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  • Writer's pictureTaylor Engle

Co-Writing for Connection: How I Helped Write My Late Father's Memoir

Writing about my dad still makes me feel weird and itchy—like it’s my first day after quitting a vice. I guess that means I continue to experience withdrawals from his lack of presence. However, time has taught me how to find hints of his life force in and around my own for brief moments of comfort. Thankfully, I can always find it in our words, which we put together to write 211 Blue: The Story of The Chameleon Cop, a recount of his young life as a cop-turned-robber. 

I was raised with the knowledge that my dad had lived a wild life before I came along; I was also raised without any clarification or insight into what that meant. An attempt to keep me sheltered from perceived “ugliness,” I took the whispers and private conversations very personally. Instead of feeling protected from a disturbing truth, I felt outcast and distrusted—I was the only person in my family who wasn’t allowed to understand the full picture of our origins. 

When my dad approached me with four chapters of a story he claimed would be entirely his, I jumped at the chance to collaborate with him. I’d shown a strong interest in writing for as long as I could remember, and was attending college for communications and journalism at the time. For both of these reasons, my dad decided to ask me for help writing his memoir. And for one reason—implied access to his colorful past—I agreed. 

The writing process: Going deeper with my dad

Writing with my dad was the first time I’d ever collaborated with another writer. I was also still very new to the writing scene, and completely inexperienced with memoir/novel writing. But so was he, so we combined shared obliviousness with curiosity and confidence to figure it out together. 

I eventually learned his full story. I had to understand the plot, didn’t I? 

He told me he’d robbed a couple of stores after leaving the police department. I still loved him. He told me he’d talked himself out of pending criminal charges from the second robbery, and subsequently opened a whorehouse. I still loved him. He told me he’d cheated on his family, gotten arrested, taken drugs, and hurt hundreds of people in the process. I still loved him. 

He confessed to me that he’d eventually been hit with the realization that he’d either have to change or die, and that he’d committed the rest of his life to being and doing good. Since I’d already lived my life thus far as a firsthand witness to the tailend of his story—he was indeed straight-edge, lowkey, dangerously close to “boring” in my then-adolescent opinion—all of my blanks were finally filled in. I loved him more than ever. 

The experience was largely therapeutic for both of us. I sat next to him as he poured his perceptions of the past onto blank page; I urged him to express more and go deeper where he instinctively shied away. I listened to his stories and came up with ideas on how to structure them; we played with formatting together, tossed dialogue back and forth, and laughed a lot over the four years it took us to write the book. We grew closer than I could have dreamed of. We were more than family. We were colleagues. We were friends.

Healing the imposter syndrome within

Co-writing my dad’s memoir wasn’t just great for our relationship—it also had a powerful impact on my own confidence. I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember; I wrote my first book at age 8. It was called Casey and The Fish and was about my cat (Casey) and my two fish (don’t hurt yourself trying to follow that thread). 

However, despite finishing Casey and The Fish and confidently reading it in front of my second grade class (thanks to everyone who sat through that), I failed to write any follow-up books. Writing novels has always been my #1 end goal as a writer, but I was riddled with imposter syndrome every time I tried to start one. Like most writers, I have a massive graveyard of novels I’ve started and killed before they had a chance to develop. Reading my own words back to myself always left me feeling paralyzed with humiliation; they were always easier to abandon than to love and accept.

Writing 211 Blue meant I couldn’t turn back. My dad was counting on me, and I had to follow through. At least I didn’t have to deal with the anguish I regularly faced when trying to establish a plot arc—”memoir” meant the plot had already been set in stone. All I had to do was help him figure out how to talk about it. 

Many of these days were difficult, especially when it came to editing over what had already been edited. Editing can feel a little too much like facing failure, until you learn to be kinder about the whole thing. Not getting it right the first time is okay. Sometimes you just need a moment to reflect, and a trusted ally to tell you whether or not you’ve hit the mark. 

The publishing process: An act in facing grief 

My dad’s death was sudden and unexpected—a rapid decline that I hadn’t yet wrapped my head around by the time it was time to say goodbye. We’d found out the memoir was going to be published by Bitterroot Mountain Publishing House about one month before; I took it upon myself to see that through for both of us.

I had to write an introduction and epilogue. I had to reread the book several times alongside the publishers. This felt immense and intimidating. Sure, I’d been along for the entire writing ride, but the story had always been his. 

Nevertheless, I had to face what we’d built together, making the final decisions I trusted he would back if he could. I tapped into everything I’d learned about him in 26 years. I did my best to make sure his story was brought to life the right way.

This was a very difficult season of life for me. What should have been an exciting accomplishment felt like a massive demon I had to face. It was suggested to me that I drop the project; with him gone, I should be focusing on my healing instead of forcing myself to face his ghost. I didn’t listen. 

Working on this was a constant, harrowing reminder that he was gone. The process tore me up and spit me out. I think it saved my life—or at least, the dismal way I’d begun to view life in his absence. 

The aftermath: An eternal celebration

211 Blue is here, and I’m finally at a place where I can say that without feeling deep sadness. I’m proud of what we accomplished, and so grateful I’m able to share it with the world. I talk about it more every day. That empowers me and makes me stronger. It allows me to make sense of what it means to keep living in the midst of loss. 

Grieving a loss is…how do you finish that sentence? I don’t think you can. But I’ve chosen to look at the publication of 211 Blue as a gift from my father. Its existence means I can utilize art to work through my grief—art that I created with my beloved father. He gave me that. I thank him by moving forward. 

So yeah, writing about my dad still makes me feel weird and itchy. I’ve accepted that might never go away. But telling his story soothes some of the tingles, and moves me closer to the life he dreamed of for both of us. 

I love you Daddy. Thank you for being a permanent passenger on my life’s ride.

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