Other writers with kids have told me the same. When you’re a parent, you don’t have the luxury to wait for the muse to strike, and your internal editor is set to eleven. Jot down a sentence that feels off — that doesn’t ring true, or scans awkward, or which cuts skin but doesn’t strike bone — and your inner critic is quick to call foul. There’s no time for doodling on the page when you have a child or children to contend with. The stakes feel too high and time too precious.
In addition, your work takes on new dimension, perhaps new direction. Whatever the case in your life before, you now have a deep emotional well to draw from, as no child’s birth lacks fear and hope, pain and beauty, heartache and love. Parenthood changes you as a person, and that trickles into your work as well. Or can, if you let it. Which of course you should.
My son was born a week after I graduated with an Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing. From the start, I took to the page to capture, if not process, some of the complicated feelings that came with being a new father and a stay-at-home dad. I’ve been pleased to find an audience for that writing, both here and elsewhere. In addition, I’ve written journalism, and criticism, and fiction that’s yet to see the light of day. I’ve pursued a dream I’ve had since childhood of not just writing, but writing for a living, in part because I felt like if I didn’t now, I never would.
So I can relate to novelist Amy Shearn’s essay in The New York Times on Saturday, “A Writer’s Mommy Guilt,” in which she discusses the guilt associated with being a parent and a writer. The way in which, as a parent who writes, your mind is often elsewhere, in some daydream or creative headspace, thinking of the next plot-point or picking at a piece of prose that doesn’t feel quite right, instead of just being in the moment with your child. (I composed some of this very essay while having lunch with Felix.)
Conversely, a Saturday spent playing in the park means time away from the page, and the creative muscle is like any muscle, it needs constant exercise to stay strong. I beat myself up for ignoring it. Plus, writers are often word hoarders, or at least I am. There is a pleasure in putting down copy, a thrill that comes from using the “word count” feature in a document and seeing your progress quantified — I’m a bit of an addict in that regard. Recording no new words for the day leaves me feeling lazy, even though spending time with my family can recharge my engine when it’s running on vapors.
As Shearn eloquently writes, a profound connection underlies both writing and parenting. They can feed one another:
Writing is so much about the work of noticing. Fiction writing in particular demands intense noticing — studying how the emotional scaffolding of a human is built. When we’re not ignoring our loved ones in order to go write, we are living like watchmakers — picking apart conversations, analyzing recurring arguments, holding up to the light the wheels and cogs of our people so that we may understand them, yes, but also so we can learn how to create new people from scratch. You know, like mothers do.
And, of course, fathers too.
Besides the close watchfulness involved in both, there is also a kernel of arrogance to writing and parenting. For the storyteller, this comes from demanding the stage. You’ve got to give me your time and attention, because have I got a story for you! For the parent, it’s inherent in procreating, thinking well enough of oneself to want to spread the ole’ DNA around. I mean, it might be better if some people said, “The genetic buck stops here.” If only there were workshops for would-be-parents, a peer review system by which one could hear, “Actually? No. Don’t pass that stuff on.”
I’m being snarky and tongue-in-cheek, but seriously, parenting isn’t for everyone. Including some writers, who have made a point of not having children in order to focus more fully on their creative output. (Jonathan Franzen and Richard Ford come to mind among men, Joyce Carol Oates among women.)
But for those who do choose to write and be parents, along with all the struggle and occasional guilt, comes one great reward. Memory. The writer’s work entails documenting the world both inside and around them, bearing witness to the condition of being a human. Just like the travel journal my wife and I kept during our honeymoon in Spain helps us remember details of that trip we might otherwise have forgotten, so too does recording my thoughts as a parent help me capture what’s happening in my son’s development and growth, and my reaction to or observations about it. Often, as my work here demonstrates, I learn something about my own spirit in the process. I see myself, because I take the time to look in the mirror of the page.
So much of our lives — sensations, emotions, situations — pass by in the blur of days. Taking the time to write means taking a breath, slowing down to notice and capture some of those fleeting experiences. And this is stuff that I don’t want to forget.