Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Writing & Parenting

New website designs are springing up like bridge tolls around the Bay, first Small Press Traffic’s, then venerable navigator that is SPD. One victim of the improved onlinism is SPT’s paper journal, Traffic, which just went the way of all print and decided to stay trees. The double issue, 3/4 (doubles always mean danger), would have held between an original “Boykoff” cover Sharon Mesmer’s review of The Anger Scale and Musee Mechanique, along with a forum on Writing & Parenting. Paul Hoover’s already posted his contribution; mine was this:
The most obvious thing to say about writing and parenting is that once you’re a parent, you don’t have time to write. Being a parent is a miraculous exercise in the obvious, the tedious, and the banal: all the things you don’t want your writing to be. I have a new affection for the obvious since we had Auden. My life’s flattened to the contours of a toddler’s world, it’s more dependent on small variations in a limited scale, more Stanzas in Meditation than The Cantos.

I don’t fight that so much anymore, as a writer; I’m closer to being at peace with the extra-literary, or anti-literary, nature of parenting. It’s hard to push the experience of having kids into language without falling into sentiment and commonplace, a problem with trying to put anything into language—that artifice for holding experience in common, flattening it into the names we exchange—but in writing about parenting the problem looms larger, because the pre-made shapes for pouring the experience into are so insistent, well-worn, and policed. The most obvious thing to say about writing and parenting is that whatever you say about parenting in writing is obvious.

Once you’re a parent, you don’t have time to write. Every writer I’ve talked to who’s a parent says the same thing. Parents always say the same things: parenthood is an exercise in the obvious. There’s a narrow range of delights and concerns the role imposes, which is one reason it’s so annoying to be around one if you’re not one. There are writers who aren’t parents who say they have no time to write, too; writers, like parents, live in a circumscribed zone of pleasures and glooms which also makes them annoying to be around if you’re not one. The huge number of manuals on parenting and on creative writing suggests that there’s money to be made in soothing the makers of children and texts with the obvious: parents are as anxious to know their problems are “normal” as writers facing a “dry spell” are.

If parenthood itself is a dry spell, which it’s been so far for me, that’s a different order of problem, or two different problems pushed together and compounded. The problem of writing and the problem of parenting. Time considered as a writer: the stuff I always needed more of—to waste, to socialize, to bore myself with all the excuses there are for not writing. Time considered as a parent: the stuff I never have enough to give, to Auden, to writing, to relationships outside the tight boundaries of the family. The time I used to burn, find, spend, or steal for writing was always mine. Now it’s held in common: what I take for myself, for my writing, is time taken away from someone else. The things I used to do for inspiration now seem selfish, what used to be dedication—to a community, a tradition, an experiment in conducting a life in poetry—can feel like irresponsibility. Considered strictly as a writer, being a father so far has been disastrous. Considering a writer strictly as one who writes, being a parent is being a disaster.

As a writer, I’ve never enjoyed being a technician of the discourse, even to critique it. What I wanted was invention, imagination, originality: the countertop appliances of the soul. As a parent, I’ve learned more about what it means to be, or to want to be, common. To hold concerns in common with other parents that have nothing to do with being a writer; to know that the most powerful and unique thing that’s likely ever to happen to me is among the most common happenings in the world. Parenting is absolutely unique for everyone in approximately the same way. I don’t want anything wildly different for Auden than anyone else who loves their kid does. I want him to be a normal, happy child, I want him protected and loved. I admire originality in poetry, but I can’t picture clearly what it would mean to be an “original” parent. Being a parent is an exercise in always having something in common.

When I do start writing again, really writing, it won’t be the same I that writes. I don’t belong to myself, or to my writing, in the way that I did before. I don’t have the same relationship to time, or the old worshipful feeling about writing. I think having a kid has done for me what many writers describe poetry as doing for them: it’s taken me out of the word and into the world, but a world scrambled and reassembled for having its presence—Auden’s—within it.

