Sunny Bleckinger worked for five years as a journalist and editor in the Netherlands. He currently hosts the Soft Show reading series and he’s working on his first novel for the third time.
Age of kid: 5
What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?
Before having a kid I wrote whenever I wanted to. I had oodles of time. It seems like an impossibly ideal period of my life, the time I rediscovered writing. I had just moved to Amsterdam, which sounds very romantic, I understand, but in reality it was an escape, a desperate flight, which is too long of a story to get into here. Basically I had saved enough money to buy a one-way ticket to Amsterdam, pay the tuition for one year of art school there, which was similar to the cost of community college here, and live for two months, assuming I’d find some kind of work after getting there. The only steady work I could find was writing journalism for the Amsterdam Weekly, which was not unlike a European version of the Willamette Week or Village Voice. If I wrote enough for them each week, it paid enough to live on, sort of. (there were weeks where I lived on coffee and potatoes. But I was also living in fucking Amsterdam, so it didn’t seem so bad.)
Things went like that for a few years, before getting my dutch girlfriend pregnant. Which was terrifying. In addition to how unstable I was, financially and otherwise, one month after finding out we were pregnant, I got a letter from the Dutch government saying I had to leave the country in thirty days. (I was able to stay after all, but that is also another long story)
Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is that when I first glance back, my writing schedule before having a kid seemed ideal because of the expansive freedom of time, but in reality I was regularly mired down by worries over finances and shelter and deadlines for stories I did not want to write but had to, and the result was that the quiet moments, when I was truly quiet inside, were sparse and sporadic.
After having a child, of course, things were not improved. But there’s something about parenthood that pulls you to the ground, especially for someone like myself who easily floats and dreams. Having a child makes your feet heavy, slows you down, forces you to be more careful in your choices.
Currently I have a set schedule of when I write. It changes depending on my day job. I’m now working at a food cart and my kid is in school five days a week. So I have (and this is a very recent change) more time than I’ve had in years for writing: Four days a week I have the whole day to write while my kid is at school.
I’ve noticed however that my lifelong tendency of being creative at night keeps screwing with this new and seemingly ideal schedule. I’ll wake up at 3am, wide awake, start writing, sometimes all throwaway material, sometimes not. Then after taking my son to school I’ll crawl right back into bed. So in some ways things haven’t changed.
How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?
I’m not so good at this, to be honest. When I’ve got a day with the kid, he’s an amazing mirror, in many ways. He’ll ask me why I’m talking to myself and tell me that it’s kind of weird. When a five-year-old says you’re acting weird, there’s no better analeptic to pull you out of your own BS, pull you up into a standing position where you interact with the world again. Or sometimes he’ll mimic the sound of someone (me) talking to themself. Which is humiliating in a wonderfully therapeutic way.
Usually, my wife will pour me a heavy beer and then try on three different outfits in front of me. That tends to make me forget everything and want to tackle her (not in a forceful way, I guess I should add, but in a pleasing way with mutual consent usually). In these moments, however, the kid is often still up, and he doesn’t even like to see us hug. So we wait for him to go to bed while pretending not to be waiting for him to go to bed.
The nights where he can’t sleep, because one of his feet is growing for example, those are the worst. I’m either tired or feeling creative and instead of satisfying one of those needs I’m stuck on the couch holding my son while he watches the animated version of Star Wars: Clone Wars. Which isn’t bad. Although, like it’s live-action sibling, this series also has Jar Jar Binks, so there are points of contention.
How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?
I remember thinking after he was born that I became softer, the hard shell I’d always worn is still kind of there but it’s thinner, and prone to crack. Whether that changed my writing, I can’t say.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?
I need quite a bit of time alone. Sometimes, and I hope this doesn’t sound like total bullshit, but sometimes I need to be alone and sad. Just some time to sit and wallow. Not much, but every now and then it can be rejuvenating in a hoggish way.
