Mon
Apr 5 2010 10:33am

Breaking Rules and Making Babies

 It takes a while for me to process things. It’s been about a month since The Guardian published an article offering several well-known writers’ advice for other writers, in the form of 10 rules. I read it eagerly, squinting at my iPhone while my 16-month-old son squealed and tore around the playroom in our apartment building basement. Some of the old saws were there (Adverbs: bad! He said, she said: good!), and while I don’t know everything about writing, I know enough to realize that no one should follow any of these rules zealously, because the result would be stiff and artificial. But I found myself feeling, oh, a little guilty of certain writing sins, and then came the anxiety, and then came Richard Ford’s Rule #2: Don’t have children.

It was a little mysterious. It came in the midst of seemingly sound advice, like that you should marry someone who believes it’s a good idea for you to be a writer, and that you shouldn’t drink and write at the same time. But no babies? Plenty of great writers had/have children: Joyce, Shakespeare (ok, he basically never saw them, but whatever), Toni Morrison, Alice Munro.... It didn’t seem to impede their genius. Or did Ford mean it in a personal happiness kind of way (i.e., “It’ll be hard on you to be a parent and a writer at the same time,” or “Writers make bad parents.”)?

Yes, of course, having a baby derails the writing process for some time. And I will be the first to say that I have essentially no social life, because there’s just nothing left after being a mom, professor, and writer. I used to be big into rock climbing. No more. A lot falls by the wayside.

But I’d argue that having a child improved my skills as a writer, and I’d be surprised if I were the only one. Toni Morrison didn’t claim this, per se, but she does mention in a Paris Review interview how she writes early—like 4:00 am early—because she got into the habit when her children were younger, and it seems like she’s fairly happy with this. There’s an almost euphoric quality in the way she describes writing while the sun comes up.

As part of the NYC Teen Author Festival a couple of weeks ago, I participated in a panel on editing. About half of us on the panel had small children, and it was interesting to hear a thread of our conversation weave itself around how to survive as a writer when babies appear on the scene. It became clear to me that there are at least two benefits (in terms of one’s writing career) to having children:

1. Procrastination no longer becomes an issue. If you have an hour of free time, you seize it. If the baby naps, you write. No more dithering and web surfing (or, well, less)

2. You get better at "pre-writing." What do I mean by "pre-writing"? That’s the time you spend thinking about your book, plotting out narratives in your head, sorting through options in dialogue. It requires a good memory, but it’s the perfect thing to do when your hands are not free (which is almost always) to physically write.

I wouldn’t say that Ford’s rule made me mad, but it did give me pause, and that pause broke the spell the article had over me. Suddenly, I DID find myself getting mad at some of the rules. Like “Cut out the metaphors and similes.” WHY? As a reader, I love them. They are what allow us to feel the writer’s world. Why would one ever be so insane as to ditch a perfectly beautiful metaphor? Cut back, of course, prune if you like, so that the best metaphors are clear and sparkling. But I will throw out unread the book that promises me no metaphors inside.

So, writers...which writing rules would YOU break? Readers, which writing rules do you believe in?


Marie Rutkoski is the author of the young adult fantasy novel The Cabinet of Wonders and its sequel, The Celestial Globe (published on April 12, 2010). Both books have received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, which described the first novel as a "heady mix of history and enchantment." Her novels have been or will be published in eight languages. Marie holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard University and currently teaches as a professor of Renaissance drama, children’s literature, and creative writing at Brooklyn College. She lives in New York City with her husband and son.

18 comments
Miklós Küry
1. Kury
Some of these rules seem to have been taken straight from Bruce Sterling's "Writer's Workshop Lexicon" but I guess these rules are just that much "universal" (aka stressed at writer workshops).

While these guidelines are quite useful to novice writers who are indeed guilty of using enormous adverb clusters and "heavy payload" info-dumping, professional writers should rather stick to their own set of principles since that's what makes them distinct.
Ursula L
2. Ursula
It's a rule from a man. And the one male writer who had children, for whom you comment on his child-care technique, Shakespeare, you say never saw the kids anyway.

