Writer as Parent: No More Aching to Be an Artist

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

The response that seemed the most consistent with my own experience came from Helen Schulman, the mother of three children and author of five books, as well as a number of screenplays:

Of course my children have kept me from writing. They have also kept me from sinking into the quicksand of my own solipsism. They get me out of my head. That may not be the best thing for writing but it is much better for living.

And then later in the e-mail, as though she were afraid that she'd slapped me too hard with the truth: "They have brought me more joy than I ever knew was possible. I love them more than life itself. Isn't that how most parents feel?" Still, her impatience is almost audible in that last sentence, like "Why am I writing this stupid e-mail to Dan when I have to get everyone dressed for school?"

Holding on to Raymond Carver's claim that he invented himself as a short story writer because it was the form best suited to the anxious, time-starved life of a father, I was disappointed that no one offered me any such tidy workarounds. George Pelecanos's assertion that he was inspired by the noise of his family around him was as close as anyone came. Susan Neville, the creator of seven books and two children, guessed that "Raymond Carver would have written stories regardless, or...if he hadn't had kids he might not have written at all." Neville added that she herself had "this whacked-out sense of time prechildren. I thought I had a lot of it, and so I wasted a lot of it. Afterward, I had to fight for every second of writing time, and I wasn't picky. I wrote during swim lessons or while waiting in the car outside the middle school. I would say being a parent made me a lot more productive as a writer, but who knows?"

For me, ninety minutes used to be a good stretch of writing time, after which I could get a cup of coffee, check e-mail. During my son's first two years—when he still napped every day—I went down to a half hour. As a reward, I would allow myself to tidy up a room, put away a few dishes. Now I work in ten-minute chunks whenever and wherever life will allow—and I count myself lucky for that. For most of this last year, it was impossible to open my laptop anywhere near my son without his rushing over to the keyboard crying, "Where's Mickey?" To him, my PowerBook is only good for finding pictures of Disney characters.

At a time when money was too tight to provide me with more childcare than my college-professor day job required, the opening of my laptop—and his response to that—was a big and scary moment. For a while I toyed with the idea of just drugging my son with Elmo videos, but because I still live with the damage that this child-care strategy caused me, I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

Ultimately, the only appropriate response to a child is surrender. In this, too, it reminds me very much of the writing process. People who don't know children or can't remember how it felt to raise one may believe that getting my son to preschool in the morning should be a simple matter of exerting my will. They probably think that writing a novel should be a simple matter too. But writing a novel is different from typing a long manuscript. Just like raising a child is different from containing one within your house. And just like parenthood, novels are a mess. I've never done anything more difficult or more unsatisfying, while simultaneously finding it joyous and deeply satisfying. Writing a novel that works is like practicing archery inside a fighter cockpit during aerial combat. If you can return to base with your eyes still in your head and a book contract, you have to call that a miraculous win.

Sure, I can talk about the gifts that parenthood has given to my writing life: My mind has never been more fertile. I pour ideas from my skull like I'm Thomas Edison. The moment that my son goes to sleep, I grab the baby monitor and return to work. This past year of his life might actually have been the most productive time of my career. The pressure of his existence has squeezed my attention as hard as a diamond. And I have never, if truth were told, felt more like a writer—whatever that mysterious self-description means. Writing is what I do. It's like loving my family. Eating Mexican food. Breathing.

And yet I know that my writing week can disappear at any moment into a stomach flu, just as a freelance deadline can disappear into "I no like my bed, Daddy." Sometimes my brain is so fractured by parental concerns that I can't remember what I'm writing. I don't know how I missed the memo that my life would no longer be my own, but I am grateful for every person who has reassured me that they, too, no longer own their lives and that it is "going to be okay, Dan." Maybe even better than okay.

Actually, the words that have meant the most to me didn't come from my literary friends but from comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Speaking on a talk show about his own children, Seinfeld said, "Make no mistake about it—they're here to replace us." That recognition of mortality, I think, is at the heart of my parental humility. Until I met my son, I'd probably never met anyone whom I hoped would outlive me. I'd certainly never met anyone I would die for. That raw fact of my imploded self-centeredness runs counter to most of my writerly instincts. If I write to be heard, so that my voice will persist beyond community, beyond geography, maybe even beyond my own lifetime, how does it affect my writing to admit that I don't really care about that anymore, that I just want the best for him, that I might take any job that provided a good foundation for him? That my writing is no longer essential?

Maybe this is just what it looks like to grow up.

The book that has meant the most to me during these difficult toddler years—a time when I miraculously gained tenure, finished my second novel, and saw my wife embark on the career of her dreams—was one that I might easily have missed if I hadn't been so starved for news from this particular front. Karen Maezen Miller, a Zen priest and first-time mother in her forties, has written a stylish and remarkably honest account of parenting called Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood (Shambhala, 2006). When the publisher's catalog arrived with a quote from the author about learning to just be with her sleeplessness and frustration and anger, how she didn't have to turn them into language, I said to my wife, "I want that book." It was while reading this meditation primer disguised as a memoir (or, maybe, the other way around) that I started to relax. I realized I didn't need hints about how to better manage my life: I needed to live my life. Miller drives home this point when she writes about her garden:

I have a garden in my backyard. The more time I spend in it, the more beautiful it becomes. Not because of the hard work, the weeding, cleaning, raking, the tasks and sweat, but because I no longer view it as separate from me. From inside the garden, I no longer view it critically from arm's length as flawed, as less than perfect.

It took me a long time to figure out that my life is exactly the way it's supposed to be. And, now, sometimes, when I'm playing with my son, I actually play with my son. And when I'm writing, I actually write. To wonder about anything else but what's in front of me is to live inside an illusion. Every fall, for example, I look at the leaves I haven't raked, the beds I haven't cleared, and I'm tempted to see personal failure. My son, on the other hand, sees golden, crunchy opportunities for play. That's the extent of my understanding right there.

Dan Barden is the author of John Wayne: A Novel (Doubleday, 1997). An associate professor of English at Butler University, he lives in Indianapolis. His wife, Elizabeth Houghton Barden, is the owner of Big Hat Books.