Friday, November 19, 2004

This complicated and controversial question

I was just struck by Randa's post at MoorishGirl, quoting an Identity Theory interview with Don Lee that I read earlier in the week and found most engaging and interesting. Randa responds to a comment of Lee's below:

In Robert Birnbaum's interview with Don Lee, they discuss how Lee found time to write, away from his full-time Ploughshares editing gig:

DL:...[T]he way I was able to write the novel is because I don't have children.
RB: [laughs]
DL: I don't know how writers who have children are able to do it, to produce anything.
RB: There's an idea for an anthology. I just saw one today, a collection of stories by writers who live with other writers. So the next one will be Writing With Children.

I write and I have a child.

Today is my son's 8th birthday. About this time 8 years ago, I was an 18 year old college sophomore stretched out on a Connecticut hospital bed, in labor. I would have never imagined that I'd be in Texas, finishing up a novel, now. I just wanted to give birth and finish up my semester.
Writers who have children write, produce, the same way writers without children do. They find a spot, a closet, a room, and a writing tool, and they string words together on essentially borrowed time.

Back to my closet and my son's b-day cupcakes now. Have a good weekend!

Randa's point is a sensible one, and in many ways I completely agree with her. But I feel some need to speak up for Don Lee, who surely was making a modest point about his own accomplishments rather than, really, a generalization about what's possible! (He's really talking in context about how he has balanced his fiction-writing against his rather all-consuming job as editor of Ploughshares; for the whole interview, which is well worth reading, see Identity Theory.)

I don't have children, but a number of my friends at similar stages in their academic careers now have a child or two, usually under the age of five but in several cases rather older. And what I say is that I simply couldn't have my academic career as it is and my academic writing and my fiction writing and a child. If I had the child, one of the other things would have to go, and because the academic career and the academic writing are necessary to me in every sense (i.e. that's how I make a living as well as satisfying various inner needs), the fiction writing is what would have to go for some years. (And probably also a serious scaling-down of my immediate ambitions as a literary scholar--I think it adds up to much the same thing in the end, but the academic career--like so many others--is heavily front-loaded, meaning that you are expected to do a great deal of work in your twenties and thirties, and if you're on a slower clock due to a mix of different responsibilities, it can be very tricky to recoup afterwards.) And that's something I don't think I can handle.

It's just a matter of choices, I guess--we all need certain things and it's a different combination for different people. Margaret Atwood has a great quotation--I wish I had the exact line, it was better phrased than I can do here. I think she was responding to an interviewer's question about why she stopped teaching creative writing at some point in her career. And she says something to the effect of this: "Well, you can have a job and write, and you can write and have a child, and you can have a job and have a child. But you can't write and have a job and have a child." (Rita Dove says something elsewhere that's very similar about choices she made after she had a child.) In a literal sense, of course lots of people can and do write and have a job and have a child. But a very demanding job (assistant professors notoriously don't HAVE such a thing as "spare time"--in fact, it's sort of similar to being a parent in its huge and all-encompassing notion of 24-7 responsibility and hard work...), and a demanding vocation as a writer--well, it's an awful lot on your plate already. And that's what I think Don Lee meant to say.


  1. This is Randa fromMoorishgirl. I did not in any way mean my commnt negativelky. Don Lee publsihed my first short story, and I respect him immensely! I wasjust literally answering a question many people whodon't have children and write seem to ask.
    randa jarrar

  2. I wish we had a chance to talk about this more in person! It's such a charged topic, isn't it? I didn't take you to be saying something negative--it was just that your comment really struck me, in a good way--possibly I feel slightly defensive about this? Anyway, thanks (if you see this)!