Writer in Chief
Originally published in The Boston Globe, March 23, 2009
The pair of new novelists had just been granted their first house mortgage when the banker leaned across his desk to ask, "But what is it that writers do exactly? I've always wondered." This was long enough ago that everybody knew what bankers did, though these days that's the better question.
It seems today that not even bankers can coherently explain what they've been up to, so don't ask me to. My mother worked as a teller in the family bank on the main street of their small town, and as a conservative child I was given my weekly allowance in coins that I would divide up into envelopes marked "movies" or "candy" or whatever higher-priced item I was saving up for. Learning how to budget while in elementary school doesn't necessarily mean that I'm still good at it, but I do get the concept. What it is that bankers "do exactly" seems not to be what they've been doing lately.
That fiction writers "make things up" is the usual definition, and while it might accurately describe our improvised reply to that banker, it's not what the real work consists of. What all writers do—or try to—is what was exquisitely achieved in the #1 bestselling Dreams from My Father, where the admittedly unique author's note on its newest paperback edition reads "Barack Obama was elected President of the United States on November 4, 2008."
First published in 1995, Dreams tells the classic coming-of-age story of a young man's journey of discovery, and this hard-won wisdom is present and evident in the man he has become. "Use words!" is how diligent parents and teachers coax children to reconcile conflict, and in Dreams we see Obama urged on by his mother. "'If you want to grow into a human being,' she would say to me, 'you're going to need some values.'" Honesty—Fairness—Straight talk—Independent judgment—these were her values. About his absent father's imprint she would tell him, "'But your brains, your character, you got from him.'"
The subtitle of Obama's Dreams is "A Story of Race and Inheritance," and the book's journey is launched in "Origins" when, with "her face as grim as a hearse," Obama's mother challenges him, "Don't you think you're being a little casual about your future?" She'd felt for his father "a love that would survive disappointment," but the demand she is making of her adolescent son is to grow up.
In the second section called "Chicago" he begins to find through community activism "the sense of place and purpose" he was looking for, but he also sees that he has to know his father to locate "the attributes he sought in himself."
The final section "Kenya" brings Obama to the graves of his father and grandfather, where he recognizes the faith "that pulsed in the heart of the first African village and the first Kansas homestead—a faith in other people."
And so the question he returns home with is this: "How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love?" He feels "modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail."
There's no surprise ending when Dreams reveals Barack Obama to be the self-knowing, self-accepting grown-up man—with his father's brains and character and his mother's values—whom America elected and instantly entrusted with the critical task, among others, of rescuing our country from its self-inflicted chaos. Last week's chorus of outrage against the AIG bonuses was given fiercest expression by Obama himself, whose ability to "Use words!" to articulate anger—that fundamental childhood lesson—is a corrective step on our collective behalf, especially in these times of economic near catastrophe.
The inspiring personal story of Barack Obama has quickly boosted the status of community organizing and raised the profiles of Kenya, Kansas, Hawaii, Indonesia, and Chicago, plus all the schools he ever attended. And while his official title is Commander-in-Chief—Banker-in-Chief too now, of necessity—his honest use of language to create identity in Dreams from My Father is what makes him our Writer-in-Chief as well. It's about time we had one.