• Irene Allison
  • [SWP: Behind the Book] My Biggest Critic Became My Biggest Fan!
[SWP: Behind the Book] My Biggest Critic Became My Biggest Fan!
Written by
Irene Allison
June 2016
Written by
Irene Allison
June 2016

Success. Some writers see it as big and showy: big book, big publisher, big bucks. Or so the dream goes. But for me, a series of small, unexpected successes have fuelled my path on this long and arduous but wonderful journey.


One such early success gave me a whole new world, a world with my father.

It started like this:


“Mother,” I’m on the phone trying to catch the attention of my distracted mother. Halfway round the world and many years from home, we’re catching up on news. “I’m writing fiction now,” I say.


“That’s nice, dear.” Then in a breathy, urgent voice, she adds, “Hold on.” A sudden cloud of dead air fills the line, then, “Wal-ter …” She’s yelling now, yelling past the phone to my father, ordering him to put the lid on the garbage.


Apparently he’s done it right because her voice floats back to the phone. “You say you’re reading something, dear?”


A quiver in my gut, frustration at her obvious distraction. “No, mother, writing. Wri-ting.”


Sure, it was just some long distance chitchat, but I was disappointed my excitement about writing didn’t catch fire.


To me, writing was big stuff, big because my guts formed its core, my heart its shell. That was big

My first short story arrived as unannounced as fever. The words hijacked me, wrote themselves out in a couple of hours. A wild ride. When it was over, I gave the story to my writing teacher. “Submit it,” she ordered.


Fifteen million and one submissions later, no takers. Maybe I was wrong, maybe my teacher was wrong. Then one rain-drenched morning, came a very encouraging note, written by hand in tiny worm-like letters. “We loved your story,” the editor wrote. “It’s not for us. But please submit again.”


A whammy kind of feeling that, of being rejected and validated both at the same time, a feeling just bubbly enough to keep my muse focused and the writing coming. It was a small success and it was mine.


That first story never sold, but it secured me a scholarship to a program for writers. 


“I’m writing a novel now!” My weekly call home. “Got a scholarship based on a short story.”


“That’s nice, dear. Hold on.” Her voice fades. The sound of the phone clunking sharply against the desk, then a familiar yell, “Wal-ter!”


Apparently, yet again, father was up to no good.


In silence I counted to ten, practiced deep breathing and even deeper patience. While I waited for mother’s attention to return to the phone, I pondered the nature of our family dynamics: mother did all the complaining (mostly about father), and father did all the criticizing (mostly about me). It was sort of perfect in its own twisted-family-kind-of-way.


And I got it. Father probably needed to let off a little steam. Yet, love him as I did, it was still a challenge to ignore the sting of his laser ability to hone in on my faults. He was, by far, my biggest, loudest, and most dedicated critic.


When my parents discovered the setting of my novel, a location they both loved in the south of France, their interest zinged. Mother: “Tell me more.” Father: “What’s it about?”


My refusal to answer was like tossing a match on the fuel of my father’s curiosity. That wasn't my intention. I just wanted to finish the novel, rewrite and polish it. My parents would have to wait.


It drove them nuts.


In my younger years, my father’s prickly nit-picking had hurt. Now it simply annoyed, like the rub inside a boot of gritty sand on naked skin. I just needed to shake ‘em out, shake ‘em off. So too with my father’s criticism.


As I mulled this thought, a brainstorm hit. Perhaps the faultfinding skills of my harshest critic could provide some sharp editorial support. It was a risk. A big one.


I sucked back my fear. “You can read the novel when it’s done,” I promised.


Six months later I rattled my parents’ front door. My hand trembled as I passed the manuscript to my father. He glanced down at the title and my stomach flipped. Was I completely off my rocker doing this? A beginning writer is, after all, a vulnerable writer.


A few days later, I called. Mother chatted about shortbread fresh from the oven, the neighbor’s cat that had trampled her parsley. She prattled on until I wanted to scream: yes, but what about my manuscript?


Instead, I kept my mouth shut and waited. Patience is a very good thing for a writer.


“Oh, and, by the way,” mother continued in a deluge of words, “your father won’t let me near that novel. Won’t let it out of his sight. Won’t even let me peek. I could wring his neck for it.”


What? My parents were fighting over who got to read my manuscript?


I let the surprise pass, then asked, “So, what does he think?”


“Well, every so often he chuckles. Had a grin on his face at lunch, which for your father …”


It felt as if a bottle of bubbly champagne had suddenly uncorked in the pit of my stomach. Chuckling? My grim-faced, overly critical father?


A week later, I called again.


“And?” I asked mother.


“Still can’t get near it. Your father finished it but he’s reading it again. I could brain him.” The level of my mother’s frustration could always be measured by the murderous implication of her words.


Three times my father read that manuscript before releasing it. Then after my mother got her chance, he snatched it back to read again.


“He’s obsessed,” mother complained, “loves the damn thing.”




My novel was the kind to appeal to smart, sensitive women, a club to which my father would never belong. But something in the story had seduced him.


When finally he handed the manuscript back, it came with a short list of typos and some good ideas. Unlike his old critical zingers, these were useful.


That first manuscript still sits at the back of a drawer. Lots of agents, editors loved the language, the story. I even received a positive personalized rejection from the senior editor of a major NY house. But no takers.

Some might see that as a failure. Not me. All I need to do is remember the reasons I write: my love of words and my deep awe of that magical, precious connection between reader and story.


Best of all?


That early novel disarmed and enchanted a fussy, hypercritical person. My greatest critic became my biggest fan, forging a new, close relationship with a formally distant father.


Years passed and my father slipped into cognitive decline. Yet still he remembered that novel. It lifted him from a fog into the here and now. And in that bridge of memory and love, he always asked,


“So what you're writing now?”


* * * 

Stay, Breathe with Me: The Gift of Compassionate Medicinea mother-daughter collaboration, just out now!

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  • Irene Allison

    Karen, thank you! The thing I love the most about writing is how it can stir little things in our heart when we least expect it. I'm delighted you found the story heart-warming. Reading your comment warmed my heart! 

  • Wow.  What a heart-warming story.  Thank you for sharing it!

  • Irene Allison

    Roni Beth, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you!

  • Roni Beth Tower

    Beautifully written and moving, Irene.  Love the photos and the dialogue especially!

  • Irene Allison

    Thank you, Bella! I'm so glad you enjoyed the post.

    And because you asked, my book, co-written with my brilliant mother is available below. Warm wishes!

    Stay, Breathe with Me: The Gift of Compassionate Medicine

  • I loved this, Irene! And I'm so excited to hear that your book is out. What's the best way to get it? 

  • Irene Allison

    What a touching story, Mary! I had no idea that Viet Thanh Nguyen had to win the Pulitzer before his father approved of his writing career. Wow! It truly is amazing how much our families affect us, even when it's in crazy and loving ways.   

  • Irene Allison

    Thanks, Patricia. And yes, the interactions were pretty funny. I'm sure we all have stories like this to share about our families. 

  • Patricia Robertson

    Great post! Loved your parents' interactions while on the phone with you. :)

  • Mary Adler

    Lovely post and a wonderful memory for you. Viet Thanh Nguyen who won the Pulitzer Prize and the Edgar for his novel The Sympathizer said lovingly in an interview that it took winning the Pulitzer for his first novel to win his father's approval for his chosen vocation.