Here’s a little treat…or is it a trick?…from us to you. Hope you enjoy!
As some of you may know, last year my wife’s sister was tragically killed in a car accident. She left behind a little girl, now twenty months old, whom we have adopted, thus adding a fifth member to Team Pipsoe. So, friends and fans, I’d like you to meet my daughter, Amelia.
When I talk about my kids online, I usually refer to them by nicknames. Long-time readers of this blog, or friends and followers on social media, know all about my older son, the Squirrel Boy, and my younger one, the C-in-C. After spending two days in a mini-van with Amelia bringing her from North Carolina to Wisconsin, a single term seemed appropriate, both symbolically and literally: the Siren. Like the sailors lured to their willing deaths by those mythological creatures, I would gladly sacrifice myself for this little one. And man, does her cry get your attention.
As the stay-at-home parent, I raised the C-in-C while still writing at least a book a year, so I anticipate no slowdown in my work. But if I’m a little less present online, and maybe don’t hit quite as many conventions next year, I hope you’ll understand why: I’m heeding the Siren’s call.
Writing prose about music is, to borrow an analogy, dangerously close to trying to teach a fish to ride a bicycle. If you could say it in regular words, there’d be no need to sing it. And music can do some things far more efficiently than any other art form. For example, it takes over seven hours to tell the three-generation story of the Corleones in the three Godfather films; Steve Earle covers the same amount of territory in less than five minutes in his song “Copperhead Road.” So really, the best a prose writer can do is try to describe the effect music has on the people who create it, and hear it.
Recently, while reading the Janet Sternburg-edited collection The Writer on Her Work, I had an unexpected epiphany (I know, epiphanies are always unexpected, but work with me). It was the realization that my life in 2012 is almost exactly Anne Tyler’s in 1980.
Tyler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Breathing Lessons and The Accidental Tourist, contributed the book’s first essay, “Still Just Writing.” It begins with a list of all the real-world mundane events and responsibilities that keep her from writing when she wants to. The parallels with my own life right now–I’m the stay-at-home parent (or is the term “primary caregiver”? I can never remember) for two small children, and I write between events such as school, martial arts practice, acting class, various playdates and so forth–are pretty strong.* And I’m not the only one of my male writer friends in this situation.
In all the essays in the book, the role of women in society forms a strong undercurrent. Comments from famous male authors explaining why women can’t be great writers (imagine hearing that in a college classroom now) are related, and examples from the past (Honor Moore’s tale of her grandmother who gave up painting because it was “too intense” is really fascinating) show how creative women struggled against both society and their own sense of isolation. In 1980 these struggles continued, but all the writers in the book have reached a point where they understand their desire to write is both irresistible and entirely acceptable, society be damned.
Now, the big difference with the life Tyler describes is crucial: thirty years ago, her life was the norm. It was what society expected women to do. It’s neither normal now, nor unheard-of, for the man to be the primary caregiver while the woman works out of the home. It is, in fact, a time when all the old roles described in Sternburg’s book are starting to twist and mutate. And sadly but perhaps inevitably, it’s being driven by economics, not social justice.
In fact, particularly within the so-called “creative community” of contemporary (and internet-linked) writers, artists and musicians, the traditional roles that Sternburg’s book discusses have certainly lost their edges, if not broken down entirely. Men can no longer find jobs lucrative enough to support their families; two incomes are the standard. In my case, my last full-time non-writing job did not pay enough to cover putting my youngest son in day care when he was a newborn. So I gratefully took the chance to become a full-time stay-at-home father, as well as a full-time writer. Both, for me at least, have paid off more than ever anticipated.
But are these changes permanent? Unless there’s a total collapse, eventually the economic system will recover, and jobs will become both better and easier to get. What happens to all these nontraditional families then? When the soldiers came back from World War II, women didn’t necessarily want to leave the work force to give the men back their jobs. And from that, eventually (it’s a hugely simplified explanation, I know) came the first modern feminist movement. So when jobs are again available, will men want to give up raising their kids to return to the traditional workplace?
I don’t know. We’ll see. But in the meantime, The Writer on Her Work has me looking at myself and my family with a whole new appreciation.
Recently I mentioned to author Patrick Somerville (This Bright River) that Dean Bakopoulos’s first book, Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, resonated with me because I have unresolved issues with my own late father. Patrick said, “Yeah, like every other writer.” It wasn’t mockery: he was saying, in essence, “Welcome to a club of which you were already a member.”
