Writing With A Toddler IV: Hijacking Self-Importance

Posted: May 8, 2015 in Dark Art Cafe
Tags: , , , ,

My wife Samantha and my son Liam hijacked my latest novel.

In 2013 I got a summer writing grant to work on a novel set in Newfoundland. The money (almost) covered my flights between Iowa and Newfoundland, where Samantha and I lived for just under 4 years while I completed a Ph.D. in English at Memorial University. So the trip, when I wrote my original grant application, was supposed to be this nostalgic return to a place we both had come to love, and I was going to get my doctoral cap and gown, and then stay on in St. John’s for 3 more weeks to work on this new novel project.

That was the plan before Samantha found out she was pregnant: something that we’d been told by several doctors was an impossibility. Then it happened: she got pregnant. And everything changed. Not it a splitting-of-the-Red-Sea kind of way, but slowly, over time, irrevocably, everything changed.

That’s true, of course. But it’s also a lie.

It’s a lie because my travel plans did not change. Samantha had come along for the first part of the trip to spend time with old friends, to see a few old haunts, and to celebrate her putting me through grad. school. Then she had to return to Iowa because her summer camp season was starting, and, being the Assistant Camp Director, she kind of needed to be there. And I stayed in Newfoundland, rooming with our friends Janice and Javier for 2 weeks, writing 14-16 hours a day while in St. John’s. And then my buddy Marv gave me a lift to Central Newfoundland, and I caught the ferry to Fogo Island, just off Newfoundland’s northeast coast, where I spent my last week. All this was part of the original plan.

Except for Samantha being pregnant. Which meant that while I wore sweaters everyday, writing in Janice’s and Javier’s basement, enjoying Newfoundland’s springtime RDF (Rain, Drizzle, and Fog)weather I really do prefer to oppressive prairie sunshineSamantha was back on the prairies, working full time and coming home in 80+ F humidity to cook her own meals and mow the lawn every other day, all while she was 6-7 months pregnant. (To add insult to injury, when I finally got back home it was the heat of summer and the grass only needed mowing every other week or so).

In our late night phone talks while I was away, and in conversations since then, Samantha told me how truly lonely she felt in those months. I missed a good chunk of her pregnancy, a pregnancy that was not supposed to have happened but miraculously did. So why did I stay in Newfoundland? I guess the main reason was that I was worried that the chance to write that book in that place would not come around again. I didn’t want to miss out.

But I did.

I missed out on something bigger, more profound, and though the book is now done and I’m proud of it and it’s marked throughout with my son’s indelible infant fingerprints on my imagination, I know, when I’m honest with myself, that I missed out on something important.

That’s a regret I’ll live with. Samantha and I joke about the lawn mowing now, but I know that I should have changed plans and come home. Maybe given back some of the money. Maybe. But I didn’t. And that made me the self-obsessed sort of writer I’ve never wanted to be: the guy who chooses his art over his family.

That said, even half a continent apart, Samantha and my unborn son still managed to hijack my novel.

After a Skype call with Samantha, during which she tried to describe the feeling of the baby kicking (something I’d not yet felt with my own hand), I went downstairs to work on a scene in which one of my characters was switching out human ash, stowed in a funeral urn, for heroin. I knew this character would receive a call from his girlfriend after he’d performed the switch, which he’d done to keep from getting caught with the drugs. That was part of the original plot plan. He would get a call from his girlfriend, who he’d left behind after he’d been blackmailed to run the drugs across the island. I was expecting that fictional call, but Samantha’s Skype call sabotaged that scene. And, as a result, I wound up putting my character in my shoes: making him deal with the mess he was in while knowing that his girlfriend was pregnant: making him squirm with the knowledge that much more was at stake than his original, petty scheme.

I once heard Michael Winter say that writers shouldn’t write about writers’ writing, because it kills a scene: it’s inactive, there’s rarely dialogue, and there’s too much attention given to examining the act of writing, an act on which writers are naturally focused but which is not intrinsically interesting to a reader. A scene in which a writer muses on what he is writing is (most often) as boring as watching a guy pick lint from between his toes. I knew all that when I had my character step into my shoes at the end of that scene. I knew this novel couldn’t turn into writerly introspection and self-pity, even though that’s probably what I was tending toward that day.

But I also knew that in order not to miss more than I already was missing, I needed in some way, in the world of the novel, to turn my attention to Samantha and our unborn son. I needed to actually feel the separation between us, instead of trying not to think about it and to focus on my writing. I needed to acknowledge my regret in my writing and to try, in my own stupid, limited way, to imagine what Samantha might be feeling, alone as she was.

In writing that novel, that elaborate lie, I needed to try to tell the truth.

This might seem like quite a leap, but the compulsion to tell the truth in my writing, even when doing so involves confessing that I’m self-obsessed, is similar to the compulsion I feel to practice my faith as a Christian. Christianity, after all, when it tells the truth about us humans, isn’t complimentary: it’s brutally honest. We fail and in our failure we hurt ourselves and other people, causing us and them to suffer.

I realized that being away from Samantha hurt me as much as it hurt her. I was lonely, as was she. When I realized that, I knew I needed to acknowledge that hurt in the novel: in that story the creation of which was causing much of our pain. And so writing became a kind of fictional confession.

This confession, by the way, is not what I set out to write today. I wanted to be funny, like I tried to be in the last post. But what I intended to say was altered when I read an interview with author Nathan Poole at the Fiction Writers Review this morning, in which Poole talks about suffering, writing, and religious faith:

Religious faith will always be a crisis of praxis for me. It is both a theory of suffering and a way to suffer. Marx is famously quoted out of context as saying that religion was an opiate for the masses, a drug wishful people could take to make themselves feel better, feel safer, but anyone who has had a religious experience knows it’s the opposite. Marx himself, in the same statement, didn’t seem to intend that interpretation. He called religion the ‘heart of a heartless world’ both referring to it as a life-giving thing and a contrivance at once. If you do that math, that equates to a logical crisis, to tremendous intellectual suffering. My faith asks me to know and suffer the paradoxes of the self and doubt unto joy, to pass through suffering with others and with God, not out of it. Writing is a way to do that, a form of suffering that leads to joy. Related is something Simone Weil once said: ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.’ This kind of consummate attention is what I feel called to as a fiction writer—it can be called empathy, of course, and it is that, but it also transcends that category. It is empathy and response, a kind of longing in language toward meaning.

Writing honestly, like living honestly (with or without faith), involves seeking to know, experience, and express “the paradoxes of the self and doubt unto joy.” That joy isn’t an opiate; it’s not a numbing drug. And it isn’t an escape or a turning away from life. That kind of joy comes only with empathy and response and an openness to the unexpected.

It’s returning home and telling your wife you should have come home sooner.

It’s giving up your original story plan for a thicker, more complicated plot.

It’s saying to your toddler, when he’s kneeling on his red plastic table, his face pressed against the living room window, watching robins flit in the lush, spring Iowan grass: “I didn’t feel your first kick, and I’m sorry for that. I was writing a novel, which seems silly now. If you ever read it, though, I hope you’ll see how you kept kicking my hands as I wrote with you in mind.”

I say this to my son in all seriousness, of course. And then Liam, not knowing why I’m so sad, goes and gets his favorite pop-up book of deep sea creatures and crawls into my lap and claps his hands for me to read to him.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s