew I had not gotten to it yet. There was nothing I could say. That's when I realized I had to do my homework if I wanted to avoid asking dumb questions.
I see three simple techniques you can adapt:
- Open with dialogue. Dialogue brings your reader into a specific setting. Too often, I see students writing about activities without getting into the who, what, when, why, or where. Without these details, the essay can and often does sound as if anyone could have written it. Dialogue forces you to bring the reader into a specific time and place. Those details help distinguish you.
- Think about sentence length. If you read the article closely, you'll notice that Tarver relies on short, declarative sentences. It's more Hemingway than Faulkner. He writes one thing. And then he writes another. And another. This is not the "right" style, but it is a clear style. The reader never gets lost in a thicket of long, confusing sentences.
- Save the realization for the end. If Tarver were being "efficient," then he would lead with his big realization about being an idiot. But this is a story, not a research abstract. If the writer engages us, we'll gladly sacrifice some efficiency. Let your story build, and then hit the reader with your realization at the end.
Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.