With a kid, that’s often not possible. Although, I have to say, it’s easier than I’d expected to just let go. Sometimes if you’re feeling like shit there’s nothing better than getting on the floor and immersing yourself in a child’s imaginary world. I’m constantly relearning how easy that is. And now that I’ve written that, I wonder, maybe the paragraph above is kind of BS. Maybe I don’t really need to be alone and sad. Or at least, not as much as I thought. I should just play more.
Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?
I’m not shy when it comes to telling people that they should not have kids. Friends will sometimes say, It looks so nice, you with a kid, we’re thinking about having a kid.
And I’ll respond ominously, Don’t do it.
It always comes off as a joke, and people laugh, which is probably for the best, because if they knew how serious I was I might have less friends.
Making another human is, I think, one of the few choices we can make that have lifelong, irreversible consequences. Murder I guess is the other obvious one. Let’s be clear, I’m not comparing breeders and murderers, they’re on opposite spectrums of the good / evil register. But their actions, I think, do have the same weight.
I was going to say, unlike murdering someone, the choice of having a child starts getting easier with time. But I can’t honestly say it’s that way always. Who knows, maybe perfect little Susan becomes a heroin addict at seventeen and her parents deal with that shit for the rest of their lives.
In my case, it has gotten easier each year, especially now that the kid is in school, but the years before that, my god. The amount of energy it took to do those first years well, and I’m not sure how well we did, but we sure as hell tried. And our kid is regularly said to be the happiest when compared to other kids. He’s also the smartest, most athletically inclined, and by far the best looking child, according to professional opinions.
But seriously, to finish the sentence I started three sentences ago, consider the amount of energy it takes to do those first few years well, and then consider what else you could do with that energy besides making and raising another human. Here’s a partial list:
-Design and build an irrigation system for a drought stricken village
-Donate a large milk cow to 573 impoverished families via Heifer International
-Spend 5.7 years traveling the world, enjoying a variety of foods and drugs
-Give hope and funding to 11,662 entrepreneurs across the globe via microloans*
I guess it’s possible to do those things AND have a kid, but most of us, I think, have only enough energy and resources to focus on one or the other, especially if you’re trying to do yet another thing, like be a writer.
For a moment I thought I would end on that line but it seems a little sour. What I’d like to say before stopping is this: as shitty as it is to have and raise children when you’re of limited means, there are countless sparks of magic that remind us why the tonic of love has no earthly peer.
Take today, just fucking today.
I’m trying to get my kid to school, we’re running late and I need to get to work AND I forget that on Wednesdays his class goes for a walk, usually to the park. But for some reason today they’re not at the park and I can’t freaking find them and my kid is starting to cry, saying that he’s too late, he’s too late for school.
And I tell him, Don’t worry, you were doing what today, learning to draw an R? I’ll teach you that tonight. The class will be back soon enough, and in the meantime, I’ve got to get to the food cart and turn on the rice cookers and the grills or I’ll never be open in time. So kiddo, you’re coming with me to work, we’ll get things started, and then we’ll come right back to school and your class will be there, all your friends waiting to play with you, attempts at the letter R on pieces of paper all over the place.
So we do. We go to my food cart and he’s starting to remember that it’s fun to go to dad’s work. I sit him down on the stool and get the food started that needs to start early and he picks up the ticket pad that we use to write down orders and starts drawing. Before drawing on each ticket he announces what he’s drawing and I say something vague like, That sounds great!
“I’m drawing a One Eyed Pirate!”
“That sounds great.”
“Now I’m drawing a Carnosaurus.”
“I’m making a dot to dot of a squid.”
“Cool man, I’m all done let’s get you back to school.”
I get him back to school, his friends cheer and I head off to work where I see what he drew and my eyes water up because I’m so in love with this kid and how could I ever consider that my life would be better without him.
*These numbers are based on the closest actual information I could get, having not looked very long, to be honest. A Reuters article stated that the US government determined the price to raise a child from birth to age eighteen is $291,570. That was in 2007, I’m sure it’s more now. Also, that price tag does not reflect the emotional / physical toll of raising a child, which is, as they say, equal to the raw energy of an entire village. Adding that to the equation requires mathematics beyond my ability.