On Sunday nights I get brutally sad. Forlorn might be a more precise word for what I feel when my wife and I finally get the kids to bed at the end of the weekend. The debilitating wave of sadness isn't from the oncoming schedule of writing and teaching or the numbing minutiae of the work week ahead. What I'm mourning is the loss of time—almost in real time. As a parent, I now perceive the passage of time with such high-resolution clarity that it makes my heart very literally ache.
Being a writer has taught me to live with a third-person-narrative sense of observation, and I've learned never to squander a new emotion. It's found gold. Even when it hurts, I pay attention. Emotional crevices are what fiction writers traffic in.
So, on many Sunday nights I sit alone in my office. The memories of what happened that weekend with my two children flood my mind, and I let myself cry. I've spent most of my life suppressing tears when they've come to me, but that's all over. I give in; I weep. I see my three-year-old son learning how to pump his legs on a swing, or my one-year-old daughter raising herself up and scooting down the length of the couch. I know that I'll never get those moments back.
I once heard a mother say that parenting makes you nostalgic for the moment that just happened. I'll take that one step further and argue that parenting makes you nostalgic for moments that haven't even happened yet.
On Sundays, I can suddenly see the oncoming string of events that will inevitably lead my children away from me: first days of kindergarten, summer camps, middle school, senior prom, the long drive to college, marriage, jobs hundreds of miles away, the birth of their own children, ad infinitum.
As a storyteller, instead of being crushed by this inescapable loss that awaits me in the future, I mine it for the goods of fiction. In so many ways, having children has taught me more about characters and relationships and the nitty-gritty of being human than my MFA ever possibly could have. (Perhaps MFA programs should dole out a kid to each participant like a textbook. I can't see how that could possibly go wrong.)
Let's parse out three writing lessons I've gleaned from these Sunday night sob sessions.
First, there's the urgency of relationships. In the brand of fiction writing I subscribe to, urgency is paramount. Every word should be supercharged with the dire need for characters to act, and at the heart of every action is a relationship with another character.
When I first started my novel, Soon the Light Will be Perfect, I didn't have any children. The book is largely about my childhood, but my first draft lacked a sense of urgency. The plot meandered. Scenes dragged. The story's heartbeat flatlined in places. Despite the tragic case of cancer at the center of the novel, there was somehow a sense that these characters would live forever.
The shock of mortality I experienced after my son was born knocked something loose in my head. We don't live forever. It sounds banal and obvious, but before children I'd never internalized that truth.
Suddenly when I looked at my manuscript about a family in rural Vermont struggling with cancer, poverty, and hard-line Catholicism, they seemed doomed—if for no other reason than these characters would all be eviscerated by the movement of time. The relationships between the characters now became fleeting, fragile, and sacred for just that reason.
Time for a confession. I'm not the most intelligent writer on the planet. You're shocked, I'm sure. Luckily, as short story master Raymond Carver noted in Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories, writers "don’t need to be the smartest fellows on the block."
I thought that when I had kids, I'd gain a deeper insight into writing child characters. Here's what I didn’t consider: I've already been a child. In some ways, I'm still the same person I was when I first became conscious at three. I know how it feels when, say, a child's trust is broken by a grown-up or a child finds himself on the precipice of adulthood. I'm an expert at those emotions—I have the scars to prove it.
I finished the first draft of my novel and submitted it to my agent a week before my second child was born. I used her due date as a de facto deadline because I knew: 1) it would make me focus on my work, and 2) I wasn't going to do much work in the weeks after her birth.
Somewhere in those breakneck pre-birth writing sessions, I realized that having children gave me a deeper insight not into writing children, but into writing—get ready for it—parents. (I told you I'm a bit daft.)
During those months of writing and Sunday melancholia I came to a big epiphany: parents don't always (or even often) know what they're doing. They're just plodding along, trying to get it right. How do I know this? Because it's what I'm doing when my son asks me why he can't wear pajamas all day or when my daughter is about to put a paperclip in her mouth while her brother teeters perilously on the arm of the couch. I just do what I think is right in the moment.
That revelation gave me boundless compassion for the parental figures in my book, i.e., my own parents. It humanized them in a way that allowed me to make their characters lush with sympathy and multidimensional contradictions. My first draft took a sophomoric us-against-them approach; the final draft strives for a we're-all-in-this-together richness.
I imagine it's common to forgive our parents for many of their perceived shortcomings once we have kids of our own. After having children, I realized that my parents were indeed always doing the best they could. This second lesson gave me a sharper eye with which to draw them on the page. I could finally see my fictional world through their eyes.
I once heard a professor postulate that all Romantic poetry is about mortality. It goes like this: Hey, look at these daffodils . . . we're all going to die. Or, Check out this Grecian Urn . . . we're all going to die. This supposition is a bit reductive, but there's truth there: much of Romantic poetry has a melancholic undertow tugging at its iambs. After three years of Sunday night sadness, I get what all the thinly veiled melancholia is about.
But I don't let the heavyheartedness of my Sunday nights make my fiction sentimental. Rather, this sudden jolt of mortality has injected into my veins a savage desperation to write. Every day. To fill pages. To work at making the words on the page perfect—or as perfect as I can manage. And there's the third lesson.
My wife and I set up email addresses for both of our kids. The idea is that over the years we'll write them emails, and on their eighteenth birthdays we'll give them the addresses and passwords, and they can dig through nearly two decades of emails from their parents. I often write to them on Sunday nights as tears swell in my eyes. Mostly, I thank them for all they've given to me. (Writing these emails is so emotional that I just started crying describing the act of writing them. My heart is doomed.)
When I write these emails, I time travel. I imagine my son and daughter clicking through the emails at eighteen. I see their future selves. I see my future self. It's not a hazy vision; it's solid like marble or granite. The future becomes as real as the present. When I hit send on one of these emails, I time travel back to the present, and I'm filled with inspiration for my writing sessions that week.
Time will go fast, these visions seem to say. You better get the words right.
I used to be precious about my writing time. Everything needed to be just so before I could start laying one word after another. My sacred place had to be perfect: my office, espresso, a little Miles Davis, and no interruptions. What a crock of shit.
Every space is a sacred place. I've learned how to go from cleaning a diaper blowout to wrestling a two-year-old into pajamas to popping on headphones and writing in our bedroom with a laptop on my lap. I can go from parent to writer in less than sixty seconds. I have to. Time will not slow down to accommodate my cute little fantasy of the ideal writing setting.
And so on Sunday nights, I rub the tears from my bearded cheeks. I steel myself against the nostalgia for the past, present, and future that threatens to crush me. I choose to focus instead on the lessons my children have taught me. I rage against the melancholia, and I write.