I wonder how Adam picks phrases out of the air. We were walking in a park in Montpellier last month when Adam turned to us and, apparently a propos of nothing, said, why that’s the whole point! Today, we were walkng to school when Adam told me, that’s a done deal, Daddy. A done deal? Has Adam been hanging around with an MBA?
It is things like this, the innumerable things like this, that make me wonder why it is that children are supposed to be the enemy of the creative type. In this week’s London Review of Books there’s a piece by Jessica Olin about the book, Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum. It is a curious review: Olin has chosen, mostly, to collage various of the essays. One of her comments, though, struck me as pretty awful, all the more so because it expresses one of the cliches of our time.
“Parenting requires a public face; engagement with one’s community; fluency in multi-tasking. Writing demands focus and long stretches of solitude. The two job descriptions could not be more different; how many of us are equally suited to both?”
Where, I wondered, did this job description of writing come from? Perhaps it comes from the idea that writing has a “job description” – and after all, if it is a craft taught in school, perhaps it does, like insurance salesman or barista. But unlike those two professions, in actual fact, the only thing about being a freelance writer is that you write. Otherwise, there is no job description. It certainly doesn’t include long stretches of solitude. Some may well need long stretches of solitude – Flaubert seemed to. Others, multiple others, seemed to need a very strong social life – Balzac, Dickens, Henry James, James Joyce, etc. Unfortunately, the apriori idea that writers don’t require a “public face” seems to me to etiolate the writing, to narrow it, to make it airless. I am a great consumer of writers’ letters – not a genre beloved of the public, but there you are. And to my mind, the job description for writers ought to read – must love interruption and disaster. This hushed idea of the solitary writer makes me laugh and think of Ring Lardner’s collection, How to Write Short Stories, which begins with the observation that “most of the successful authors of the short fiction of today never went to no kind of a college, or if they did, they studied piano tuning or the barber trade. They could of got just as far in what I call the literary game if they had stayed home those four years and helped mother carry out the empty bottles.”
Of course, times have changed, and instead of piano tuning, the literary game is now played by immersing oneself in focus and solitude, apparently, with occasional preoccupied visits to the printing place while one carefully balances the panorama of one's novel - the battle scenes, the complete description of french nobility in 1415 - in one's precious head. I'd advise wearing sleeping shades, although the downside is accidentally strolling in front of a car.
Somehow, though, I rather like the products of helping mother carry out the bottles.
My experience with Adam has been anything but non-writerly. I see a lot of things about human beings differently due to seeing and reflecting on Adam and the way he is growing up. One of the writers Olin quotes with approval drags out stereotypes about raising kids that are as risable as anything spouted by Victorian fairy tale authors: “Tim Kreider precisely renders parents’ ‘anxious and harried existence – noisy and toy-strewn, pee-stained and shrieky, without two consecutive moments to read a book or have an adult conversation or formulate a coherent thought’.” I especially like the pee stained – of course, writers, the great ones, have always stayed away from excrement. It is so yucky! Indeed, I think Tim Kreider should change a thousand diapers or so in order to see that if you cannot confront pee and shit, you might consider changing your job description to, oh, say, selling life insurance policies. The idea that I am kept from an adult conversation or a coherent thought by the fact that I’m living with someone who is actually acquiring a language – well, it shows what kind of adult conversations or coherent thoughts are common traffic in the Tim Kreider set. Things like, did you see True detective last night?
Oops. A little snobbishness on my part. Still, if a writer actually has this abbreviation of infancy in his or her head, it should be knocked out of it. Have children or don’t have children, that’s not my beeswax. But if you can’t even look at what the experience is like, and are afraid of pee stains, well, writing might not be your gig.