The women you mention, on the other hand, have kids, tend to be the primary caretaker for the kids, and manage to get the writing done anyway, honing their writing skills when having to juggle with their other responsibilities.

Do we have examples of men who have been successful writers, and who have had children, but who have not ignored their children or delegated the care primarily to others?

A "rule" about not having children if you want to write, if made by someone who either has no children or who has separated himself from child care responsibilities, is a rule made from a point of ignorance. There is no more reason to respect such a rule, or such a rule-maker, than to respect advice about driving a car from someone who has never driven.

***

In general, for writing rules, I figure it is worth knowing them, and knowing enough to know when you are breaking them. Then you decide, for each point where you're breaking the rules, if you're breaking the rules for a good and deliberate effect, or just because you haven't thought much about it. Save the metaphors for when they have a better effect than saying things plainly, and avoid them when saying things plainly works just as well, and know the difference.
Lannis .
3. Lannis
I can't say having children has been bad for my writing... actually, it's arguable that it's been good. I'd taken a hiatus from writing--little snippets, nothing more--but now that my oldest is in school and my youngest is able to occupy himself, I find myself revisiting some unfinished pieces. Not only that, but I'm laying awake at night running potential dialogue through my mind...

I think having children affects writing (for women) the same way it affects the rest of our lives. Now, obviously this is a generalization, but I've found myself much better at prioritizing and multitasking. You're right, that procrastinating is gone...

That said, I've heard so many writers suggest writing by hand... Can't. Do. It. With the kids, I need to get in and get out--I can't be dragging out a splash of inspiration for ten minutes with my atrocious handwriting, only to discover at a later time my cursive is so cramped I can't revisit the idea... GAH!

Thanks for the link to The Guardian's article!
James Enge
4. JamesEnge
I've always sort of hated the rule-based approach to writing advice. (For instance, the guys who say, "Don't use adverbs!" without understanding that you can't even say that without using an adverb.)

But, even in the midst of the rulestorm that swept the blogosphere a while ago, that "Don't have kids" thing struck me as outstandingly weird. Separate yourself from a big chunk of human experience... for the betterment of your writing? Writers have to put themselves in life's way.
Ken Scholes
5. kenscholes
Seconds Ursula.

I think there are some Dads who write and stay active in the care of their children. I'm certainly trying to do both though it's a tough balancing act with the dayjob etc. Daniel Abraham comes to mind as well -- I think he was the primary caregiver in his situation. And I know a whole mess of us (Tobias Buckell, Michael Burstein, Saladin Ahmed and I) have all recently added twins to our lives. John "J.A." Pitts and Jay Lake are also both very active Dads who are finding that balance.

But for me, I'm too new both as a writer and as a Dad to measure how successful I've been. But now, with babies now sleeping through the night, I'm getting up in the wee hours to get my writing productivity back on track, bottles and diapers on the ready....

Great post!
Marie Rutkoski
6. Marierutkoski
Thanks, all, for such thoughtful comments!

No writers-cum-great dads spring to mind, but that's probably because I'm running through the list of everyone I know, and I write YA lit. This is a field heavily populated by women, and women who tend to like the littlies.

Points well taken, Ursula. Interestingly, in a Paris Review interview, Alice Munro talks about how determined she was to carve out time for her writing, even if it meant pushing her small children away while she sat at the typewriter. Now that they're grown, she says, she so wants them to be near. Here's a selection:

MUNRO: Sometimes now when I look back at those early years I think, This was a hard-hearted young woman. I'm a far more conventional woman now than I was then.

INTERVIEWER: Doesn't any young artist, on some level, have to be hard-hearted?

MUNRO: It's worse if you're a woman. I want to keep ringing up my children and saying, Are you sure you're all right? I didn't mean to be such a...Which of course would make them furious because it implies they're some kind of damaged goods. Some part of me was absent for those children, and children detect things like that. Not that I neglected them, but I wasn't wholly absorbed. When my oldest daughter was about two, she'd come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other. I've told her that....and now, when they don't need me at all, I love them so much. I moon around the house and think, there used to be a lot more family dinners.