What will Auden think of this when he’s old enough to read it? I’ve never loved any living thing so much; I cry (but don’t write) with ease when I consider it. But what parent wouldn’t say the same thing?

—Rodney Koeneke
February 2, 2007


et said...

thanks for posting this rodneyk! I am so sorry about the demise of Traffic. I will be happy to post all the writing and parenting things (yes even the ones by you men! :) ) in my forthcoming webmag, Thimble (

see you in October!

love, eliz

rodney k said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. It'd be fun to see them all together. (I was surprised, for instance, at Paul Hoover's approach to the question.) "Thimble" is a great (& very etj) title. Let it come forth in the medium of the future!

Reb said...

Hi Rodney, I relate to much of what you wrote -- especially new ways I perceive and spend time.

Motherhood for me means a surprisingly pure delight in the obvious and mundane -- from stopping to watch a beetle move across the path to sitting through an entire showing of the Chipmunk movie. And the time I spend considering bodily functions -- wow. All things I never would have done had I not had a child. I believe originality and invention can have a firm root in the mundane, even if it means a temporary writing slowdown/shutdown. Sometimes when something new is born, older parts of yourself have to die and decay to fertilize the new thing.

Do you dream of your son often? I dream of Gideon all the time -- he's my divine child -- in the "real" world as well as my creative -- and I have yet to write a poem directly about him.

rodney k said...

Hi Reb,

Glad you dropped by! Funny, I've stopped dreaming almost entirely, and when I do I don't think he's much in them. I was going to say that'd be like dreaming about the office once you're home, but then I realize I did that all the time.

Writing-wise, I know what you mean, it's a tough subject to approach directly, being so defiantly gooey.

yours in goo,

timarmentrout said...


Jared Hayes sent me a message to come over here and read, being in parenthood for round number two. My son is three months old this week, my daughter six years. it's good timing that i read this today. i crashed out at 10 last night when he went to bed early, and laid awake briefly wondering if i should get back up and write. it felt too forced though, and the time was better spent in bed. dreamless here too.
i completely understand what you mean about a different me returning to the page. i look back over the words that were coming down prior to my daughter, so harsh, so political and angry, and now the domestic is everywhere in my writing. i just don't give a shit about a lot of the things that irked me before the kids. my concern, like yours, is on their safety and protection, their love and peace. i have become so comfortable with the's bizarre. but i guess that's exactly how it should be, a typical and pleasant chaos.

in goo too,

rodney k said...

Hi Tim,

Congrats on your son, and thanks for your comment--I don't know what it would be like to go through the sleeplessness etc. a second time. Where's that Jared keeping himself these days?

Bernadette Geyer said...


I'm the mother of a toddler and totally understand where you are coming from. It took me about 2 years to fully be able to throw myself into being "mom" when my daughter is awake and to throw myself into being "writer" when she is asleep. And then to commit to having "weekends" with my husband and the occassional get-together with friends.

I accept that my summers will be filled with pools and picnics, playgrounds, carousels, petting zoos, tractor-rides at the farm, and tons of other activities that I hope my daughter will look back at one day and say "Damn, we had fun!" And, one day, I can look back and say the same thing -- and perhaps something observed or learned will click and make its way into a poem eventually.

At the 2007 AWP conference, I attended a session on writing & parenthood. One quote from the panelists has stayed with me ever since - "When I am living, I am not writing. But when I am writing, I am not living."

Thanks for your thought-provoking post!


Angela Genusa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jennifer Manzano. said...

Rodney, Okay, I posted about your post, but...

Did you really stop dreaming when Auden was born? Or at least, so much less frequently, less vividly, less out-of-the-ordinary?

I really thought I was nuts for thinking this was parenting related. My dreaming habits of the last 4 years are nothing like they were before!!

Oh, dear Rodney, I miss you! I may end up in your town soonish. I'll let you know.