by Ellyn Lichvar
Every writer has an occasional dry spell—those periods of inactivity that bring on strong feelings of doubt/guilt/frustration/fill-in-the-blank. We know we should be writing, we want to write, but nothing will come. We walk around the block, read, make a sandwich, have a drink or a nap, and tell ourselves tomorrow is a new day.
In late 2009, I got pregnant. In anticipation of conception, I’d gotten my body ready the best way I knew how: I hit the gym, ate well, took handfuls of vitamins. But I never thought to prep my mind as rigorously as I prepped my body. Feeding my brain with the food I knew it needed—poetry, above all else—never occurred to me. I read the What to Expects and the Birthing from Withins but never once sought out what I now know I craved: poetry (or fiction, essays, anything) that had absolutely nothing to do with having children. After my son was born, my body, the one I’d spent so many hours cultivating for the blessed event, returned to [mostly] its original shape. My mind, however, was a different story. Four sluggish years later, I feel like it might be coming back. Might.
I know I am not unique. Every parent feels this at some point. Regardless of career, gender, or social status, most of us put ourselves on the shelf in some capacity in order to parent to the fullest of our abilities—whatever that means. For me, doing so amounted to the driest dry spell I’d ever experienced. So dry, in fact, that I barely realized it was out of the ordinary. I didn’t read. I was tired. I’d forget to feed myself for feeding the baby. How could I write anything, let alone string together metaphors and images about motherhood—because, let’s face it, what other subjects could my flabby mind conjure?—in a way that was exciting for anyone to read besides my mother? Breastfeeding is beautiful and natural and everyone would love to read seventeen straight poems about the dimples on my son’s precious hands as they squeezed every last drop from me, right? Of course not. And that was the best I had. So I just stopped.
Without discussing time constraints and schedules and balancing acts, how does one relearn how to write from her bones when her bones feel like they belong to someone else? The simple, paradoxical answer is simple and paradoxical: there is no answer. No one can tell you how to do it, you just have to start doing it. In the end, it comes down to the old cliché of balance. You can’t turn off one light in order for another to shine brighter. You can’t stop being a parent in order to be a better writer any more than you can stop writing to be a better parent. Each are integral parts of life and each informs the other.
Now that my writerly brain has [mostly] returned, I got to thinking: do men have this same issue? Do writer-fathers deal with the same mental blocks that I experienced? In order to answer these questions, I turned to good my good friend and fellow parent-poet, Dave Harrity. His answers to my questions drove home one important point: every parent has to “make it work” and making it work is likely different for every parent because, well, every parent is different. The trick lies in the how you make it work, the balancing of lives and the reorganization of priorities.
Dave Harrity is most recently the author of Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity, and the Kingdom at Hand, a book of meditations and writing exercises about contemplative living, peacemaking, and community building. He is also the founder of the formation/literary organization ANTLER (thisisantler.com). He lives in Louisville with his wife and kids.
Ellyn: My writing came to a complete standstill during my pregnancy and only returned in the last year or so—save some spurts here and there—yet I know several people whose writing absolutely took off the second they became parents. Where do you fit on that scale?
DH: I think I was steady all the way through, but I was never carrying a baby, so I won’t pretend to know what that’s like. The process of becoming a parent and becoming a writer are very similar, but maybe all processes of “becoming” are similar. If there is a way to measure my becoming, it would be in the pages of my journal, which I don’t typically go back and read. I had my big-time freak-outs like everyone who's ever had a kid.
How does the concept of “balance” figure into your life both as a parent and a writer?
DH: Balance is a tough thing for any parent to find, I think. And balancing parenting with writing is especially tough. Before I had kids, I would write for several hours each day—some in the morning, some in the afternoon, some at night—and would balance that with my original baby, teaching, which was far more simple. Once I had kids, however, I was determined to continue writing so I went about redefining what my writing schedule meant to me. I started writing in the morning, and did so with my daughter next to me in her little basket. I’d wake up at about 5 am and go till about 7 am. Once she was old enough, I got her a journal and we’d have “writing time” together. She was maybe 2 and a half when this started. She’d color, I’d write. It set a precedent that morning time was creative time. It’s still holds today. She’s 6 now, has a little brother (who went through similar training!), and now they do journal time together, or simply play.
