Writer, with Kids: Court Merrigan

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Court Merrigan, author of Moondog Over the Mekong, forthcoming from Snubnose Press, and Spingetingler Award-nominated “The Cloud Factory.” Stories upcoming in Weird Tales, Big Pulp, Noir Nation, and Border Noir.

Age of kids: Ada, 4 and Waylon, 1

What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?

Before kids there was this freedom – which I now palpably recognize as amazing – to sleep when you wanted. All I had to get up for was my day job. My wife and I were living by the beach in Thailand and we had breakfast at cafes. And sometimes lunch. And dinner. I’m painfully aware, now, of how much time I wasted. Mainly because I could. A long evening stretching before me, leisurely sipping a beverage, taking my time deciding what to do.

My wife used to work the night shift at a factory and I’d get up around 4 AM and write for a couple hours, go pick her up at 6 AM, then write for another hour or so before hopping on the motorcycle and going to work myself. Nighttimes I’d go to bed as early as 8 or 9, depending on my proximity to whisky and / or mood. My mood, see, not the kids’.

Nowadays I’m unable to work the Ben Franklin routine. Instead I stay up late. The kids go to bed at 8 on a good night, later on the weekends. Then I go to work. I try to get to bed by midnight but sometimes things are going well and I stay at it till 1 or 2 AM. Which makes the next day dark and long, but it’s like my dad used to say, you can sleep when you’re dead.

Getting up early hurts. Staying up late is more a matter of endurance. And the occasional nip of bourbon.

How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deeply into a current project?

I come from a long line of workaholics. One of the things I promised myself when I had kids was that when one came to me, I would set the writing aside. I’ve held to that pretty well, I think; but it comes at great cost to getting things done. In short, I only get sunk deeply into my own stuff when the kids are unconscious.

On account of the growing inequalities in America, it’s an ever-more Darwinian struggle to obtain the goods of American life, and this competition will only increase as our kids get older. Not being in the private French tutor and $30k-a-year preschool set, basically the only resource I have to give my kids is my time. I don’t feel like I can or should deny them that, not when I’m fifty percent responsible for thrusting them into the struggle in the first place.

My wife’s a quick study, but she’s only lived in the USA for three years, not sufficient time to master the delicate language of mild hypocrisy that characterizes American middle-class life, the little white lies, the smiles and premeditated body language. To say nothing of the endless forms, the phone calls, the queries and follow-ups, the consumer choices and social arrangements. So I’m probably more involved in the minutiae of my kids’ lives than I would be if my spouse were fully cognizant of the daily viscera through which we swim.

How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?

In lots of ways, but here’s the most solid, for me: my daughter has made me vastly more conscious of women and girls in my own writing. For example, I’m currently reworking, page by page, a manuscript that I originally finished when Ada was just a cute little belly bump. I am continually astounded at what wasteland for women characters the story is. Needless to say, that is changing in this go-around. It’s a post apocalyptic Western and now the women are right in there, throwing body blows. The short stories I’ve written recently also usually feature women who aren’t just props to the desires and dilemmas of men.

Now, my writing tends to feature morally challenged individuals, so it’s not like I’m writing exemplars for my daughter or something. The women partake of the darkness just as surely as the men. But they’re there, is the thing, and they’re not fucking around.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?

Keeping focused. Come home from work, my wife giving me a Tebow-worthy hand-off with the kids, and who can blame her, the rambunctious little shits. Engage in a nightly Long March to get the kids into bed relatively unscathed – “Your tooth is only chipped? Not broken? Okay, sleep tight, honey!” – so that by the time I get to the computer to work, all I really want to do is mix funny cat pictures on Reddit with bourbon.

I may be blaspheming the Holy Writ of The American Church Of All-Consuming Parenthood but I’m going to say it anyway: I’d be a better writer without kids. But so what. I only learned what love was when I held that little baloney loaf for the first time. Love is nothing if not sacrifice. No words I’ll ever scribble will hold a torch to that.

In Thai culture, children are considered to bear a karmic debt to their mother and father and are thus expected to provide for their parents in their old age. My plan is to stress that half of their cultural heritage, in order to enjoy my golden years on their dime.

Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?

Have kids. By all means. It won’t make you a better writer, at least in the short term – I can’t speak to the long term yet. But it will make you a better human being.

NOTE: Court’s forthcoming story collection will include “The Cloud Factory,” which has been nominated for Best Story on The Web. Do check out the story, and if you like it you can vote for it here. Voting is open until the end of April.

