When Your Writing Life Becomes a Dysfunctional Family

In some families, there is a “good kid,” and there is a “bad kid.”

The “good kid” is the responsible and easy kid, polite and charming, the one who does homework and chores without having to be asked, who listens to you (the parent) and brings home awards from school and chess tournaments and tennis matches and so on. When you go to bed at night, in the wake of yet another delightful piano recital or starring role in the school play, you think, “What a wonderful child! How did I get so lucky?” The “bad kid,” on the other hand, is the unpleasant and difficult kid, the one who won’t do anything without having to be harangued about it and who’s obscenely obnoxious to you and everyone you know at every turn, the one who doesn’t show up and creates messes everywhere and garners complaints, demerits, and exasperation. After yet another visit with the school principal, or maybe even the police department, you think, “Why can’t this child be like my good child? I’ve got to get out of here!”

If you are a writer, and if you’ve had a piece of writing published or accepted for publication and you’re meanwhile working on another one, your writing life may start to behave like this family.

My “good kid” is a book of short stories that’s just come out this year. The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories is a lovely, easy part of my life. For months and months now, all the news has been good news. First, there was the prize announcement, the announcement that the University of Massachusetts Press would be publishing the book. Then there were all sorts of fun milestones — fielding some pleasant editorial suggestions, discussing ideas for reading venues and places that might be interested in reviewing the work, considering possible book covers, and so on. Blurbs came in for the back cover, and of course there’s no such thing as a negative blurb, so that was a mini-parade of praise for my “good kid.” It’s like I’m sitting at the dinner table and saying to my child, “Well, hey — I heard from Sam Michel today, and do you know what he said? He said you present yourself ‘with disarming humor, candor, and pathos through an easy, unquestionably authentic voice.’” At which point I choke up and say, “I’m awfully proud of you, kiddo.” And the book says, “Aw, shucks, Dad. That’s all I ever wanted, was just to make you proud. Is it okay if I go wash all our dishes?”

And that was before publication. Now the book’s out there, which means readings and reviews and so on. Lovely.

Meanwhile, I also have two “bad kids.” One is a novel draft that isn’t really working; the other is a different project that can’t seem to get going in the first place. These kids are belligerent and difficult and full of contradictions and they absolutely refuse to do what I want them to do. They alternately fill me with false hopes and trash my hopes altogether. In the first case, I’ve basically got a kid who has become so intractable, so full of problems that defy solutions, that I frequently end up grounding the kid — “You just sit in the corner until you figure out how to behave like a proper novel” — and I don’t even know what to make of the second case; it’s like a colicky newborn, not even formed yet into anything coherent. Is this going to be a novel? Is it just a go-nowhere idea?

All these kids do is make demands — spend time with me! write me! — and then they end every interaction with “Nope — that wasn’t good enough, Dad. You suck.”

So, given my dysfunctional writing family, here’s the thing: why would I want to spend time with my “bad kids” when I could hang out with my “good kid,” who, after all, is also right there in front of me, smiling face and all? Doesn’t the “good kid” need me to arrange more readings and interviews and so on? Or just hug and squeeze it a bunch?

Well, sure — but my “bad kids” need me more. Really what it comes down to is that a “good kid/bad kid” understanding of the world usually says more about a failure of parenting/writing than it does about the flaws of the kids/books themselves.

The truth is that my projects are just behaving the way they’re supposed to, given their different life-stages. My “good kid” is a young adult, more or less independent and ready to navigate the world with sporadic boosts from me. The other two projects, though, are my younger kids, and they’re not ready, and the only way they’re ever going to be ready is if I get in there and do some good parenting. My first “bad kid” is in a kind of adolescent period, full of complicated energy and confusion, none of which can get sorted out without my devotion. I’m the one who can point the way to clarity and bring out the kid’s strengths and maturity. And the newborn? The newborn will die if I turn my back on it. The newborn needs my attention in order to reach just the first rudimentary milestones — rolling over, standing up, taking a few wobbly steps. There’s still a very long road before we can talk about independence, and for a long, long time I will look at this creature and wonder, “What even are you?” But it has no chance at all if I walk away.

Listen: this writer-parent thing is hard work — sometimes very unrewarding work. But it’s what we signed up for. The devoted writer may have moments of pride, reveling in the accomplishments of an adult child out in the publishing world here or there, but there’s always a younger, much more difficult child that’s going to need your attention. Maybe we can take breaks — unlike a real kid, you can go without feeding it for a couple of weeks — but eventually (and probably sooner rather than later) you have to get back in there. Because a writer who isn’t a good parent — who doesn’t make the time for even those difficult children — isn’t going to be a writer at all.