Writer as Parent: No More Aching to Be an Artist

Dan Barden
From the May/June 2007 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

About two years ago my wife opened a general interest independent bookstore—the first our city has had in ten years—and most of the parenting of our baby boy fell to me. This made sense, as my writer-professor schedule is relatively flexible, whereas the bookstore often requires fifteen-hour days. Since then, navigating time and energy and inspiration has been both a nightmare and a joy. And when I say "nightmare," I mean nightmare. Fortunately, when I say "joy," I also mean joy.

Parenting is no doubt difficult for people in all professions, but I believe there are special challenges for writers.

At this moment, my son is crawling over my body toward the page I'm writing on. I abandoned my laptop about a half hour ago because that's not a tug of war you want to have. He says he needs to "take it [my notebook] back to the library," and, just now, he started licking the page. He's in bed with me because he "no like" his own bed. This would all be pretty funny if I weren't on deadline and it didn't sometimes make me want to throw myself out the window. Did I say "sometimes"? More like, several times a week. And dig this: My son is the most accommodating, generous, and lovely child I've ever met. Really.

Parenting is no doubt difficult for people in all professions, but I believe there are special challenges for writers. First of all, there's the matter of time: You no longer have any. Those long afternoons spent pacing beside your desk, thinking to yourself, "Should my story be told in the third person or first person? Is the main character's name Jimmy Timberson or Jimmy Tomberson?" are gone. You pretty quickly start spending your life scrambling for a free moment to write. I'm always more or less wondering when my son will take a nap. And if he does nap, where is my computer? And if my computer is nearby, can I let the dishes and the laundry slide?

Not only is there no time, but there's precious little space. And by that I mean both in the world and in my head. The attic office where I'm working right now is a good example: Once easily recognizable as a writer's nest, now it looks like a playroom with a laptop in the middle. Matchbox cars will soon wage their war against the books.

When I asked a friend how it felt to be a mother, she said it was like she was exactly the same person except now she was a new species. I'll endorse that. My new species is characterized by always being in two places at the same time: I am with me, but I am also with my son. I am wondering about my life, but I'm wondering more about his. "Do I have the notes that Bill gave me about chapter 4?" is always trumped by "Did I remember to get the diapers?" "How much exercise am I getting?" is always trumped by "How much exercise is he getting?" It's not like my ego has disappeared (God, no), but it's been overrun by vastly larger concerns. At any moment, no matter what I am focusing on, it can be swept away by anything that the boy needs. This is, in fact, the way it's supposed to be. But sometimes it's hell on the book, which used to be the only demanding toddler in my life.

My writing had always been the thing that completely absorbed me. Walking down the street, having a conversation with my wife, getting angry about some perceived slight—this was my life, but it was also what I wrote about. Now, instead of wondering how any given situation will impact my work, I wonder how it will impact my son. If, as Dr. Johnson said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," I am certainly no longer a blockhead. I expect to be paid for my work because, to put it quaintly, baby needs new shoes. I also engage in a lot less of what my wife calls "aching to be an artist." That kind of self-torture has never been particularly productive for me, and these days it just seems silly. Now I can imagine many worse things than writing poorly: Prose stylists don't matter in a pediatric emergency room.

There are plenty of similarities between parenting and writing. For example, it's not success that ultimately defines you but getting by. As I enjoy telling my students, the guy who writes technical manuals for Motorola has a lot in common with Philip Roth: Both he and Mr. Roth get their sentences published. I think of myself as a novelist because I've written something like ten novels. How many have I published? One. When I ask someone to read a manuscript, I don't say, "How good is it?" I say, "Does this work?" Especially with small children, it's a farce to believe that it matters whether they end up going to Yale or the Truckmasters School of Trucking. What's important is that they: (a) survive your care, (b) become at least as socialized as you are, and (c) still want to talk to you when they're adults.

Another similarity between writing and parenthood is the way in which your accomplishment disappears into the accomplishment. Some days, this is the thing that mostupsets me—that way in which, if you do your job well, it will seem effortless. This, of course, is the test of a successful piece of writing—that none of the seams show. Even the people who think they know how hard you worked don't have a clue. With parenting, it's the same deal. In my world, where a three-year-old can make the logistics of a morning shower as difficult as a trip to the moon, why doesn't anyone give me credit for being clean? For getting to work? For keeping food in the house? As proud as I am of my new book, I'm a little prouder that I can remove and re-install my son's car seat in less than five minutes. Or how about the fact that he walks and talks and doesn't poke anyone with sharp objects? Why isn't there an award for that?

Just now, in the bed beside me, my son has had an attack of existential pain. He's tired and his face is screwed up like a fist. It's my fault: I haven't yet fixed the spider that he made in preschool today. So I go upstairs, retrieve the last roll of Scotch tape (note to self: Scotch tape is essential to father-son harmony. GET MORE!) and I tape the black yarn once again to the back of the paper plate. Then, being careful that he can see every move I make, I also reattach that eighth leg that ripped off when we got out of the car this afternoon. Then I ask my buddy where he'd like the "scary spider" to hang. He says on the door handle so "Mommy can see it when she comes home from the bookstore." The look of absolute joy and relief on his face, I'm embarrassed to tell you, makes everything else that has happened today disappear. And this is another problem with being a parent-writer. Who wants to take the time to write a novel when you can get just as much satisfaction from reattaching the eighth leg of your son's spider?

When I queried my parent-writer friends about this issue, I was shocked by how quickly everyone responded, and I decided to read all the e-mails in one sitting. This session left me feeling a sort of gorgeous despair. There was a grandeur to our experience that was like reading letters from some besieged fortification—the Alamo, maybe, or Masada—where everyone accepted defeat but still believed in the glory of the cause. My friends shared with me a kind of inspired cluelessness that speaks not only to the experience of parenthood but also to the experience of writing. These people are very, very good writers, and yet they wrote humbly about their inability to answer my questions in a way that made sense even to them.

Some of the writers seemed a little angry, a response that I'm well equipped to understand. Steven Rinehart, the father of three children and author of two books, told me that he wrote an entire novel "out of being pissed off at forty-year-old single guys seemingly being the spokesmen of our generation." As an act of revenge, he made the main character of his novel "pay for their sins." Read his excellently frightening take on fatherhood, Built in a Day (Doubleday, 2003), and you'll see he's not kidding.

A few of my correspondents had a "well, you just get on with it" response. Those writers who support their families from their writing alone were more likely to take this tone. George Pelecanos, the father of three children, a prolific novelist, and also a writer and producer of the HBO series The Wire, could be forgiven for not even reading my query. He instead blasted right back with:

I have a family to support. None of this, "I don't feel like writing today," or, "I'm going to put the manuscript in a drawer for a few months and come back to it." I go to work every day because that is what I'm here to do. Writing puts food on the table and keeps the roof over our heads. My father had his own business, a lunch counter in downtown D.C. I have my own business, and it is located in the first floor of my house. To my mind, there is no difference. I turn the proverbial key on the front door every day, just like he did, to take care of my people.