About a year ago I spoke at an event at a college and one of the students in the audience asked me if I thought writing was compatible with having children. I know its a tough question and I can only speak for myself: My son was one of my best teachers. He helped make my writing more specific. He helped me think about sound in addition to meaning. He helped me see that there was always a way to think out of the box.
Like all parents I think my son was a remarkable baby, a remarkable child and now a remarkable person. But he didn't have to be remarkable to be my teacher. He just did what all babies do when they come into this world. He learned language by imitation, starting with sound and moving up to meaning.
He also learned it from scratch. And even though I can never pretend I didn't know English in a sense I learned from scratch with him.
Most of you probably know that babies are born with the capacity to imitate every sound in every language. And they do. Until about six months when they begin to unravel the phonetic system of the language or languages spoke around them.
And so, during his first months, I learned to listen to sound itself.
At some point he began to talk and I learned the words that were important to him. I won't bore you with parental anecdotes. The point isn't how cute he was. (He was, of course.) The point is that language became very basic and primitive for me. I was climbing up a ladder with him.
Then language exploded into many nouns. Every other minute with him was a report from a Zen newspaper. Tree! Bird! Rock! Drinking fountain! Dog!
My vocabulary pared down to very few words when I was with him--so few, in fact, that once when I was wheeling him down the street I pointed to the sky and said Dog!
Nonetheless, while he was learning names for things, I was reconnecting the word with the thing itself. Second only to names, nouns ruled. I felt the immediacy of his grasp. The urgency of the thing itself--whatever that thing was. Walking down the street with him was like walking down the street with someone who had taken....well, something mildly hallucinogenic. We stopped to look at everything.
By the time grammar exploded, he had helped bring language firmly to the earth. I felt a return to a kind of simplicity: Sound. What something is. And the urgency to say what it is.
But then--quite suddenly--he lifted me up into the world of the imagination. His big toe was his thumb toe. A stone was a mango part. For about six months I could never predict what he was going to say.
After I spoke at the college meeting, quite a few people said that they were grateful because so many writers who spoke said no writer should have children. In fact I don't think that all writers should have children, any more than I think all writers should go to France or live in Welch sod huts. Children are work. And in many cases, my son included, they aren't any fun between thirteen and twenty except for their wonderfully jaded and cynical perspective about a world they haven't yet made a mess of.
But if you're a writer and do have kids, chances are good they will teach you something about language you have forgotten as you climbed the ladder from talking to reading to writing. They'll remind you that words are inextricably linked to sound. They'll remind you that speech is a transmission of something urgent. And chances are good that this will translate to some kind of change when you go from spoken voice to voice on the page.
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