Writer, with Kids: Peter von Ziegesar

pvz on beach
Peter von Ziegesar, author of The Looking Glass Brother: A Memoir

Age of kids: 13, 16, 18

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

Back when I didn’t have kids (it seems like an age since then!) I had what I considered to be a perfect working schedule. I’d start at about ten, work until four, then go for a run around the neighborhood or go to the gym. Those were halcyon days. Having kids subjected that schedule to a battering ram. There is an early ripping sound you hear when your first is born. It’s the sound of your old life going one way, and your new life going the other way. Having kids in diapers is a 24-hour operation and you snatch work whenever you can. I’m surprised I got anything at all done then. I had a kind of closet in our old apartment that was about 5’ by 5’ literally that I’d set up as my office, and I’d slink off to it whenever I could. That changed when the kids started going to school. Then my work hours were about equal to their school hours, from 8:30 to about 3 p.m. That is actually a pretty satisfying schedule that I’ve been keeping for a very long time now. Actually, since my youngest, Magnus, started getting around on his own (this is New York City), my afternoons have lengthened to a more normal five or six p.m. Barring catastrophes, which are frequent.

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

I have to admit I can be a zombie sometimes. Physically I’m there, but mentally I’m still in Night of the Living Dead, with my tongue hanging out and limbs dropping off of me, staggering through the trees–i.e. still at work. I think being present mentally and emotionally requires decision-making, more or less minute by minute. That ripping sound I alluded to before holds all through parenthood. There are times when you’d rather be working, or sitting at a bar having a drink, or at the movies, or at a friend’s house, or reading a book. And you miss your time alone with your wife. Rethinking yourself, rethinking your role is hard. But raising kids is a labor-intensive business. You really have to put in the hours. And kids make it easier by being kind of beguiling, not to mention hilarious.

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

Yes, it has, absolutely. Before I had kids I wrote about other people. After I had kids I wrote about myself, and the things that were important to me. Evolutionarily speaking raising kids is the only important thing that we do. Of course it’s a holistic process, requiring many skills and tasks to be done even half correctly. But I think having much less time to work and more time to think about what was important to me really changed my work. Plus, I’m not sure if this happens with other parents, but having children really stirred things up for me psychologically. I come from three generations of abusive fathers. I know that because my father and grandfather each wrote memoirs about their neglected childhoods! The irony was that each one reacted against the way he was treated and went on to treat his own kids in a diametrically different way – just not a very good way. My job, as I saw it, was to break that cycle, and I hope I did. All of that came out in my work, at least for a while.

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

For me the hardest aspect, aside from the general loss of time and privacy, is the randomness of things that happen. A kid gets sick at school and has to come home, and your day is shot. Or breaks a thumb on the soccer field. No use in trying to plan anything. There is a marvelous scene in one of the John Updike Rabbit novels, Rabbit is Rich, when Updike’s hero Harry Angstrom and his wife take at vacation with three other couples in the Caribbean. They all start getting frisky, as people did in the Seventies (supposedly), and the women arrange for some serial wife-swapping. Harry is not overjoyed with the first wife he’s given, though she turns out to be okay, but waits impatiently for his next night with the most beautiful, luscious wife of all, the one he’s desperately lusted after for years. Just when it’s about to happen, he and his wife get a call that their teenage son has disappeared. There’s nothing to be done, they have to fly home, and Harry swoons with disappointment. That’s never happened to me specifically, but I know the feeling.

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

I’ll make another literary illusion. Swerve, the book by Stephen Goldblatt, which is the best nonfiction book I’ve read in a long time, and totally inspiring, is about how the swerve in atoms allows us to have free will. The book is actually about the poem On the Nature of Things by the Roman poet Lucretius that put forth that theory two thousand years ago. To me, kids are the swerve that knocks you out of your preordained course and gives you free will. They add a richness and sweetness to your life and work that is incomparable. Their joy, their trust, their happiness to see you, the funny thoughts that run through their heads, their physical perfection, their growth, their change from day to day, the strange panoply of their traits, their obsessions with things, their superhuman strength, all of that is inspiring and wrenching and reinforcing beyond anything you will experience otherwise. Of course it’s a good idea for every writer who is a parent to establish and keep a regular schedule. Good luck to you!

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Writer, With Kids