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“Writers take a great deal of time worrying about not writing. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe in the writing process.”
-Adam Penna, author of Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji, poetry.
PP: Describe your life in the context of writing, parenting and other employment (if applicable).
AP: I’d been trying to make a family for more than ten years when my life fell apart. Infertility caused me to question why I wrote, why I taught and why I loved. There were no easy answers. For five years I struggled with these dimensions of a mere human life. My work-life seemed empty, my writing pointless and my marriage a prison sentence. I might’ve killed myself if I was that sort of person. I used to think everyone, given the right circumstances, was that kind of person, but I was wrong. I even planned a date to do it. April 1st. April Fools Day. But the day came and went, and I had forgotten about my plan. Something had changed or was about to. On the horizon I could see it, dimly see it.
What was that thing? Well, the end of my marriage for one. Then there was a change of job, a move to a new campus, and the shifting of my writing life away from poetry and back toward prose. I had read Mark McGurl’s book about fiction in the program era and realized a good deal I hadn’t thought about before. My experience as a lower middle class modernist in an MFA program created, at least in part, the dissatisfaction I had been experiencing in my life.
The crisis wasn’t only about not having babies, not being a father, a role I wanted to play more earnestly than I wanted to teach or be a husband or write poetry. It was about—as a therapist I only half trusted pointed out to me before I was ready to accept it—it was about living the wrong life. I had embraced terms that were convenient rather than those that suited me best.
I was born and raised on Long Island in rural Suffolk County. Most of my friends didn’t go to college, and the ones that did returned only to take blue-collar jobs roofing houses, slinging garbage or fixing elevators. That wasn’t me either. But neither was I the man I was pretending to be. So I began a novel in the voice I had rejected a long time before, when my first workshop teacher told me never use the word soul in a poem, that it was would have and not would of, and so on. I stopped wearing loafers. I grew a beard.
But there was more. I met a woman. Actually, I didn’t meet her. I had known her for years. She started as one of my students. Then we became friends. I knew her children, too. S., her oldest, who I met when she was five or six. And H., who I’ve known since he was born. I’m sure, right now, it must seem that this is the typical story of a midlife crisis. So it is. From beard to lover-student. I can’t deny it. Even the worst clichés come from some real, lived experience. But I prefer the life I have now with Shannon, a writer herself; S., 14 years old and the cleverest most creative young person I’ve ever met; and H., 7, the best artist in the second grade; I prefer this life to any other I might’ve conceived.
PP: How do you integrate creative writing into your parenting/work responsibilities?
AP: I was giving a reading about a year and a half ago and a man in the audience asked me what do I do when I’m writing a poem, looking for the right word, and my step-daughter interrupts. I had to explain that, for me, who was childless so long, I welcome the interruption. I can still remember when there were no interruptions to confront. I’ve got notebooks, hundreds of pages, thousands of drafts of poems, which I would’ve traded to be interrupted like that just once back then. My colleague and friend once told me that given the choice between writing a poem no one was likely to publish and holding his daughter, well, there was no choice. You put the poem down.
But there’s another story, perhaps apocryphal, about William Faulkner I like to tell when teaching him to undergrads. It’s the one about his daughter’s birthday. She wakes to find her father nursing an incredible hangover and asks him, “Please, Daddy, don’t drink today.” Faulkner replies, “No one remembers Shakespeare’s daughter.” I don’t know if this ever happened, but I do know there is this understanding that one can’t be an artist and a parent. The implication is on every page of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and even Jesus says, “Sell everything you own and follow me.”
Writers aren’t saints, though, and I think this choice between family and art is as false as the choice laid before us in grad school, when we’re asked to choose poetry or prose. I’ve had this longstanding debate with my officemate about the role family and parenting plays in our writing lives. When I was still without children I had the luxury to write all day, everyday, and for many of those days, I did just that. But I’m with the poet who says the problem with being a poet is figuring out what to do with the other 23 hours of the day. The crisis of retiring amounts to figuring out that all you didn’t have time to do when you were working and raising a family can be accomplished in about a month. So what do you do with the rest of your time? Obviously, I write fewer poems and fewer pages now that I’ve got a family. It’s all fairly new to me. I haven’t yet learned to balance my writing life and my professional and familial lives. I knew that this would happen going in. Still, I was all in. Now that I’ve gotten used to the requirements of being a step-dad, I can return to the page. This means searching out the solitude for thinking and writing.
Luckily, I have a job ideal for writing, and I’ve just completed my final promotion to full professor. Next spring I’ve been granted a half-year sabbatical, and I was awarded a $3,400 grant to continue researching the life of John Berryman. The kids are both school age. This means there are hours of the day when the house is quiet and no one is home. I live with another writer (my fiancé is an MFA candidate at Stony Brook Southampton’s program), so there is mutual respect and understating. She and I must, therefore, guard, as Rilke says, each other’s solitude. This seems to me to be essential not only to love but art. What better gift can a family give than the guarantee that what they hold sacred will be treated so? One final thing: after the reading a year an a half ago, Shannon, my fiancé, reminded me of a truer and better answer to the man’s question about interruptions. My stepdaughter walked in one afternoon while I was writing a poem and asked me what I was doing. “I’m looking for a word,” I said. Then she read the poem with me. “Hymn,” she said. “The right word is hymn.” And she was right.
