Tuesday, June 17, 2014

You Can't Bulls**it a Baby:
Kids and the Writing Life


“When people say they don't have time to write with small children, well, for me it was the opposite. I didn't write anything before I had them. They gave me that.” —Toni Morrison

By PJ Parrish

I don’t have kids. Would I be a better writer if I did?

Let’s leave that one for you shrinks out there for the moment. I have my own ideas about it, which I will answer at the end. Normally, a topic this personal wouldn’t even be on my writer radar; you guys know I prefer stomping around in the weeds of craft. But I read an interesting blog over the weekend by the novelist Lev Grossman called “Fatherhood Ruined My Life Plan – And Made Me The Writer I Am.” Here’s the money quote:

 When I came back to my book, after Lily was born, I saw it for what it was: cold, dull, lifeless, massively overthought – a labyrinth with no minotaur inside. I told myself I was just taking a break from it, but the truth was I binned it and started something new. I picked up an idea I’d had years before but hadn’t taken seriously at the time, because it was fresh and weird and risky and different from anything I’d ever tried before. Six months after Lily was born, I took a week off from work to explore it, and I wound up writing 25,000 words in five days. I’d hit an artery, and the story came surging out hot and strong. Not only was it the most productive week I’d ever had, I enjoyed it more than I’d enjoyed doing anything for literally years. I was more proud of it than anything I’d done in my entire life.
Something was afoot. I was waking up. Somewhere inside me the emotional pack ice was cracking and melting, ice that had formed long ago in the Fimbulwinter of my childhood, and feelings that I’d been avoiding for decades were thawing out and leaking through, both good and bad: joy, grief, anger, hope, longing. I was like some frozen extrasolar planet, where even gases exist only in neat, handy solid forms. But now I was warming up, and buried things were surfacing.
Interesting stuff. And it poses a question for writers. But not the obvious one about how do you find the time and energy to write when you have kids? But rather:  How do life experiences mold our fiction? Grossman's essay is part of a book called When I First Held You: 22 Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. In it, writers such as Dennis Lehane, Rick Moody and Justin Cronin talk about the transforming power of parenthood. To be honest, most of it is of the pedestrian "you can't be cool with drool on your jacket" variety. But there is the occasional insight about the writing life.

What interests me most about this topic is the deeper question that Grossman is getting at: What are the primal forces that make us open a vein and bleed our emotions onto the page?

I used to work in the newspaper business. Every reporter and editor I knew either wanted to write a novel or already had tried to.  After I got published, I read quite a few manuscripts as favors to friends. For the most part, they weren't bad. But something was always missing. For a long time I couldn't figure out what it was then it hit me: The writers were not willing to expose themselves emotionally on the page. Journalism trains you to be detached and impartial. And you can't be that way with fiction. Unless you are willing to crawl inside another person's head and heart -- and muck about in all the messiness, gore, grief and passion that is there -- you can't make characters come alive on the page.

For some, becoming a parent might be the catalyst to make this happen. Years ago, I read an essay by Michael Connelly in which he said that having a daughter made him a better writer. (Sorry, I can't find it). It also changed his character Harry Bosch. Nine books into the series, in Lost Light, Connelly gave Bosch a daughter he didn't know about: Here's Connelly on the why:

Up until Bosch became a father, I had been creating a character who viewed himself as being on a mission. He was someone who was skilled enough and tough enough to go into the abyss and seek out human evil. To carry out this mission, he knew he had to be relentless and bulletproof. By bulletproof, I mean he had to be invulnerable. Nobody could get to him. It was the only way to be relentless. And this idea or belief bled into all aspects of his life. He lived alone, had no friends, and didn’t even know his neighbors. He built a solitary life so that no one could get to him. All that suddenly changed in one moment (one page) when he locked eyes with his daughter in Lost Light. Harry suddenly knew he could be gotten to.
Did having kids (fictional and real) make Connelly a more humane writer? I don't know. It made him a different one at least.