Again, I just don't know how Ford meant his rule: A) If you want to be a writer, don't have kids, or B) Writers are too self-centered to be good parents. I say no to both, emphatically, but I have to agree with Alice Munro and Ursula that there this is a gendered issue....
Teka Lynn
7. Teka Lynn
The name that came to my mind for "male writer, primary childcare person" is Kim Stanley Robinson.
Teka Lynn
8. C12VT
I second what James Enge @4 said.
Teka Lynn
9. graceo
John Scalzi and Neil Gaiman both have children. I don't know whether or not either one considers themselves "primary childcare person," as they both have partners in child-rearing. But, to be fair, I also don't consider myself "primary childcare person" for my children. I am one half of a primary childcare dyad that also includes my husband. Neither of us is a writer, so we're not really useful to this discussion.

Ernest Hemingway wrote about taking care of his young children (and about delegating their care to his cats). He did not account for his wife's contributions in the works that I read. Calvin Trillin wrote a book about fatherhood, apparently based on spending a lot of time caring for his children.

I think it's hard to balance work and parenting in any field, but that doesn't mean that people who do so are doomed at their chosen professions.
Ursula L
10. Ursula
My instinct in analyzing the rule is that "Don't Have Kids" is a rule made by someone who doesn't have kids (or doesn't do much caring for their kids), and doesn't want kids, imagining how hard it would be to balance writing and child-tending.

People who have kids because they want kids, and who spend time caring for their kids, learn to manage. And because it is their own children, whom they love, while they may have doubts about some trade-offs, they see the children as worthwhile, and find the positives, such as being able to write with a new aspect of life-experience for inspiration, or having to hone the efficiency of one's writing.

I'm quite willing to count both parents as being primary caretakers, if they're both putting in the effort and the hours equally. My point is more that someone who is shifting all the child-care burden to another will not be able to judge whether or not they can balance child-care and writing or other work, because they aren't trying.
Teka Lynn
11. omega_n
Not being a parent myself, I can't really comment too much on the children front, but it seems silly to me. Shouldn't writers experience life to the fullest, and aren't children part of life for most of the world?

As for other writing rules... the only one I can, without reserve, agree with is "write." Interestingly, that's the one almost all of those lists contain.

Adverbs, adjectives, metaphors, and similies exist for a reason, and it would be a sad, colorless book that contained none of them. And for all the admonishing of adverbs that I see in lists, most of the published books I read seem to be fine with them. Yes, use them with care, but that should apply to every word.

"Show, don't tell," is another big writing rule, but one that I think has devolved from its original meaning (use active scenes over long stretches of narrative) into an excuse to be nitpicky about things like adverbs. Sometimes telling is necessary; done right, it can be just as enjoyable as showing.
Teka Lynn
12. Sheela Chari
Hi Marie,

What you wrote about how your writing life changes post-children resonated well with me: I, too, procrastinate far less, and I definitely pre-write in the midst of cooking and other house-related activities. It is a strange balance and series of compromises, writing and having children.

Thanks for highlighting these "rules." I liked the ones by Neil Gaiman the best.

Sheela
Marie Rutkoski
13. Marierutkoski
I've been rereading the rules (though I've only reread through the first half as of this comment), and I think the one by Neil Gaiman that I like the best is "The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like." That one is nicely paired with Anne Enright's "Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand."

They are not saying the same things, and yet, there is a connection. Enright's rule is a smart one, because it doesn't focus on adverbs or metaphors or writing about the weather, or details. It gets to the heart of the matter. What are you trying to DO with these elements of writing? You are trying to find a place to stand. That is all, and that is everything. And how do you do it? Do you want to kick off a book, as Scott Westerfeld does, comparing the sky to the color of cat vomit? This, according to some of those rules writers, commits two sins-- it's about the weather, and it's a metaphor. And yet, why not? Here's where we segue to Gaiman: "if you do it with enough assurance and confidence," you can do whatever you want.