Explain a little bit about your writing habits. Has your process or approach to writing changed since becoming a parent?
DH: The process hasn’t changed, but my approach to what I make is different. I don’t feel the pressure I used to, for the most part, to produce, publish, etc. I try to redirect my energy into the process of creating. The frustrations and blunders of parenting seem quiet when I’m writing, distant and small. So I use the daily writing time to work out my personal crap and move on to making poems. Rarely do I write about my children in poems, though, which I still find odd.
What specific difficulties and benefits have arisen for you as a writer since becoming a father?
DH: The benefit is that the pressure is off. There’s simply bigger shit to worry about. The difficulty is the letting go of how you used to love/value a thing (writing) and allowing it to evolve into a new form, a new way in which you interact with others and yourself. But I suppose there are benefits to that, too. I’m glad that I’m a different man than I was 6 years ago. I'm glad for the new meaning.
What advice would you give to an artist/writer who is about to become a parent for the first time?
DH: Remember that the time you have with your children can’t be relived, so take it while you have it. There will always be things to write. Human beings—your human beings—are more important than your writing. Figure out a way to make a little progress with your writing each day and be content with it (it should be noted that that advice is right from the Debra Kang Dean playbook). Good things all take time, children or poems.
Your children are still young. Do you imagine them one day reading your work? If so, does this inform your process in any way?
DH: Oh god, I’d guess they’ll read something I’ve written, though hopefully they’ll be over me by the time they’re of age to care. Ha! I tend to spend a lot of time in my journal, which will be the evidence to damn me or exonerate me should I ever be imprisoned. I do think about what I write and know that they may read it, if they can stomach the boredom. But I resolved myself long ago to the idea that the truth (about anything) sets a person free. And the truth about me—I have to trust—will be no different. They will see the good, bad, ugly, and beyond; some of it shameful, some of it lovely. And, well, that’s who I am and I won’t let it be another way. If I’ve raised them right, they won’t want it another way either. I’d like to think they’ll get a more complete look at the relationship I have with their mother, with them, with friends, family, etc. I like to think they’ll mine the ore rather than fuel a grudge. All in all, I think about myself reading something like this that my father wrote (though I don’t think he ever journaled once in his life) and feel like it would be compelling and enriching for me rather than revolting or damaging, so that keeps me going as well.
What do you feel is the most import thing parent-artists can do to keep their creativity fruitful?
DH: The reality is this: you can’t chase two rabbits, not well anyway. There’s an ebb and flow that is both necessary and appropriate to transitioning between roles in life. I chose to try jui jitsu with writing, using what many people see as destructive to the time aspect of creative life (having children, that is) and turn it into my strength as a creative—my lesser weight against the titan of having kids. I made writing part of their life, too. Mandatory journal time was my little experiment that happened to work. Other writers I respect made similar adjustments, William Stafford and George Oppen are two that readily come to mind.
Parent-writers need to adjust their standards of what can, should, and needs to get done. The children are the important thing, and a gentle touch with them is what really matters. Rane Arroyo once told his students, myself included, to live first and write second. For me at this point in my life, this means be a parent first and a writer second. Not a sexy idea, really, but raising kids is more important to me than publishing poems. I take my vocation as a parent as seriously as my vocation as a writer and a teacher, and I’ve found that the three work pretty synchronously almost all the time—they inform one another in a really lovely way.
Explain, in a nutshell, why it is you write poetry. What compels you?
DH: Other than loving to play with words, I like the idea that poetry is the little proof that I exist(ed) in the world. Most days that’s enough for me, though not all days. On days I feel anxious, isolated, or anything like that, I take extra time to be with my family and reengage my own purpose. Over the years the meaning of writing has changed from a thing I do for a job—for relevance, for spectacle—to a thing that helps me stay rooted in the world, conscious of the people around me that need my little presence to feel safe, or whole, or happy. There are a few people like that—family, friends, students—and I see writing as a way to root me in their life, in my own life.
Dave's book, Making Manifest, is available here: http://store.seedbed.