Becoming a writer has taught me a lot. Being a parent has taught me a lot, too. And the funny thing is the lessons are sometimes the same. One lesson I learned in both roles is that creating stuff is a lot harder than it looks.
Pete Fromm, a fiction writer and MFA faculty member at Pacific University, used to talk about going down into his basement to play with his imaginary friends. It was a funny image, the way he described it, and it was pretty much how I thought writers lived their lives. They sat around all day, kept their pajamas on, and made shit up. Easy peasy.
I used to think becoming a parent was easy too. You lay around all night, eventually took your pajamas off, and made babies.
Turns out: making up stories and creating families is a lot more work than that.
As a fiction writer, you need to decide which characters you need and then you need to feed and nurture them. You need to figure out where they came from, and who they are now, and what they need or want. You need to figure out how they should interact with one another and what lessons they have to learn. You also need to figure out what’s going to happen in the whole damn story and how it, somehow, derives from your own life experience.
Think about Moby Dick. Melville had experience on whaling ships, where he no doubt met some colorful people. In the writing of the novel, he came up with a large cast, including Ishmael, Ahab, Queequeg, old Starbuck, and of course Moby, to name a few. And, in addition to deciding that Ishmael would be a man seeking clarity, and Ahab a man with flaws, and so on, he had to devise a plan for how the characters would interact with one another as the whaling vessel sailed through life.
When it comes to making babies, it’s easier for some than others, but no matter how you wind up having children come into your life, the creation of the family turns out to be a lot of hard work, too. Like a writer, you need to give your children names. And like a writer, you need to develop a solid understanding of who they are as individuals so you can feed and nurture them according to their needs. And then there’s the whole idea that you need to manage the interaction among your children, and teach them how to cope with the challenges that life throws their way. And all this while you’re trying to keep your family afloat, sailing in whatever direction you’ve been planning on, and trying to keep everyone safe from whatever might be creeping up from behind.
Although Melville technically wrote the novel in just a few years, he–like a parent raising a family–threw most of his life into it, from his past experiences on whaling ships to his final revisions twenty years after the first printing. Sadly, the novel wasn’t well received until after he passed away in 1891. But if he believed what he wrote in Chapter 116: The Dying Whale, then hopefully he gained at least some pleasure from the hard work he poured into his creation–the hope that all writers aspire to when they set down to write. And that all parents aspire to when they start a family.
“Not seldom in this life, when on the right side, fortune’s favorites sail close by us, we…catch somewhat of the rushing breeze, and joyfully feel our bagging sails fill out.”
Next up: What Writers and Parents Have in Common: Part 2 – Control Issues