Brian Gresko is the editor of the anthology When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers on Fatherhood, forthcoming from Berkley Books/Penguin in spring 2014. He has contributed to The Huffington Post, and written about books and culture for Salon, The Atlantic.com, The Daily Beast, The Paris Review Daily, The LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, and numerous other publications. Brian keeps a column on parenting and gender politics for Babble, where he often writes about balancing his writing life with caring for his son. In print, Brian’s work has appeared in Glimmer Train Stories and Slice Literary Magazine.
Age of Kid: 4
At 29, I said goodbye to the girlfriend I’d been living with pretty much since college and moved to Shanghai to teach middle school English Language Arts. As a teacher in New York City, I worked six if not seven days a week, channeling my creative energies into crafting lessons, drama performances, and writing workshops for my students. Teaching in China required half that—no, less. My department head, the poet Frances Driscoll, encouraged me to loosen the hell up. She breezed in and out of the office on her own mysterious schedule, short red curls dewed with sweat, the sleeves on her oversized business shirts rolled up like she just came off a painting job. Her voice stained by cigarettes, Ms. Driscoll encouraged me to throw out plans and instruct by instinct. Stop trying to direct students from A to Z and instead inspire them to walk the path on their own. It was freeing.
With my extra time, I kept a blog. This began my practice of writing with any regularity. I had come to Shanghai in part to follow a dream laid by my high school infatuation with Henry Miller, hoping, like Miller in Paris, to mold myself by force of will into an artist. And to glean perspective through displacement, to run away in order to stop running. See, my girlfriend wanted to marry, start a family. I had never known my biological father, a fact my mom and adoptive dad dropped on me when I was about ten and which we didn’t discuss again till I brought it up at age twenty-one. This uncomfortable family secret, in part, led me to not want to be a parent myself. I dreamed of making words, not kids. But on the other side of the world I decided I could do both. So from the start my writing self and paternal self emerged from the same cauldron of experience intertwined, strands of a double helix.
I returned to Brooklyn, got affianced, and entered the MFA program at The New School for fiction. I met writers years younger who had been writing for years longer than me. I had, at this point, penned a handful of short stories, each of which in some way addressed the pull between domestic life and a more animal, base desire for unchecked consumption and destruction, a la dear old Henry Miller. Some afternoons I tutored, and only wrote in the morning. On ideal days, I wrote for three hours or so after waking, and then ran around the park and napped before writing a few hours more. At night, I read or went to class. Even when hung-over and exhausted from late nights carousing with writer friends, I crawled from my bed to write with bleary eyes. I hungered to catch up in experience with my peers, to put more words under my belt.
My son Felix was born a week after I graduated. I slid into caring for him full-time, figuring to write while he napped. Figuring—the key word. The kid had too much life in him to sleep the day away, and so I logged pages in pre-dawn sessions, or late at night. The discipline I formed in grad school out of insecurity served me well as a new dad. At this point I began blogging for The Huffington Post about being a stay-at-home parent, leaning on a friend from grad school to get my foot in the door, and writing to fill the father-sized hole I saw in their parenting section.
This was a purely practical decision. My wife is an educator at a non-profit cultural institution, so income matters. I fostered the foolish belief I could make a living from my pen — that remains to be seen — but at the very least I wanted to contribute something financially. HuffPo didn’t pay, but it led, as I had hoped, to gigs with parenting sites. Besides the money, I reaped the psychological benefits of being published, the satisfaction of knowing someone wanted my work, the gratification of readership. Parenting, especially a little baby, is a thankless, selfless task, and I worried about losing my creative self in the endeavor. Some of my old fear of fatherhood still existed, maybe always will.
In part, that fear motivated me to conduct interviews and write criticism — things I practiced in grad school exercises but never anticipated doing professionally — proof I hadn’t surrendered all of my brain to parenthood. My wonderful agent, Erin Harris at Folio Literary Management, more attuned to the themes of my fiction and the trends of my work than me, suggested I combine my interest in the literary and parenting. Together we came up with the idea of an anthology of authors, mostly novelists, writing about their experiences as fathers. That book, When I First Held You, will be out next spring from Berkley Books/Penguin.
This isn’t what I would ever have anticipated my life being like—far from it! A kid hater, uncomfortable with the idea of being a father at all, staying-at-home with my son? A wanna-be novelist writing mostly personal essays? Writers are a masochistic bunch, but come on. I have a rough morning with my son — he throws a tantrum and I yell back and next thing you know we’ve escalated, heads bashing one another, antlers locked in a struggle for dominance — and then I plop down at my laptop to pick the scab open for my readers. Sometimes documenting my thoughts and experiences helps me process shit, but other times it really sucks. Parenting can be the last thing in the world I want to write or talk about. Often, when out at readings or parties with colleagues and friends, I don’t much discuss Felix. I’d rather feed the other parts of my brain, and recharge my creative spirit. I think it’s essential for parents, especially creative ones, to maintain friendships with people who don’t have kids, so as not to fall into a world where kids are king.
What’s even harder? Switching gears to write about something other than parenting, shaking off feelings of failure or confusion in order to immerse myself in an essay, review, or—rare, but with growing frequency these days—fiction (I’m beginning a new novel, my fourth attempt). If I spend a blistering long summer morning with Felix at the playground, I want nothing more than to nap away my two hours of babysitting, which is what I get on most days. I don’t have that luxury. Nor do I have a lot of time to read for pleasure. (That’s the downside of turning your passion into an occupation.)
I escape these moods the same way I always have, whether confused in China or anxious in grad school: Shutting off the Internet. Retreating into solitude. Putting one goddamn word in front of the other. Sinking into the page like it’s a bed—an apt metaphor, because if things are going good there’s an automatic nature to writing and I feel like I do when coming up from a dream, emotions thrumming, senses alert, every part of me sensitive and alive. It can be hard to go back to the boy in those states. I just want to ride the high a little longer.
There’s something risky about parenting and writing, if done with a fully committed heart. You expose yourself in situations you can’t control. I sometimes think of Frances Driscoll, encouraging me to stop thinking so much and fucking do it. Your children don’t always come out the way you expect, and your professional life can’t be planned either, but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel proud of both, and happy, if surprised, by their development. Funny how I used to think parenting would be the death of my creative side, instead of its source of life.