• Lisa Colburn

My Father, the Writer


My father, Wendall Kinney, with me at Harper's Ferry, WV

Whenever I came home from college, where I was studying English literature, my father, Wendall Kinney, would tease me: “What are you going to do with an English degree, go around English-izing?” Or when I’d ask him what he was reading, he’d hold up his Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy and say, “You wouldn’t like it, it doesn’t have any hidden meaning.”


Dad worked in an engineering role at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, and he wanted me to study engineering, too, without any consideration of the fact that I hated math and was terrible at it. In fact, I could conceive of no worse fate than studying engineering in a windowless classroom with hundreds of other students, mostly men. No, give me Dickens, Eliot, Austen, Shakespeare. Even Chaucer, whose Middle English confounded me, or John Donne.

Dad’s skepticism of the utility of my major decreased only slightly when I went first to the University of Denver Publishing Institute and then to an extremely low-paying editorial assistant job in New York City where—despite my cost-cutting measures of ramen noodle dinners and beauty school haircuts—I still needed occasional parental subsidies to survive. To my parents’ eternal credit, they didn’t love that I lived in the Big Apple, but they generously supported me anyway, for which I will always be grateful.


Mrs. Addison’s Library

My father grew up on a farm in rural central Maine in the 1940s. His family was large (there eventually would be 13 children, with 11 living to adulthood) and poor. They moved around a lot for my grandfather’s work—mainly logging and farming—and once because their house in Danforth, nicknamed The Pig’s Ear, burned to the ground. Dad recalled only one time they went to bed hungry, but when Grampie arrived later that night with groceries, Gram got all the kids up to eat.


Because he changed schools so often, Dad had to fight at every school he attended. Eventually he just picked the biggest kid to go after on the first day, so he’d have no more trouble from anyone. He also regularly had to fight his older brother, who as a child had a quick and boiling temper.


Despite all this, Dad was a good-natured boy who loved to read. In 2008, Dad wrote a lovely essay about visiting his neighbor in Dexter, Mrs. Addison, who allowed Dad and his siblings to borrow books from her home library. There he was introduced to Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack London, Daniel Defoe—and given a glass of cold milk and a homemade cookie in the bargain. He remained an avid reader all of his days. I don’t know if he ever imagined that one day he, too, would be a writer.


The Bucket List

When Dad was 55 years old, he took early retirement from the Department of the Navy, for whom he had worked as a civilian for nearly 30 years. By then I was living in the Washington, DC, area and working as a technical editor—a far cry from the kind of work I had intended to do.


Dad decided to do several things: build a canoe, take a canoe trip down the Allagash River, start working as a consultant in his field, learn to play guitar, and get a college degree. Not having a degree had held Dad back in his career. He was doing the work of an engineer, but without a degree he could never advance higher than GS-14. A degree was a bucket list item for him.

Off to the Allagash

In 1997, Dad began the low-residency program at Vermont College, which gave him partial credit for work he had done during his career. He found himself taking classes with young people, those who identified as LGBTQ, and bohemian folks. It was good for him, expanding his understanding of others’ experiences and perspectives. He got his degree in General Studies, with an emphasis on literature and writing. By the time he graduated, he had written a number of stories that would become the basis for his book, Overhome: And Other Kitchen Table Tales.


While Dad was in school and forever after, we learned we had more to talk about. Suddenly he understood my love of literature and why I took the career path I had. In an odd way, we met in the middle: I was now working for a defense contractor with Navy contracts, so I was steeped in Dad’s world. And now, through his college experience, he was steeped in mine.


“Get to it!”

There was a difference between my father and me, though: confidence. Dad decided he wanted to publish his collection of short stories, so he set about writing them, had my mother and me edit them, and self-published his book through iUniverse. I, on the other hand, yearned to write but felt stuck, stymied by perfectionism and a deep understanding of how my writing fell short of the writers I admired. Dad never bothered about that. He just wrote. Mom told me he wrote for hours a day, and he researched genealogy, Celtic mythology, and Irish/Scottish history. He was the working writer I had always dreamt of becoming.


Dad joined two writing groups, publishing essays in their anthologies. He did send out his book manuscript to one publisher, and when they declined, he self-published. I explained to him that submitting and receiving rejections were part of the writer’s rite of passage, but he would have none of it. He wanted his work in the world now, and he was willing to pay for it. He self-published before self-publishing was cool.



All throughout these years, Dad would urge me to write more. He’d look at my writing talent and shake his head—what was I waiting for? “Get to it!” he’d say, in response to my weak excuses. Only once or twice did we write together in response to prompts, and I wish we had done more. He marveled at what I wrote, and when I saw my words through his eyes, I did, too.


He was always my supporter, and I wish I could say I was equally his. I had read all of his stories in draft form with an editorial eye, so when his book came out I didn’t read it right away. I think he was hurt by this. Looking back, I can see I was a bit envious of how he just did things. How brave and bold he was. How he just decided, unburdened by thoughts of his own inadequacy or by the understanding of all that he didn’t know. He learned by doing. I learned (or didn’t) by fretting.


The Maine Humorist

The summer before he died, Dad produced a CD of Maine humor based on stories from his childhood. (Overhome had covered tales of his parents and ancestors.) Called The Bull and I: Maine Humor with a Twist, they were tall tales, stories he had promised himself he would write. He wrote the stories, practiced them aloud with his thickest Down East accent, and hired a recording engineer and production company. He took his CDs to stores up and down the coast, who carried them on consignment. He gave readings at libraries and historical societies, including the one in Dexter, where he had spent the longest stretch of his school years. His hometown newspaper, The Coastal Journal, ran a big feature on him. He was at the top of his game.


Then mesothelioma, an asbestos-caused lung cancer, came to claim him, and the second collection of stories for his next CD never found an audience.


A Writer at Heart

Dad died in 2014, and through all these years since, the struggle to put my writing first has remained real. My whole career has been devoted to writing in one way or another: editing, publications management, and leading writing workshops and retreats. I’ve had work published, too, in a scattershot way, but consistency and sustained focus on my own writing have remained elusive.


In truth, I have struggled to claim for myself what Dad did simply by showing up and deciding. Dad was a writer and storyteller. That was his true nature and true heart. And as my father’s daughter, I can say that they are mine as well.


On this Father's Day, as I know he would wish it, I honor myself as a writer. But most of all I honor him, who shone a light on my path simply by being himself.







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