Age of kids: Finn, 4; Daphne Kit, in utero
What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?
I had a lot of luxury as a single man and even a husband without kids. I worked mostly in the morning, seven days a week, first thing after coffee, and wrote often by hand with a fountain pen (which has its own routine and rituals to get started), after having read the work I’d completed the day before. I could get the job done in other places but preferred my home office, staring at a wall with a few postcards or knickacks. I wrote some times with music, more times without. But my main aim was to try to incrementally near first draft completion, revising little (but always taking notes), while shooting for three to five pages a day (stolen from Thomas Mann) and stopping in the middle of a sentence (swiped from Hemingway and Dubus).
Joyce Carol Oates once said that when writers ask each other about routines, what they’re really asking is “are they as crazy as me?” And in retrospect, the schedule seems a little fussy, more ritual than routine, a scheme devised by someone worried that if he took off a day or used a pencil instead of a pen the project would vanish or refuse to budge. (When I was in graduate school in Houston, I did once buy a novena candle to help my writing, and I began each session by lighting it. Burning, it smelled like Afro Sheen.) But my schedule got a lot of work completed, prepared for revision—a process with its own patterns and superstitions (as in never throw any page or Post-It away and carry the manuscript around with you all the time).
I’d be remiss in not saying my job as department chair has intruded as much on my writing life as having kids. Nowadays I write directly on the computer and have seen an unwillingness to follow too far a digression or half-baked plot turn. I don’t know if that makes the writing more efficient or less ambitious but for whatever reason it seemed far more meet to stack up ten handwritten pages of what a former instructor called “Fooling Around in Prose” than to do the same in MS Word. I try to write with greater velocity. Shoot for a thousand words in an hour rather than a leisurely morning. And no music. Turn off the email and cellphone. Keep pushing, as REO Speedwagon sang.
But I think the big development is that I’ve gotten better as a writer. I can do more now in fifteen minutes than I used to in an hour. I know better my limitations and work earlier in the process to deal with them. I’m not discovering my own voice any more. I’m refining it. That doesn’t sound too overly confident, does it? I almost fear I’d better shut up, lest I jinx myself.
How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?
Ask my wife Carmen and son Finn this question in a few months, as I’ve managed to avoid working on a long-term (yikes, novel) project until recently. Or read my hardly autobiographical story in Four Fathers, “What It Means to Be.”
Obviously, I’ve learned that I can take four days off from a project and not lose the thread or the motivation to keep it going. But if I do take off four minutes from parenting and husbanding, that absence can lead to five minutes or ten days. I’m the kind of person who struggles to stay in the moment anyway—I’m always worried about global warming or whether I sent the check for day care or trying to recall who was the MVP in the ’77 NBA All Star Game (it was Doctor J)—so it’s important for me keep focused on the now. I swear, you blink around Finn, and he’ll have picked up three new words and a new habit by the time you open your eyes. Kurosawa says that “to be an artist means to never avert one’s eyes.” This is good advice for a parent and husband too.
How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?
I never wrote about being a parent, for one. And that’s not being flippant. Oftentimes, I got rid of the parents in the books I wrote before becoming a father, as parents could be so cumbersome to a book’s development. The Mimic’s Own Voice features a central character who is an orphan and without siblings. Silent Sam Stamps, the narrator of Don’t Start Me Talkin’ is a single man without children and with only one parent.
But now everything fiction that’s either got a few lines humming in my head or on my computer is either straightforwardly about parenting or has prominent parents. And I think this is not just my fiction echoing my life; it’s being more open to what other parents are going through. You know, it’s funny. I never really thought much about how children so often appear like a fifty/fifty blend of their parents. Never. And now it seems so obvious. And I wonder, “What else have I been blind to?” And believe me—it’s a lot. (Like this strain of vision/blindness imagery running through these replies.) But I’m convinced that becoming a parent has made me a better writer, if only for the fact that I have somebody else in my son (and soon-to-arrive daughter) for whom to leave behind something permanent and good and worthy of their reading.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?
Balancing motivation and time management. So often, when Finn was having trouble getting to sleep (“I’m finished with bedtime,” he still says at four), Carmen and I would spend two hours reading and telling stories and keeping him under the covers. Well, maybe two hours earlier there had been a plan to write (or read! Another big sacrifice: I don’t read enough) after he was asleep but I’d no longer have the energy or will or I’d actually want to spend a few precious minutes with my wife!
But it’s gotten easier. I’ll be frank and say too that having published a couple of books makes the possibility that I’ll never publish another word not too dispiriting. And maybe I’ve figured out a way to make this work. (Writing a bunch of stuff in my thirties that wasn’t published turned out to be a big help.) Only now we’ve got number two coming in September and sometimes we wonder if we recall anything from Finn’s first years.
Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?
This is from my friend Josh Russell, another Dad Writer: Never underestimate the value of “head work.” The arrival of the infant in the home will keep you away from the writing desk. Maybe you’ll even have to use the desk as an impromptu changing table. And I’m not saying that thinking is the same as writing, but I don’t see how a writer who really is in this for the long haul ever really stops absorbing and evaluating and analyzing the world around her. So even when I’m wiping up messes or pushing a stroller or tying shoes, I’m aware of new characters or scenarios or a few lines that seem to have someplace to go. And because I’m patient and believe those phantoms never exit until they’ve found words to carry them I can keep up this head work and find, eventually, the time to get black on white. Perhaps this is why I find I can get work done quicker. Or at least that’s the lie that I tell myself to keep on believing. One thing having a son has done for me is make me want to keep on believing, and for that I am forever in his debt.