I might be wrong about this (and I hope you all will weigh in), but I think this question is different for women writers. I think women look at the effects of children on their creative life more practically. Some claim it forces discipline. P.D. James, mother of two, got up at 5 a.m. every morning to find time to write. The novelist Candia McWilliam once said, “Every baby costs four books.”  I asked my sister and co-author Kelly if having kids (she has three) makes you a better writer. "Only if you write tragedy," she said. (she was joking. But barely.)

I do think the fiction of women writers is maybe uniquely shaped by motherhood. Jane Hamilton's novel A Map of the World is about the effects of the drowning of a child on a family and a community. Jacquelyn Mitchard's bestseller The Deep End of the Ocean is about a kidnapping. Both were written after the authors had their children. Who can say if the stories were possible before that?

Abby Fruch's novel Polly's Ghost is about a woman who dies in childbirth and returns as a ghost to guide her son. Fruch has said she "softened" after her daughter was born and couldn't read anything violent. She rewrote her novel Blue Water to change its theme from betrayal to forgiveness.

The poet A. Manette Ansay wrote a fascinating essay called "Drowning the Children: To a Writer, Interruptions Are Life. Yes, she talks about the time suck that kids create. But like Lev Grossman, she taps into a larger realization. After having kids, she says...

...I found myself louder and more unkempt than I used to be, more interested in food, physical activity and sexual pleasure, more interested in the physical pleasure of words, their sound and sensation in the mouth and throat. The poems I had written before were tentative and cerebral; the new ones were confident, maybe funny, and full of physicality. Being with children made me matter-of-fact. Like dogs, babies and small children don't swerve from their attention to the present moment and they take no shame in the expression of strong feeling. They have an undisciplined sense of humor. Having children didn't give me confidence in my writing but I learned to write whether the result would be good or not -- as parents, too, we learn to abandon hopeless perfectionism.
Boy, I can relate to that -- the idea that writers need to live in the moment and give up the idea that they can make everything perfect. Like I said, I don't have kids but after I adopted two stray mutts, I did learn to slow down and savor a nap in the sun. (That's my snoop doggies above) And where once I couldn't go to bed if there was a dirty glass in the sink, now I don't sweat dog barf on the sofa. I write faster, enjoy the process for what it is, and I no long try to torture each sentence into perfection.

A couple years ago, Amanda Craig created a dust-up when she wrote in the Telegraph that bestselling Irish author Maeve Bichey would have been a better novelist if she had kids. It was a snarky thing to write and I don't agree.  Because here is where I come down on this whole thing:

Having kids might make you a more honest writer. As Lev Grossman says in his essay, "You can't bullshit a baby." (Or your readers). But I don't think making a baby will make you a better writer.

I truly believe that your unique voice is the sum of all your life experiences, but that what really makes you a good writer is being able to tap deep into your powers of empathy and observation.  Then having the courage to cut open your vein.

____________________

Postscript: I hope you all will indulge me and allow for a little BSP.  I got word a couple days ago that our book Heart of Ice has been nominated for the Shamus Award. (Private Eye Writers of America). Just made my rezzie to go to Bouchercon...haven't been there in years. Kelly and I are thrilled, needless to say.

29 comments:

  1. Congrats on the Shamus nomination. Crossing my fingers for you! Re your post topic, I honestly haven't thought about how having two kids has affected my writing through the years. I always found time to write. In the early days, this meant during the baby's nap. You certainly learn self-discipline and goal setting. But you also can become more distracted by inner thoughts about your book instead of listening wholeheartedly to family members. That's something I still work on. And there are certain topics I cannot write or read about: child abductions, for example. But I agree with you that it's our sum of our life experiences, whatever they are, that shapes our writing.

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    1. I'd think that having kids sort of forces a woman to be vigilant about her time and energy. But then, you're one of the most disciplined writers I know, Nancy! And yeah, I hear you about not listening to family wholeheartedly. When I am in the zone, I can barely talk to someone else.

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  2. "I write faster, enjoy the process for what it is, and I no long try to torture each sentence into perfection."