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7 comments on “Writer, with Kids: Court Merrigan
  1. Brad Green says:

    “delicate language of mild hypocrisy” Nicely said. All of it nicely said. Well done.

  2. I always enjoy reading Court, wherever I find him.

    Regardless, I think I’ll disagree with part of this. How do you know (or how does anyone know) you would have been a better writer if you were childless? It is not a testable hypothesis.

    I think writers are not of a kind, just as what gets written (or published) is definitely not of a kind. I imagine there are people who write who don’t take it all that seriously; let’s say it’s in the category of hobby or avocation. They considered going into the brain surgery game after retirement from AEG, but decided to pop out some novels instead.

    Only an utter, abject, catastrophic fool sets out to write for money and/or fame. But there may be a few here and there.

    Most writers, all the ones I know personally, write because they cannot not write. They are compulsive story-tellers who are in love with their language. Those writers are always, without exception or hesitation, going to write the best they can; if they fail, they throw it away and start again; always aiming to write the best they can; not moving on to the next story until they have done the best they can.

    All children do is diminish in places the amount of time the writer has to be the best he or she can. Children have no effect on the output, the quality of the work. They have other wonders, and carving out bits of time exclusively to themselves is one of those wonders.

    In the time left, the writer is the best writer he or she can be.

    So, Court, face it, you are doing the best work you can do. I don’t suppose otherwise. (And what you do next week is going to be better … until you die or your brain can’t do language anymore.)

  3. Tamara says:

    Having kids (twins) made me a better writer! Maybe even made me a writer. Before, I had all the time in the world and I’d wile away the hours. “Oh, I’ll get to that,” and I never did. Now I know I have limited time, and when I have it I go for it. I’m much more productive as a parent. It also made me a better writer because it helped me recapture wonder. It made me a better writer because it made me a lot less self-indulgent.

    I’ll have to respectfully but vehemently disagree with you, Donigan. I understand your impulse, but what you seem to be arguing is that writers who have children have less time to write and are, ergo, not as good as those who do not have children.

    Good for you, Court! And congrats on the book!

    ~ Tamara

  4. I absolutely love that your female characters kick more ass now that you have a daughter. I’d argue that having kids HAS made you a better writer, in this regard, at least, and that’s seriously awesome. Great post. (Also, great kid names. I have cats with both those names.)

  5. Just to clarify my point, Tamara. What I said is that writers (serious ones, anyway) always write at the highest level they are capable of, and that doesn’t change whether one is childless or surrounded by a brood. Time is not part of my point. Quality is. That is what is meant by “better” writer. A good writer is the best he or she is capable of, regardless of family size. That is not a good excuse.

    I can also add that I write almost exactly the same amount of time each day (3 to 4 hours of what I refer to as the creative time — not including piddling around, editing, thinking about things …). That time has not changed in almost 40 years as a writer, not when I had two small children, not when I was a full-time student (from 26 to 33), and not now after my children are well-grown and living thousands of miles away. When I had to struggle to get in 3 or 4 hours of work, that’s how much I worked; now that I could, if I wished, write 18 hours a day, I still write 3 or 4.

    I maintain that time is not the issue, how one uses that time creatively is. Therefore, children are not the “problem,” focusing on the work when one has those minutes or hours is.

    Hemingway, by the way, carved out about 3 hours a day to write. The rest of the time he goofed off, womanized, drank, fished, and hunted. Replace the time demanded by children, with womanizing, drinking, fishing, hunting, and goofing off, and you are still left with the same amount of writing time that Hemingway needed a day.

    Which is not to say, given my general preferences, I would not prefer how Hemingway spent his non-writing hours to raising children; I am rather bereft of the parenting impulse.

  6. Thanks, Brad, as always.

    Don, while it is true that hypotheticals are merely hypotheticals, it sure does feel, many days, like I’m right on the edge of something and then … it’s time for another round of animal crackers. Not to worry, though, someday my kids will be right on the verge of something but they’ll have to stop to come change my diaper in the gold-plated back room they’ll have installed for me in the back of the house.

    In some respects, Tamara, I can see the day in the future, when the kids are older and I will realize how they have enriched my life to where the benefit far, far outweighs the gains. I hope that comes to be the case for me, too. Maybe this is not possible while the terrible twos persist, however. :) Thanks for the kind words on the book.

    Thanks, Rachel – wait, your cats are named Ada and Waylon?? That’s a picture just waiting to be snapped.

  7. Noriko says:

    A perfect read for me as a writer in the early days of motherhood. I already know it has changed me. We’ll see how it changes my writing.

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Writer, With Kids