More years ago than I care to remember, I found myself at a writing conference in the pacific northwest. I remember islands. Islands and ferry boats and shades of blue.
In those days writer wasn’t a word I would have used to describe myself. Many battles had I still to fight before pinning that badge on myself. I had gone to meet the women more than anything else, and women there were.
Nora was a few years away. Nick was something further, a possibility orbiting the earth, a single star out of thousands, and I had other things to do at night than look at stars.
I audited a workshop taught by a novelist, Doug Unger. Audited because I had brought no work. I had no work to speak of, some chapters of a non-fiction book I’d been chasing for five or six years, never to be born. What I had brought to that place was a sensibility about words, and the suspicion that here was a habitable world.
I sat in that workshop and listened to others, mostly to Doug. I liked him immediately. He’d just published his first novel and had a right to be proud of it, though pride didn’t show. He was intense, thoughtful, modest. Smart as a whip.
“What do you think writing is?” he said to me one day.
“Writing is voice,” I said.
He nodded. We talked awhile about voices, then about how long it all took to develop.
“You have to be an outlaw,” he said.
Without asking, I knew what he meant. You have to steal time. You have to steal it from everyone else you owe it to, lovers, children, yourself. It sounded romantic.
It wasn’t romantic. It was crappy. I didn’t know that then because I had no children to steal from. When Nick came along I knew. I had been going to see three plays a week, and on days I wasn’t at the hospital, had ten-hour expanses of time to luxuriate in.
“This kid is going to cost me ten plays,” I said to Nora.
“Five,” she said.
I’m not an outlaw at heart. You read stories of crummy dads who wrote. Memoirs of movie stars’ kids, C.E.O kids. Every day there’s another. The narrative arc is always the same: I wish I’d known the bastard better.
You don’t even have to have a career to be a lousy parent. Anyone can do it. I do it, and I’m not even an outlaw.
I got up early this morning to write this. I had about half an hour before Nick woke. He’s interrupted six times already. Neither of us is well. So it goes. You can do a blog post this way, not a novel.
A room of one’s own and an income, said Virginia Wolff, who had no kids.
Childhood, I believe, is a modern invention. What was the world like before we got sentimental about childhood? Sentimental is the right word, I think, in this sense:
All sentimentality is repressed brutality. — Sigmund Freud
In the middle ages nobody had a childhood. Whatever they had, I’ve heard, was nasty, brutish, and short.
For all this there is no solution. I imagine a time, say a decade from now, when I have the moments to watch the clouds go by, and to reminisce about Nick when he used to live here.
It’s been nice chatting. I’ve got to go walk the dog.
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