That got me thinking: is it true? Does every writer, especially male writers, have deep-seated father issues? Do they provide some, or even all, of the drive that makes us create?
As if to corroborate this, a few days later I came across this passage in a New Yorker article on Bruce Springsteen:
“T-Bone Burnett said that rock and roll is all about ‘Daaaaddy!’ It’s one embarrassing scream of ‘Daaaaddy!’”
My father was, simply, an alcoholic. And he was surrounded by family and friends who so enabled and covered up for him that, until I was almost grown, I didn’t know. He never drank where I could see him. When he passed out on the couch, I was told he was just tired from working so hard. When he wanted to sit in the car instead of come inside with me for my weekly allergy shots, I thought he just found my company boring. Certainly we never talked books, music or art; he liked to fish (where he could drink), hunt (where he could drink) and go frog gigging (where he could drink).
Whenever he took me along for those activities, my presence frustrated him because it meant he couldn’t drink; to me, he just seemed put out by a son who didn’t grasp these skills instantly (we won’t even talk about him teaching me to drive). The upshot of which is that, pretty much up until right before he died, I assumed he just didn’t like me.
When I started drinking to fit in (at 15), no one took me aside and said, “This is what cost your father that good job, and made you have to move from that beautiful house into the one with a shotgun hole in the wall.” They simply clicked their tongues and shook their heads. Worse, he said nothing. His pride, or cowardice, kept him from even the most basic sort of intervention, telling his underage son that he shouldn’t get drunk.
Now that I’m a father, too, and fifteen years from my last drink (there was no drama around my quitting, just a realization that if I didn’t, I’d end up like him), I realize just how fucked up our relationship was, and how everyone around us let it stay fucked up. People are amazed that I missed what must have been obvious signs, but I was the only child at home, and I had nothing to compare it to. I believed what I was told, until the day I discovered him myself, passed out in the mud beside a pond where we’d gone fishing (and where he’d deliberately sent me to fish in a spot where I couldn’t see him).
Recently, over twenty years after his death, some workers at my mom’s house discovered a cache of empty peppermint schnapps bottles in the foundation crawlspace. It was his legacy: a pile of stinking glass.
So what does this have to do with me being a writer?
I became a writer because I had to; the stories were chewing their way out my head. But I became the writer I am, and tell the stories I do, because they are my legacy to my sons. I’ve occasionally thought of pandering to current trends, to try creating something that might piggyback on another writer’s success and grant me that elusive “bestseller” status (maybe The DaVinci Girl Who Wore Shades of Grey, or something). But then I remember, these books are what my kids, and grandkids, will have to remember me by. By reading them, they will hopefully be able to know a little bit about me. If I do anything but try my best to write stories unique to me, embodying my idea of what’s important, them I’m just leaving them the same pile of stinking glass my dad left me.
So I guess that Patrick Somerville, and T-Bone Burnett, were right. Welcome to the club, indeed.
It’s a well-known maxim that creative types, for the most part, get no respect from their families. Even Jesus knew this, saying (according to King James), “A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house” (and no, I’m not comparing myself to Jesus). Thankfully, in my own house I’m fairly well tolerated, especially when I clean the bathrooms every week. And most of the authors I know have spouses or partners who actually like having a writer around.
But go further afield, and you find people who saw you grow up, and who now make it their business to remember every social misstep, every embarrassing faux pas, every failure of your childhood and look for any opportunity to remind you of it as an adult. Or go out of their way to denigrate what you’ve dedicated yourself to as somehow less than a “real job.”
An example from my own life: last spring, I took my family back to Tennessee, so we could go to Easter sunrise service with my mom. Returning “home” is always problematic for me, because the tiny town I grew up in, and that a surprising number of my family still call home, has decayed over the years to a hamlet of old people, abandoned houses and (probably) hidden meth labs. The school burned down, the grocery store and diner closed, even the truck stop went out of business. All that’s left are one red light, a convenience store and a notorious speed trap. Still, we went, because it’s my mom; she refuses to travel, so if I want her to see her grandsons, I have to bring them to her.
