"Getting Out of the Basement" on writing "The Escape Artist," issue 297.2

David Ebenbach

When I was a teenager, I locked my mother in the basement. It was an accident, but that didn't do her any good after I locked that door and left the house to go to work. She had to physically break out of the basement through the bulkhead door, climb the backyard fence, and go to her own job without keys or a purse or anything else. When I got to my job, naturally there was an angry phone message waiting for me.

And how did I react when I found out what I’d done? With sympathy and apologies? Of course not—I was a teenager and totally resentful that I had to go all the way home to unlock the door and get my mother the things she needed. Honestly, I don’t think I really felt sympathy for what she went through that day until I had a child myself.

Actually, I didn't get it until my son was three years old and I was working on my second book of short stories, a book all about parenthood. I was writing it because parenthood was (and is) such an enormous, complicated, uncharted experience—the book is called Into the Wilderness—and writing is my way of trying to understand the important and complex things about life. Inhabiting characters—in this case, fictional parents going through many of the same things I was—helps me to see my own experiences and emotions more clearly.

But it doesn't end there. One of the greatest pleasures of writing fiction comes from the fact that my characters aren't entirely like me; through them, I get to touch not only my own life but also the imagined lives of other people. Writing fiction means a constantly enlarging sense of empathy—at least if I’m doing it right. Short stories in particular allow me to see things from all kinds of angles. My characters were single parents, same-sex parents, parents of different religious and ethnic backgrounds, people struggling to get pregnant and people uninterested in becoming parents at all. The stories came from everywhere.

And then I found myself writing a story about a woman getting accidentally locked in the basement by her son—and (because it was a book about parents) I was writing it from the woman’s point of view.

This was a culmination of something that had been building for a few years. Before my son was born I brought together several important men in my life to mark and celebrate the transition into fatherhood. The guys told me stories and gave me advice, and one of those men—my own father—told me to remember to make time for myself once my child was born. Not only did that turn out to be essential advice—it also impressed me deeply with the truth that a parent, a father—my father—is of course a person, a person with needs and a point of view. I had always known that, but there’s a big difference between knowing something and really getting it.

From that point on, as I received more stories and advice, as I changed my first diapers and made my first bottles and figured out how (approximately) to parent, I had many occasions to think about all the times my parents had done similar things. How, instead of lounging around on the couch, they had worked and fed me and taken me places—all of the ordinary things people do for their children. Ordinary, yes—but the ordinariness doesn't rob their deeds of their profundity. Hour after hour, day after day, they elevated my needs (mine and my sister’s) over their own—because that’s what parents do. And what parents do is, frankly, amazing.

But the most enlightening thing about being a parent is that the empathy grows in more than one direction; not only was I finally truly understanding what my own mother and father experienced—I was also learning a lot about the experience of children, through my own child, and through writing my book.

In “The Escape Artist,” that story about the mother locked in the basement, my favorite scene comes toward the end, when the mother and the son are finally in the same place at the same time, unlocking the front door of the house to get back in. In that moment, I see both characters, and there’s finally room enough in the house for both of them.

In addition to the story collection Into the Wilderness, David Ebenbach is the author of Between Camelots (another story collection), Autogeography (a poetry chapbook), and The Artist's Torah (a guide to the creative process). David's piece, "The Escape Artist," is featured in issue 297.2.