Writer, with Kids: J. Robert Lennon

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J. Robert Lennon, author of: Mailman, Familiar, Pieces for the Left Hand, See You in Paradise

Age of kids: 14, 17

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

My wife and I had children soon after graduate school. Before that, I generally wrote first thing in the morning, every day if possible. Luckily, I was largely able to maintain this for some time afterward—for the first few years of our kids’ lives, we made a living off of part-time teaching and our writing, and we split the day in half—I wrote in the morning, my wife in the afternoon. Eventually I had to get a full-time job (a good one, luckily), and it became a bit harder to keep a regular schedule.

My first story collection, Pieces for the Left Hand, was written entirely during my older son’s naps—since I had afternoon kid duty, I would reap the nap dividend, if I could get him to go to sleep. Often he wouldn’t. He still subsists on very little sleep, at 17; I have no idea how he does it. But it was enough for me to write lots of little tiny stories, all of which ended up in that book.

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

I’ll admit, it’s hard. I’m pretty self-absorbed. My kids are old enough now so that they have their own obsessive projects, though, and we all spend at least an hour every day just sitting around in the evening and chatting. Occasionally we peek out from our own heads and remember that there is particular stuff we have to do, with and for each other, and we get it done. But mostly, we’re a family of solitary strivers.

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

I’ve been writing about parenthood a fair amount, these past few years. I didn’t expect it would become a topic. My last novel, Familiar, wasn’t really supposed to be about it, but the subject sneaked in and became its primary driving force. Parenthood matured me, as well, and I think has made me more empathetic and worldly. There are other ways to achieve this, of course, but if it weren’t for our kids, I probably would have remained a child myself, well into late adulthood.

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

Oh, I think it’s the same problem everyone has—balancing the needs of the inner and outer life. Is writing “selfish”? Is not writing “generous”? Would the presumably more engaged version of myself that sacrificed his writing for family be a better father, or just an embittered asshole? If you ask my kids today whether they’re glad I spent their childhood writing, I’m sure they’d say yes. But maybe I’ve brainwashed them into thinking this pursuit is a reasonable life choice. There’s no answer, really; my wife and I have done what we could, and we have not been jerks, and our kids are smart, hilarious, and above all nice people. But the challenge remains, I guess, striking the right balance, or perhaps striking the right balance between worrying about and not worrying about striking the right balance.

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

I don’t, really. If you want to have a family, and you can, you should have one. And my writer friends’ kids are among the coolest, sweetest, most interesting young people I know. Don’t be afraid that you might just spawn more writers—it’s not up to you. But you probably will. Ha!

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Writer, With Kids