While I was there, one of my relatives told me that he finished reading one of my books. Now, this would be unusual enough, given that I write books everyone in my family considers “weird” (i.e., fantasy and horror). But lest you think I’ve made some sort of breakthrough, he also felt the need to tell me where he finished it.
In his words, “On the crapper.”
That’s right: he wanted to make sure I knew my book, and his shit, were in very close proximity.
I’ve turned this little moment over in my mind ever since. If he’d cackled gleefully and pointed at me, the way people did when I was a kid, I’d know how to take it. If he’d punched me in the face, the way one of my cousins once did for being “weird” (I was reading a Star Trek book at the time) then I’d also comprehend his meaning. But maybe, in some twisted way, he meant it as a compliment. Maybe he wanted to show me that my book had brought joy to his personal sanctum sanctorum. Maybe experiencing a good book, and a good bowel movement, are both rare experiences for him.
Still, I’d hesitate to recommend sharing this sort of thing to the family of other writers. Because it’s also a mental image I never, ever wanted.
I’ve been following the Jerry Sandusky child molestation case since it broke. The Freeh report, which explicitly blamed Sandusky’s continued ability to molest children on the deliberate actions of those in power at Penn State, including legendary football coach Joe Paterno (arguably the most powerful man on campus), led to unprecedented penalties against the university and its football program. And it should: supporting and covering up a child molester, knowingly allowing him a decade’s worth of freedom to continue his vile crimes, deserved the harshest penalties possible.
And yet, there are apologists. There are people who think this punishment is unfair, that it tarnishes Paterno’s “legacy.” To them, I say, wake up: this is Paterno’s legacy.
But the thing that irks me most about their arguments, the thing that most makes me want to slap these people, is this:
It’s a children’s game.
This detail has gotten lost in the minutiae of the Sandusky/Paterno affair, and the Penn State response, but it’s crucial. Football may be played by adults, but it’s a children’s game.
Think about the vast amounts of money given to these men for coaching and playing the same game any eight-year-old plays. Yes, they play it better, but it’s the same game. We support, indulge and overlook horrendous conduct by these people, for playing a damn children’s game well. We’ve destroyed our higher education system, once the envy of the world, by pouring all the university money into a goddamned children’s game.
In the article linked above, Ujas Patel, who heads the Penn State alumni association chapter in London, says the NCAA penalties unfairly target the future of the football program that he described as vital to the university. The fact that a football program is vital to a university, more vital apparently than abused children, shows just how out of whack our cultural priorities have become.
The next time you watch a football game, college or pro, ask yourself how your life changes based on the outcome. Unless you’re part of the economic chain directly connected to it, the answer is: not at all. The winning or losing of a children’s game doesn’t, and shouldn’t, ultimately matter in the real world.
I’ve written many times, on this and other blogs, about the challenges of being a full-time writer and stay-at-home parent. I’ve alluded to the difficulty of living with someone like me, but of course I can never truly know what it’s like. My wife, however, knows exactly what living with a writer is like, and in this post she talks about it. Thanks to Valette Piper-Bledsoe for writing the following.
I’ve read plaintive blog posts about the writer’s life–the struggle to find productive creative time, the conflicting demands of family and work, the siren call of YouTube or solitaire. All perfectly valid, of course. I live with a writer, and I see that it’s a calling as much as anything else–something one does because one must and not necessarily because it’s glamorous or fun.
But it’s no picnic being a writer’s wife, either.* If you happen to meet one, here are a few things not to say:
1. You must work because you really like your job, because writers make soooo much money.
Hah, hah, hee, ha, snort…sorry. While I like my job and happen to be good at it, I work because we need two incomes. It’s a sad reality that most writers–the vast majority, I’d venture to say–are not rich. The number of fiction writers who can support themselves and their families solely on their writing income is probably very, very small. My job also provides benefits such as health insurance, dental and vision care, and pension contributions. Even the most successful writers must fund those (and pay taxes) themselves. Of course, if you’re Stephen King, John Grisham or Nora Roberts, I don’t think that’s much of an issue for you. Most writers–even the ones who make a living at it–aren’t in that league.
