Are We Writers or Watchers?

I came across a poignant but unsettling Paris Review article recently, via Tumblr. Author Shane Jones begins with Cyril Connolly’s rueful observation, “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

From there, he describes how he came to feel marginalized by his fellow writers by the sheer act of procreating.

“What’s been most difficult, really, is balancing the weird mix of father and writer online, where the community I know is mostly childless. This online world, which I love and cherish, is also detached and ironic and so image-based that being a dad doesn’t seem to fit. To age out, a writer must pass through three stages: First, you turn thirty, thus becoming ‘online old.’ Second, you get married. Third, you have a child. I’ve done all three, and now I’m having to define myself online: Am I a writer or a dad or a husband? Can I be all three?

“Shortly after my wife gave birth, I commented on a friend’s Facebook status; my friend’s response was, ‘Hey, look at this Dad on here.’ It wasn’t meant to slight me, but there was something there, something that said I was now more dad than writer. In our culture, fatherhood means baggy khakis and cars with side-impact airbags—it’s something of a joke.”

That is troubling. At a time in history when caring, involved fathers are becoming rarer and rarer, you’d think the society at large would want to do all it could to support a man like Jones who chooses to live up to his responsibilities. Yes, a child can survive, succeed and even thrive without a dad. Same can be said for growing up without financial security. Or education. But why take any of those advantages off the table or, if you will, the basinet?

Here’s part of my reply to Jones’s article online:

I didn’t become a writer until after we had children. Frankly, I didn’t have anything important to write about until then. Nothing informs my work more than the connection I have with my family — except, perhaps, the connections I made as a result of them: real people with real quirks and real struggles.

It’s a lazy writer who decides to live outside humanity. I don’t mean we all have to have kids. Or embrace any conventional politics or religion. Or even hold down a job. I just mean we need to be part of the community at-large. There’s no point to just staring into a screen all day looking for “inspiration.” It’s nothing other than masturbatory to seek out only the companionship of people who are just like us. Our characters will get stale that way, and the motivations driving our plots will get more and more strained. I have never made my protagonist or exposition character a professional writer or journalist and I doubt I ever will. Not when I know so many people with construction trade skills, hard sciences backgrounds or more specialized studies to draw on. Meeting people — through such suburban cliches as CYO basketball or the Boy Scout troop — has given me perspective into the thoughts and feelings of people I might otherwise have passed on the street without a nod. At Arisia this past month, there were panels on “Writing the Self” and “Writing the Other.” I blew off both.

The takeaway is this: We writers are not and must not be a class unto ourselves. As we become self-referential, we become irrelevant. We’re here to reflect real life, to describe it, to amplify its failings and its successes, to posit how it could be better or what will happen if it decides to pursue its folly. We can do that through artful stories, character studies, adventures, romances, memoirs, humor or, yes, even children’s books. But if a writer feels the need to be defined as a cynical, no-strings-attached hipster, then we’re not, as a group, making ourselves useful. And that’s not to say that there isn’t room in the community for a whole lot of cynical, no-strings-attached hipsters, but it can’t be all of us and ought not be the default. Nobody should feel unwelcome in the community of writers because he’s a lifestyle-conservative family man, any more than if he was gay or poly or black or a woman.

I hope that anyone who’s ever (rightly) got on their soapbox against slut-shaming considers doing the same for dad-shaming.

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