    I need to get there. Closer and closer.

    Interesting post. I don't have children, so supposedly I'll never know how deeply I can love. Balderdash, I say. But delving into your own experiences, how you felt during them, and how you handled them, is a necessity for good writing I would think. Evoking them is the trick.

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  3. Oh, and congratulations on the Shamus nomination!

    Rats. Should have opened with this.

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  4. Congratulations on your Shamus nom, Kris. I've got fingers & toes crossed for you two.

    I don't have kids so no comment on your post except to say that the emotion I infuse into my characters comes from my ability to empathise with people who have everything to lose. I put myself in those dark situations, imagining people I love being threatened. It may not be the same, but it feels real for me.

    Have fun at Bouchercon.

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    1. Thanks Jordan. I haven't been to a Bcon in a dog's age...looking forward to seeing old friends more than anything.

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  5. Two of my most successful books, Blind Justice and Breach of Promise, have father/daughter plots. And I felt them both to be very "personal" as I wrote. I have no idea if I could have written them without a real daughter in my life...or even if I would have attempted it.

    But it's possible. I mean, a man can write a woman's POV and a woman a man's. To do it successfully requires research and Jordan's key advice: empathy.

    Congrats on the Shamus nom. I'll see you at Bouchercon!

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    1. Oh, good! We'll have to hook up, Jim!

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  6. Congrats on the nomination!

    I've got kids, but I have no idea how they have affected my writing...other than reminding me how precious writing time can be. Still, I found your post fascinating. Now I'm curious about how readers, rather than the writers themselves, think having kids changed the writers' work.

    P.S. Thanks for the photo of your little ones. But just admit it. You've got kids, not dogs. ;-)

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    1. Eric, I try hard not to be one of THOSE dog owners. That said, my dogs have a wardrobe better than mine.

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  7. First of all, congratulations to you and Kelly for your nomination for the Shamus Award - hope you win! And I must get the book!

    Secondly, this is a great article and these four sentences in particular are pure gold to me:

    "The writers were not willing to expose themselves emotionally on the page. Journalism trains you to be detached and impartial. And you can't be that way with fiction. Unless you are willing to crawl inside another person's head and heart -- and muck about in all the messiness, gore, grief and passion that is there -- you can't make characters come alive on the page."

    Great stuff! I often have journalists contacting me to edit their first novel, and I'll be sending them that quote and the link to this excellent post, so they can read the rest of your wise words. Thanks, Kris!

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    1. Ah, journalists...they mean well. :) But Mike Connelly got his start as a reporter. As did Twain, Dickens, Ken Follett and many others. It can turn out well...

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  8. I agree with you, PJ. I think each person's experiences in life make them a different writer than the next, but "better" isn't something that comes to my mind when I think of writers who have had children vs. those who haven't.

    A person who has had an accident and near death experience might also be more emotionally inclined to bleed on the page. Victims of violent crimes, disabilities, discrimination, they all have emotional connections to truth which also can be used to develop wonderfully rich stories.

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  9. As the father of what my friends call "many, many children," I have no idea if it makes me a "better" writer, whatever that means. I know it disabused me of the notion that I have control, or that things go according to plan. I think you're right, we are the sum of our experiences – and one set of experiences is neither better nor worse. They just are. The trick is being able to be open to who we are and let that shape how we tell the story. 'Cuz it's all about the story.

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  10. Very interesting. On the journalism front, I concur. I got a master's in creative writer, in large part, to reclaim my fictional voice. For 11 years, I'd been trained to be as objective as is humanely possible. I had to unlearn that and it wasn't easy.



    The child thing is intriguing. I think any major life event will have huge impact on the depth of our writing. It's probably easier to access certain emotions when we have children, but certain writers are good at tapping into their childhood emotions in the same way.

    I do find that in the mystery genre, childless main characters are generally more self-centered, or ego-centric. Not in a bad way. It's just that their worlds seem to be more limited. Not sure though whether the writers are childless as well.