2. Oh, you poor thing, having to support your husband.
Conversely, those who don’t assume we’re rich, assume that “writer” is code for unemployable bum. Nothing could be further from the truth. My husband works, and works hard. Writing is his job, and he takes it seriously, approaching it with immense discipline. Writing isn’t just staring out the window or at a computer screen, thinking deep thoughts (even if that’s sometimes what it looks like). Like any creative labor, it requires a great deal of energy, time and dedication. Most mid-list writers these days can add “marketer” and “publicist” to their job duties. Writing good books isn’t enough–you need to blog and tweet, maintain a Facebook page, make the rounds at conventions, and in general put yourself out there. In my husband’s case, he does all of this, writes amazing books, and takes care of our two small children. Hell yes, I support him; I applaud him.
3. I don’t really like science fiction or fantasy, but I’ll guess I’ll read your husband’s book if you give me one.
If my mother–the woman who endured 48 hours of anesthesia-free labor to bring me into this world–can buy my husband’s books, so can you. Especially if you’re so worried about my family’s financial state (see #2). Publishing is a business. Great critical reviews and awards are nice, but the bottom line is sales. So go buy a damn book. Hardcover is super, paperback or e-reader is lovely. If you’re struggling, go to a library and ask them to order a copy. It all adds up. Don’t think someone else is going to buy a book. Sales matter. My children and I thank you.
4. I’ve always wanted to write a book! Can your husband recommend me to his agent/publisher?
Alex has always been generous with his time and experience, helping beginning writers through workshops and speaking to local students. He remembers what it was like starting out. He can tell you how he did it, how to find an agent, give you tips on how to write an agent pitch. But no, he’s not going to recommend you to his agent–who is a lovely person, a good agent and has a perfectly good website with information about the kind of submissions she’s looking for. First, you might want to actually write that book. I bet you find it’s a lot harder than you think (see #2).
5. Oh writers, aren’t they all … depressed, alcoholic, crazy, fill-in-the-blank.
While I’ll admit that a cliche exists around creative types for a reason, just because someone is a writer doesn’t mean they’re nuts. All writers are not Ernst Hemingway. Or Hunter S. Thompson. Or Sylvia Plath. Or…okay, so there are a lot of examples. Anyway, not all writers are drunk, crazy or suicidal. Alex happens to be a funny, sweet person–a wonderful husband and father. Many other writers we know are also kind, funny, happy, normal people, no more likely to down a fifth of Scotch or kick their dogs than your average doctor, lawyer or computer programmer. They’re writers, not musicians, for Pete’s sake (just kidding).
Not that living with a writer is all sunshine and roses. There’s the staring into space during dinner as they process a plot point, the sudden rush to the laptop because they thought of a perfect line for a character, the pouting because they have to go on a family outing instead of editing, the sudden influx of say, books about pirates…
But that’s a different post.
Valette, proud to be a writer’s wife
* I say wife because I am one, but spouse works just as well, I should think.
This summer I mentioned we got a cat. Apparently my prior comments on cats made this news surprising. So here’s the scoop (and the litter box is over there! Badda-BING!).
I’ve gone on record many places as saying I hate cats. The last cat I lived with introduced herself by launching claws-first at my crotch (I was jingling change in my pocket at the time) and peeing on my leather jacket whenever possible. I adore dogs, want a dog, wish I had a dog. But instead I have a cat.
And the worst part is, I picked her.
We decided the boys needed a pet for the new house, so we went to the Shelter from the Storm adoption fair. I had every intention of taking home a dog, but clicked with none of the ones available. The cats, meanwhile, were displayed in a vast row along the outside wall of PetSmart, two and three cages high in places. Most had kittens or playful adolescent cats in them, and the cries of delighted children filled the air. Whoopee, I thought. As someone once said, “If you have a cat in your house, you also have a box of shit in your house.”
And then, at one end, in a big cage all by herself, sat Lily.
She was fat. She was old. She had one eye. And no one was paying any attention to her. I saw a kindred spirit.
“We’re taking that one,” I said.
My family was so startled that I even wanted a cat that they gave me very little argument. We picked her up the same day we moved into the new house.
The decision has been eminently justified. She is sweet-tempered, quiet, affectionate and serene. She never lashes out at the kids for being too rough with her, even when the C-in-C poked her in her empty eye socket (yes, we took her to the vet, and no, there was no damage). She’s still overweight, but we’re working on that (having her litter box on the second floor helps). She’s not a kitten, so I don’t know how long she’ll be around (her papers say she’s seven years old), but she’s settled into the family in a way I never expected.
I still hate cats, don’t get me wrong. But every rule has an exception.