April Davila, a writer and one of my former graduate students, wrote me asking if I could be a guest blogger and write about "being a writer while being a parent" -- as she was about to give birth to her second child and could use guests to help her with her blog. Having two children, now ages 23 and 12, I wrote the following.
I happened to be one of April's professors at USC in the Master of Professional Writing Program. Her request brings up the one subject that is rarely whispered about, let alone spoken of, in graduate writing programs: how do you write once you become a parent?
Parenting, too, is on my mind because I’m seeing the whole life cycle right now with my mother dying just a few weeks ago. I suppose that puts me in the batter’s circle for the next up to the plate, though I feel young and healthy and my daughter’s twelve and I just came back from a parent-teacher conference and I’m not ready to bat. I don’t want to even be in the ballpark.
If you’re in a writing program, it’s all you can do to write that novel, biography, memoir, play, screenplay, television show, collection of poetry, or creative nonfiction book. You don’t want to hear about more demands on your time and attention. You don’t want to learn the big secret no one told us when my wife and I brought our newborn son home twenty-three years ago: babies don’t sleep through the night.
(Spoiler alert: In a matter of days after you bring baby home and after waking up every few hours, you’ll be a zombie. Stringing a subject and verb together will be a challenge. “Car ride” will constitute a whole sentence, as will “I smell it” and “My turn.”)
At the same time, to be a new parent is to feel the luckiest person in the world. You’ll be amazed at how personality shows up within weeks. After a year, you’ll have witnessed your baby becoming a person, and you won’t be able to put your finger on when it happened. This little creature, brimming with curiosity, is learning all the time and so are you. Your nonparent friends will get quickly bored by each new thing you’ve seen, and in another few years, you’ll be making new friends: the parents of your child’s best friends. You’ll be buying birthday cakes and booking clowns.
I can also say your writing will grow and become richer and more important. I happened to recently interview my own former professor, David Scott Milton, and I asked him how his children has affected his life as a writer, and he said, “It may be obvious, but it’s nevertheless true, that you are not fully human until you have kids. There are aspects of being a human that don’t resonate or flourish until you have kids of your own. I remember as a young man finding Shakespeare’s King Lear the least satisfying of his great tragedies. Years later, when I had kids, the play moved me more than anything Shakespeare had written. I realized that only a father could have written it as Shakespeare had. The love, the confusion, the pain, the connection we have to those we have helped bring into this world is profound, even shattering. When Lear cries over his daughter Cordelia’s body, it is monumental and can only be fully felt I think by someone who is a parent.”
I will also tell you do not forget two things: your spouse and your goals in writing. You and your partner need to give exclusive time to each other, and going out a minimum of once a month sans baby if not every few weeks is mandatory. If you’re not maintaining your relationship, it’ll suffer easily. As much as you will at first hate to find a babysitter, find one.
Your writing needs to remain important, too. It’s easy to feel guilty when you’re writing that you’re not being a good mother or father. It’s also easy to say, “I’ll do it when he sleeps through the night … when he goes to preschool … when he graduates high school … when I become a grandparent.” Writing needs to be as important as spouse and baby.
Before I had children, I’d made a specialty of interviewing authors for newspapers and magazines, and one of my first interviews was with Chaim Potok, who’d written The Promise and The Chosen. I’d asked him, “How do you manage to write with children in the house?” and he said something like, “Writing is something I’ve always done, and so my children have grown up knowing that’s what I do. They’ve learned not to disturb me while I’m writing unless it’s an emergency.”
I have to say that while my children have grown up seeing that I write, I take the Starbucks approach. I can work amid a lot of hubbub and coffee.
I also learned from screenwriter David Franzoni (Amistad, Gladiator), who told me he awoke at five a.m. to write for a couple of hours before the household awoke. The first few days of trying that, I thought I was insane. I wanted to be in bed. Yet my son and wife would sleep until seven, and I found those two hours before I had to help with breakfast and go off to my full-time job were the most productive of the day. I wrote more than professional writers I knew who had no children.
In fact, you learn how to write efficiently when you have the time. April happened to ask me about this less than an hour ago, and so I’ve written it on the spot, wedging it in before my dentist appointment and picking up the cat from surgery.
My mother happened to encourage me to write and had been proud of my books. She’d just finished rereading my novel The Brightest Moon of the Century days before she fell and broke three ribs, and falling again led to her demise. When I went into her bedroom after she passed, I found the diary I’d given her last year in hopes she’d write about her life. She had written only one page in it during the whole year, and it was dated “Father’s Day 2009.” She wrote of her sons that, “They all turned out to be good fathers. Chris is realizing it’s good to be strict.”
Well, I’m stricter than when I started out. Your children will feel more firmly grounded when they know the clear rules that you abide by.
And a rule for yourself: keep writing. Find the time when he or she naps or goes to bed for the night or before anyone wakes up in the morning. You will flourish.
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