How is writing like parenting?
Note: I’m on vacation until next Tuesday, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run, starting with a series on writing and parenting. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 20, 2014.
Writing a novel is like becoming a parent. Before you start, you’ve got high hopes, leavened only slightly by terror at the scale of the effort involved. Maybe you read a few books on the subject, and even if you don’t actively solicit advice, you’re still exposed to plenty of opinions—many of them forceful—about the right or wrong way to do things. And you end up with some big plans. In practice, however, you find that it’s an endless series of compromises, and you find yourself living in a constant state of barely controlled chaos. At times, just getting from one day to the next starts to feel like an achievement in itself, which it is. Because what parenthood and writing have in common is the education they offer on the gap between our ideals and the pragmatic decisions required to sustain them. Both require flexibility, patience, and more energy than any one human seems likely to possess. And like most worthwhile things in life, it isn’t until you’ve tried it for yourself that you have any idea of what it entails.
You also start to realize the range of valid approaches. In writing and parenting, you do whatever works, as long as the process is founded on love. With love in place, you can get away with just about anything; without it, all the craft and cleverness in the world won’t take you very far. Beyond that, it’s a matter of trying one thing, then another, until you end up with a repertoire of tricks that work, at least until they don’t. Every child, like every novel, is different—and they often change from minute to minute—so you wind up relying on a few general rules and a constantly shifting arsenal of tactics, whether they’re designed to carry you to the end of a chapter or to get your daughter to eat a few bites of breakfast. When I look at Beatrix, I sometimes feel that I’ve been thrust into an ongoing science experiment that I’ll only get to perform once. With a novel, at least, there’s always the possibility of revision, or even of throwing out the entire first draft and starting again, but raising a child is like publishing a serial, where you’re stuck with what you wrote in the earlier installments.
In the end, you raise a child in the same way you write a novel—one day at a time. As Stanislavski says in An Actor Prepares, you don’t eat the entire turkey at once. In both cases, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by how much work lies ahead: my daughter isn’t even two yet, but I’ll occasionally find myself brooding over the homework assignments, teacher conferences, school plays, band practices, and college visits that will occupy the next two decades of my life. A novel can seem like an equally huge undertaking. Really, though, each day’s work comes down to a small set of particular tasks, and the learning curve in both cases is surprisingly gentle. When you bring a baby home from the hospital, there are just a handful of things you need to know right away: her needs are well-defined and easily satisfied, and although it gets more involved from there, the complications tend to introduce themselves one at a time. (That’s the theory, anyway. When you’re dealing with a fussy baby at three in the morning, it doesn’t seem quite so simple.)
A novel gets written in a similar fashion. I’ve found that if you keep a few principles in mind—have an outline, write every day, and don’t go back to read it until you’re finished—you’ll end up with something, even if a lot of work still remains to be done. There are countless subtler aspects to writing a good story, of course, but as with raising kids, you’ll find that they’ll come up naturally on their own. Even if you don’t have any idea how to deal with them the first time around, if you can muddle through, you’ll get another chance tomorrow. And you’ll often need to bend your own rules to keep the whole enterprise on course. Maybe you don’t want your daughter to start watching television until she’s two, but if you find yourself showing her a video on your phone so she’ll sit still long enough to eat dinner, you tell yourself that it’s worth the tiny amount of sanity it purchases, just as you’re sometimes willing to let a bad sentence stand for the sake of moving on to the next. You don’t want to do it too often, of course, since you know that’s how bad habits begin. But you’ve made it to the next day. And you’ve won.