PP: What’s awesome about being a parent who writes?
AP: The proper perspective means knowing what is and isn’t important. Humility means knowing your limitations. I can’t say I’ve mastered either of these concepts, but I know both are required for parenting and writing. And yet both writing and parenting require us to go beyond ourselves, too. There are days when I feel like I don’t have anymore to give. There are days when nothing is greater than my love. I’ve talked about the support I receive above, and balance in this case means proper perspective. I’ve known, as a poet, that I’m in it for the long haul. I know that all parenting, if it’s genuine, means being in it for the long haul. This realization is not daunting but a relief. Maybe the reward of being a writing parent is this. You know that each complements the other. What it takes to write, it takes to love. What it takes to care, it takes to care about each word in its right place. But more than these philosophical lessons, which, in the end, are speculative and, I guess, pretentious, I have learned a great deal more from my step-kids.
Both of them are artists. Wordsworth says the child is father to the man. I know this for certain when I’m with the kids and the pens and paper come out. We make comics. We draw. I never feel so related to the kids as I do in these moments. It’s like all the struggle to be a family, which is never easy for a step-family, and all the struggle with the day-to-day stuff, the dishes and the cat litter and the rest, which isn’t easy for any family, fade into the background. Mere details they are. And what counts, really counts, is this. S’s sense of humor. H’s wide and wild imagination. Pieces of me rise to the surface, which I had thought long dead or never to have existed at all.
PP: What’s challenging about it?
AP: Right now the challenge is like the one I faced exiting grad school, when I had to decide to do this thing. The last year or more I’ve put writing on the back burner. The priority has been focusing on this family. Still, there is work to be done, but I feel pretty confident that the essential coming together has come together, and what remains is not anything that can be rushed. The four of us were thrown together partly out of desire and partly out of necessity. Truth is, I don’t think I can or should separate necessity from desire. If you’re a family, shouldn’t your necessity be your desire and the other way around? Anyway, the upshot is that I can begin to return to my daily routine of writing, even if it’s only a line or two here and there. But this requires a dimension of solitude.
“Luckily, the discipline I exercised over the years following grad school, where I dedicated myself to writing every day, hasn’t atrophied.”
Reentering solitude isn’t easy. I’m reminded of that section of Walden, where Thoreau talks about the unreasonable anxiety one feels when entering the woods. Wendell Berry talks about a similar sensation in one of his essays, and I know it to be true from my long rambles. The mind needs time to get used to solitude’s waters again. You need time alone to remember how to speak the language of solitude. Right now my fiancé is out. The kids are at school. I’m struggling to set one word after another. I’m struggling not to find some other way of comforting or distracting myself.
When the day is full of work and kids and chores and the like, by the time I might find time to write, I’m too exhausted. Now there is no excuse. Luckily, the discipline I exercised over the years following grad school, where I dedicated myself to writing every day, hasn’t atrophied. Faith keeps me placing one word after another in the hope that eventually the miracle will happen. I used to be preoccupied with the story of Abraham and Sarah maybe for obvious reasons. Childless people fetishize impossible stories of miraculous conceptions. On the other side now, I know enough to know that it was my writing, which taught me this faith in the first place. The faith of moving toward the Promised Land. My books were born this way, and so I know a family is, too.
“When there is nothing to say, shut up. When there is something to say, sit down.”
PP: What’s your advice for other parents who write?
AP: “Consider the lilies,” Jesus says. Writers take a great deal of time worrying about not writing. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe in the writing process. This isn’t just good advice for parent writers. I think it’s good advice for all writers. When there is nothing to say, shut up. When there is something to say, sit down. Maybe the main difference, then, between my old childless life and this one is getting the timing right. I’ve got more balls to juggle, no doubt, but that just means I have more to write about, more sources of inspiration. The last book I wrote strikes one note. My life had been consumed by one theme, childlessness. I put that down to pick up a fuller range of notes, a whole scale of them. If at first the melody sounds sour, so be it. That is the price for learning a new instrument. The lessons I learned on the old lyre aren’t lost now that I’m playing a piano.
* * *
Adam Penna is the author of two books of poetry, Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji (S4N Books, 2010) and The Love of a Sleeper (Finishing Line Press, 2008). Talk of Happiness, a follow up to Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji, is forthcoming in late 2016. Penna’s work has been published in many magazines, journals and anthologies, including, Cimarron Review, Nimrod and Verse Daily. He has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in East Moriches, NY, with his family and is a professor of English at Suffolk County Community College. He keeps a blog at adampenna.com.
The Pen Parentis Research Project is a series of interviews with parent authors in order to learn how they mange time, publish, earn a living, nurture creative community, and care for their kids. Managed by Mary Harpin, the project will culminate in a book with stories, data, and helpful information that other parent writers can apply to their own busy lives. Support the project with a contribution to the Pen Parentis crowdfunding campaign.