Steve Edwards, author of: Breaking into the Backcountry, a memoir about his seven months of solitude in southern Oregon’s Rogue River canyon
Age of Kid: He’ll be four this summer
What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?
Before we had our son almost four years ago, I was a grad student and then a lecturer—and because I didn’t have the distractions of a real job or money, I usually wrote from eight in the morning until noon, seven days a week. When we got pregnant, I knew things would have to change. My wife (and those thick Dr. Sears baby books) all reassured me, however, that babies slept eighteen hours a day. I figured if I couldn’t find time to write in an eighteen hour window, I shouldn’t call myself a writer.
Unfortunately, our story got more complicated. I’ll spare you the gritty details but our son had medical issues (which went undiagnosed), and he spent most of his earliest days in red-faced agony. We thought at first it was colic. Then he blasted through three, six, nine and twelve months, and was still a screechy mess. Not only did he never sleep eighteen hours in a day, he didn’t even sleep the night until his third birthday. In the meantime, the economy tanked, and my wife and I both were under- and then unemployed. We had a sick kid and were weeks away—still surprises me to say this—from homelessness. My daily writing sank to the bottom of a long list of priorities.
The good news is that our little guy finally got some competent medical intervention, and my wife and I both somehow found full-time work to pay the bills. Our family has begun to heal, and I’m writing again a couple mornings a week. Life is insanely more difficult than I thought it would be when we started out—partly because now we’re approaching public school bureaucracy and our son requires OT, PT, and speech and language therapy (and all of it is a giant time- and soul-suck). But I’m filled with gratitude these days because it’s so much better than it was. I’ll take my two mornings a week!
How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deeply into a current project—say in the sticky middle of a novel’s first draft?
I schedule half an hour, before and after each writing session, for weeping. I say this jokingly but it’s not a bad idea!
Honestly, though, I don’t know. I have a hard time remaining present. Period. Part of the challenge for me is keeping my ego in check. The sun doesn’t rise and set by the writing I do, you know? Yes, it’s important that I write—for my sanity, and to a certain extent for career advancement and our family’s well-being. But I have to really remind myself: it’s just one part of a much larger picture.
I try to practice the art of compartmentalization. To only write when writing. I like to think that if there’s a leap of faith involved in sitting down to work on a book, there’s also a leap of faith in stepping away from it when the day’s writing is done. Maybe in the leaving and coming back something vital happens.
I’m reminded of a story I heard on This American Life a few years back. There was this food factory that made hotdogs, and in the process of moving from their old facility to a brand new one, something happened to the taste of the dogs. The ingredients were exactly the same but the hotdogs just tasted different. Took them months to finally figure out what happened. In the new facility, the process of hotdog making had been streamlined—all inefficiencies had been done away with. Turns out that at the old facility, when the hotdogs came off the conveyor belt, or whatever it was, one guy’s job was to cart them across the building to where they needed to be next. Well, this guy was a talker and he’d take his sweet time carting the hotdogs around the building. In the meantime, the meat and the casings and whatnot had time to temper—it slightly changed their chemistry and gave the hotdogs the snap they were supposedly famous for.
Spending time with my family—enjoying them, listening and supporting them, putting them first? That’s how I push my cart of hotdogs.
How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?
Considering what we’ve been through with the intensity of taking care of a sick child and having money woes, I think the narratives I write now have become far less linear. I used to tell a story beginning to end—let everything develop scenically. Now I’m much more interested in the strange push-pull between how time and memory work, and how to represent that on the page.
When our kid was so sick, one moment my mind would be in the distant future, imagining myself writing again or alone and exploring some far-flung place. Then I’d be holding him at one, two, three in the morning, trying to comfort him as he cried and get him back to sleep. Then back in bed, in the quiet afterward and jacked-up on adrenaline, I’d remember something my mother once said to me or something I did when I was little. I’d see the whole thing crystal clear.
So I’m working on stories—flash fictions, mostly—that flicker between past, present and future. That take ordinary moments, like a dad getting up in the night to comfort his kid, and de-familiarize them. Make them strange.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?
Not having time enough for either your art or your kid, and feeling as though the two are at odds—and the anxiety and massive guilt provoked by choosing, moment to moment, how to strike a balance you can live with.
Do you have any advice for other writers with kids or who plan to have them?
I think of that Stanley Kunitz poem “The Layers” when he says, “I have walked through many lives,/ some of them my own…” Because there’s such a strangeness to becoming a parent—it’s a new you, and it’s also a return to your own childhood and earliest days. And the world really does look different as a parent. And though I myself suck at it, all this change, risk, failure, joy is to be embraced. I think it has to be if you’re going to tell stories that matter—because how else could you know? But in terms of real advice, I’ll let the end of Kunitz’s poem speak for me: Live in the layers.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me: “Live in the layers,
not on the litter.” Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.