Matthew Komatsu | “Artist vs. Parent”

A great essay appeared a little while
ago on
NYMag about how and why
parenting and writing conflict with each other. If you haven’t read it, check
it out
but I can save you a little time for now. The essay’s author, Kim Brooks, asks
her friend Gina Frangello (also a writer+parent) why parenting and writing
don’t play nice. Frangello’s answer: “Because the point of art is to unsettle,
to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be
anyone’s goal as a parent.”

Of course, this line of reasoning seems
to omit a huge factor. If you’re a parent, and reading this, I bet your
response is similar to mine: uhhh, time?  I could be great at everything if I just had
the hours in the day.
So, it’s a little mountain-from-molehill but Brooks
brings up some great points in the essay. And here’s mine: pull any book off
your shelf and flip to the author photo. See any family portraits? Even the
book industry knows that we like to picture our writers as solitary beings.

My son was still in the womb when I
decided I should try this writing thing three years ago. So, it’s safe to say
that my journey as a writer has been inextricably linked to my evolution from
spouse to spouse+dad. Add work. Add an MFA. Add a new home and its necessary
home improvement projects. Add, add, add; time, time, time. You get it.

Still, there’s something beyond the
conflict between time and art, and that quote above gets to it. Art is unsettling. There’s this great lie
about life and art, that art is therapy. But that type of thinking leaves out
the unfortunate reality that art is often (and especially in the case of the
literary memoirist) the equivalent of picking at a scab. I was talking to
someone about an essay I recently published in The Normal School and she remarked that she hoped it was cathartic
to write. But it wasn’t. It gave me goddamn nightmares when I was working it
through revisions. I spent every free moment imagining death, re-imagining it,
re-creating it and its offspring, grief, on the page. And amid all this, I
might have found myself raising a spoon of mush to my son’s grinning mouth, or
perhaps been rinsing shampoo from his dirty blonde locks.

An extreme example, I suppose, but no
less relevant. Attempt meaning-making, and you must necessarily dissolve the
associative bonds of human memory before re-assembling them into the artifice
that most closely represents what you believe to be the story’s truth. If
you’re not confused at some point with what you’re writing, chances are good
you’re not writing literature. And this is not a place that we seek to
re-create for, or around, our children. Not for a while at any rate.

Brooks is careful, however, to leave
us on a hopeful note with the idea that parenting might also make you a better artist. She happens upon the idea
that parenting is about mastering the chaos that our children bring into our
lives, and that this is a skill that might just come in handy with that story
that’s currently an absolute mess. It’s an idea I can get behind, mostly
because I can’t stand to have my writing completely opposed to the rest of my life. But I also think she misses a bigger
rhetorical opportunity in that parenting is also heavily invested in both
gaining and teaching empathy. Which turns out to be really important to any
kind of writing.

So, the next time you’re bashing your
head against the wall trying to figure out your kiddo, and wishing you’re
writing, maybe tuck that nugget away. It might get you through a tough spot. At
the very least, all of it will someday make for a hell of a story. That’s what
I tell myself, anyway.

49 Writers board member Matthew Komatsu is just trying to find a balance. You can watch him flail on Twitter (@matthew_komatsu) if you like.
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