(And, by the way, when I taught Westerfeld's UGLIES to my creative writing class, they LOVED that opening line about the cat vomit).
Teka Lynn
14. Saladin Ahmed
I just published my first short story (though I've been publishing poetry for a while now) last year, and I just became a parent last week. So y'all take my bile with a grain of salt (eww), buuut:

Richard Ford can kiss my ass. I think it's hilarious that, of all writers, it was he who wrote that rule. Because his name is my go-to shorthand for 'mediocre, vastly overpraised, lifeless American navel-gazing literary novelist.' Whether he's writing about the dissolution of the American family or the corrosion of the American suburbs, he's always really writing about the Iowa Writer's workshop. He's a grade-A example of how boring writing can be when the writer has not, as James Enge puts it above, "put themselves in life's way."

His rule is obnoxiously sexist in its implications. But I wonder if this is a matter of genre skew as well. Generally (generally!) 'literary' novelists spend ages turning out each book, and operate under the ridiculous illusion that their art is above the market and its demands. Genre writers often need to turn out at least a book a year, and are much more honest with themselves and others about the fact that professional writing is a commercial as well as artistic enterprise. They are
more used to operating within tight parameters and budgeting their time and energy.

Now please excuse me as I go change some diapers and seal my writerly doooom!
Teka Lynn
15. SWS
I once read a nice saying in a book about creativity - Libri aut Liberi, which translates as "books or children." This was a saying from the Romans. Even two thousand years ago there was conflict like this. Books - reading or writing - take time. Children take time. It's a simple equasion, and I'm certain that writers make wonderful parents. However, I know how damn hard it is to carve out time to write when I need to spend time with the child. Lots of writers are parents, and I bet every single one of them lost professional time to parenting time, because the book can be put down and the child cannot. Having said that, going through pregnancy and mommy-mush-brain after giving birth sent me screaming to my notebook to try to recover my sense of self, as you can't be a writer if you aren't writing. If you want to devote your entire being to writing, then its a lot easier to do if you don't have children, because then you have set aside a large part of yourself that cannot have anything to do with writing. That kind of advice works for any kind of business, not just writing.
Richard Fife
16. R.Fife
@2 Brandon Sanderson has children, and in particular young children. He's hitting NYTBS#1, so yeah. And yes, at least from his facebook posts, Sanderson is active in the rearing of his little ones.

I myself and the father of a currently 2 little boys, 2 and 4 yrs old, and I play the single father role quite a bit (I am divorced). I will admit, I probably can get more writing done when the children are in her care, but I still can manage to get some snippits of the creative process done with them under my eye as well.

Additionally, being a writer of Jordanian influence, most of the initial ten rules made me somewhat snerk. Yes, I know they are majoritaly right, I just love the fact that one of the most widely acclaimed high fantasies of all time breaks nearly every single one of the rules. Although, I have come to find that forcing myself to use "said" and almost nothing but "said" has really helped my dialogue.
Teka Lynn
17. David Walton
Great topic. I think the value of parenthood to writing goes beyond time management, though. Parenthood is a maturing, self-analytical, and powerfully emotional experience. The very thing that makes it harder to find time to write--the fact that a little person is dependent on you night and day for physical, emotional, and psychological well-being--pushes you into a realm of responsibility, sacrifice, and emotion that changes you as a person. Parent/child relationships are some of the most powerful in life as well as in fiction. I think that parenthood, as well as marriage, has made me a better writer. So the quantity of my writing may be lower, but I think the quality is higher.

And like Ken, I'm not sure my one novel so far qualifies me as a successful writer, but I'm working hard at being a great dad to my five little ones. It is possible to be male, committed to writing, and committed to your children as well.
Teka Lynn
18. Marjorie Bishop
Quite a few authors, both female and male, have been successful while raising a family. Steven King, Mary Higgins Clark, Anne McCaffrey and Raymond Feist just to name a few. Kind of makes "Rule #2" seem, at best; a bit silly. At worst it's probably a lot sexist.

I like Robert A. Heinlein's thoughts on the subject of rules in 'Grumbles From The Grave': "They give me centipede trouble--you know the yarn about the centipede who was asked how he managed all his feet? He tried to answer, stopped to think about it, and was never able to walk another step. Articles and books on how to write have that effect on me."

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