A writer friend who became a father a few months ago has had his writing life turned on its head. His rhythm is shot, and he finds eking out time difficult. He teaches at an American university, and he says his day job is hardly demanding. But still...
“I used to write every morning, five days a week,” he told me when we met recently. “Ever since I began writing some 20 years ago, that has been the case.”
Now, all that has changed. He finds it very difficult to devote himself to his work with an infant in the house. He finds it impossible to sit in front of the computer for four or five hours at a stretch.
He now writes in bursts, in whatever snatches of time that he can wangle. “It’s a new pattern. And it will take some time to get used to.” As a result, the ongoing novel is going very, very slowly.
No one asks if being a parent gets in the way of being a plumber or investment banker, but the corridors of literature have always echoed with the debate about whether being a parent stands in the way of being a writer.
Different writers work in different ways. VS Naipaul famously said that he could never have suffered the distraction that is engendered by having a child (although Patrick French’s very fine biography of him showed that this pronouncement involved a typically Naipaullian elision). Cyril Connolly called the “pram in the hallways the most sombre enemy of art”.
JG Ballard produced most of his oeuvre while raising his three children after the death of his wife. He turned out his masterpieces of urban dystopia in between tying shoelaces, packing school lunches — and, for many years, having a scotch on the hour, every hour, between noon and eight in the evening.
I have published all my three books with the accoutrements of my daughter’s infancy and childhood all around me. I wrote the first draft of my first in the long, wakeful nights after her birth, nights when she would simply refuse to go to sleep. Parenting is umbilically linked to my writing.
I wouldn’t trade in being a father for anything. I have a consuming day job, and I can’t imagine that being a parent can actually divert me from writing any more than that can. I can’t also think that I would actually have been more prolific had we not had a child.
Yet sometimes, I try and envisage a situation in which the compulsions of parenting are taken out of the equation. I imagine the sense of liberation and calm. But it’s not my reality.
In her story, Agnes of Iowa, Lorrie Moore — an author who is also a parent — puts it beautifully: “Every arrangement in life carried with it the sadness, the sentimental shadow, of its not being something else, but only itself.” We have what we have. We learn to live with it. After a time, it becomes the only thing we know.