    People often ask me how I can write with four young kids and a traveling husband. Other writers sometimes seem to shudder when I tell them I often can write only once a week if even that. But they forget the importance of thinking time in the writing process. I am constantly thinking about my characters and my plots -- while cooking, while driving, while cleaning. When I sit down to write, I can easily churn out 2,000 or 3,000 solid words. It might take me a year or two to write a novel, but my editing time is less. The one thing that really suffers though is physical fitness. I meet all these fit, trim female writers who either have no children or already have grandchildren. I was always fit before kids and now my kids are my priority. I often have to choose between workouts and writing. Too often, I choose writing.

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    1. I'm with you, "mom" with the idea that I am working even when I am not writing. To my mind, the hardest part of novel writing is what goes on in the head in our quiet moments...the elbow grease of the mind, some writer once called it. The THINKING is the hard part...what happens when I put fingers to keys...that's easy because that is almost like transcription.

      And yeah, I get the physical fitness thing, too. That is what suffers for me because when I DO get in a zone, I will look up at the window and alas, it is too dark to go for that run. :)

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  11. Some people where I live look forward to
    Tuesdays cause that is the day the mail man brings the community paper and all the enclosures. When I open my blog and see P.J. I know it is Tuesday without the mail man.

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    1. My goodness. I am so flattered RG. Thank you for that.

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  12. Honestly, I think it's less about having kids and more about just getting older and growing up and getting wiser by seeing and experiencing more. I don't have kids, but in my late forties, my writing is much more emotional and empathetic than the arch, snarky, stylistically self-conscious crap I wrote in my twenties. Having kids, I think, is an adult accelerant for many. Those of us who choose not to have children are matured by other major life experiences (in my case, the death of a parent, financial desperation engendered by unemployment, the fizzling out of my newspaper career, etc.).

    Looking forward to meeting you at Bouchercon — it'll be my first.

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    1. Ditto Jim. Please make sure we find each other in the group grope. I will buy you a drink. Just as long as you don't order 20 year old scotch. (Blake Crouch actually did that to me once, the scoundrel).

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  13. Here's a quote from a local writer on the joys and trials of parenthood:

    "For her, this is a slow, often painful process – much like the process of writing a novel, which involves learning to commit to choices and let go of fear, doubt, perfectionism, all those things that get in the way. It took me a long time to figure out and accept who I am as a writer.”

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    1. Ha! I have often heard women talk of novels as akin to childbirth. But it doesn't end there.

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  14. I've got kids, and I do believe it effects how a writer writes. Mainly because we write what comes out of our emotional reservoir, and if you've got kids those emotional ties are strong.

    My current WIP deals extensively with that family connectedness. Writing from both the parent's and the children's perspectives, I am seeing more of the bond that creates both a deep love and a willingness to take risks to maintain it, as well a capacity for deep vengeance when it is threatened.

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    1. I get that, Basil. In our book Heart of Ice, Louis deals intimately with the emotional pulls of having a daughter...how having a person in your life to love re-shapes your responses to all that you do. I had to really tap into my powers of empathy to understand this tie.

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  15. Congratulations on the Shamus nomination! Carl Hiaasen is another reporter/columnist who has risked exposing his emotions -- and in the unique world of South Florida.

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    1. Thanks Lance...and yeah, I forgot about Carl. Geez.

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  16. PJ--this is a fascinating topic, and I thank you. But it raises a question that could only be answered by a lot of research, which I'm not willing to do: how many of those who claim children made them better writers are viewed by their children as having been good, or even passable parents? Is it possible HAVING a child zaps the creative impulse, but that RAISING children does just the opposite? For me, the most sustained, "opened an artery" writing time came when I was completely isolated in a house in Naples, Florida, during the summer. At that time, the town of Naples seems almost deserted, and powerful thunder storms occur on a regular basis. That's what did it for me. In two weeks, I drafted a novel. This won't happen again (I lost the house), but it was one hell of a ride--and not a kid in sight.

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