The Pram in the Hall (Essay, originally published at The Paris Review)
One of the most popular quotations about creativity and parenthood is Cyril Connolly’s: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” This aphorism, snobbish in its dismissal of human distraction, has been passed down through generations of artists as a black warning banner—Have Children, Be Creatively Screwed Forever.
Having a child isn’t easy, of course. When my son, Julian, was born sixteen months ago, I became intimately acquainted with sleep deprivation and time constraints. The third night after we’d brought him home, I remember being in bed, so mentally and physically exhausted that when I looked up at where the ceiling and the wall met, I saw the seam crack open, revealing a horizon of white light and red lava.
I slept in naps, and although I found the first several months to be brutal and strange and basically a new realm of reality, my role as a father worked as a kind of energizer. The pram in the hall was no “somber enemy”—rather, because I was baggy-eyed, vein-drenched in coffee, and blindly stepping into the new world of fatherhood, producing work had never felt more important to me. I was creatively explosive, if a little loose and wild. I can’t remember showering or looking in the mirror for weeks. Given the sudden constrains on my time, the pockets in which I could work were like mines where I hacked away with a speed I’ve never experienced before, discovering and polishing work.
What’s been most difficult, really, is balancing the weird mix of father and writer online, where the community I know is mostly childless. This online world, which I love and cherish, is also detached and ironic and so image-based that being a dad doesn’t seem to fit. To age out, a writer must pass through three stages: First, you turn thirty, thus becoming “online old.” Second, you get married. Third, you have a child. I’ve done all three, and now I’m having to define myself online: Am I a writer or a dad or a husband? Can I be all three?
Shortly after my wife gave birth, I commented on a friend’s Facebook status; my friend’s response was, “Hey, look at this Dad on here.” It wasn’t meant to slight me, but there was something there, something that said I was now more dad than writer. In our culture, fatherhood means baggy khakis and cars with side-impact airbags—it’s something of a joke.
Accordingly, the few writer-fathers I know online either make self-deprecating quips about their fatherhood or simply never post about being a father. I’m not comfortable with either approach.
The balance is hard to find. Being a writer—especially one who doesn’t make a living from his work—already involves a kind of guilt trip, but if you’ve ever felt neglectful for spending too much time in your head, dreaming up ideas, or moving around in a world you’ve created, imagine amplifying that guilt ten times—because you now have a little person who’s reality depends on you being in reality. Countless times I’ve caught myself lost in my own thoughts while my son stares at me, wondering when I’m going to come back to him.
It doesn’t help that many of the male writers I’ve admired—not only as creators, but, strange as it sounds, as father figures of a sort—have fearfully adhered to the “pram in the hall” sentiment. For example, here’s David Foster Wallace in The Pale King:
Reynolds’s own professed take on marriage/family was that from boyhood on he had never liked fathers and had no wish to be one … Sylvanshine had found himself locking eyes with thirty-year-old men who had infants in high-tech papooselike packs on their backs, their wives with quilted infant-supply bags at their sides, the wives in charge, the men appearing essentially soft or softened in some way, desperate in a resigned way, their stride not quite a trudge, their eyes empty and overmild with the weary stoicism of young fathers. Reynolds would call it not stoicism but acquiescence to some large and terrible truth.
And here’s Don DeLillo, who never had children, in my favorite of his books, Libra. (Keep in mind, this paragraph is completely isolated, with large chunks of white space above and below; it’s one of only a few like this in the entire novel.)
A family expects you to be one thing when you’re another. They twist you out of shape. You have a brother with a good job and a nice wife and nice kids and they want you to be a person they will recognize. And a mother in a white uniform who grips your arms and weeps. You are trapped in their minds. They shape and hammer you. Going away is what you do to see yourself plain.
This isn’t to say that every male writer, say, my father’s age, is dark on parenthood, but it seems that so many are. In 1962, Cormac McCarthy had a son, and in order to concentrate on his writing he told his wife—who was already responsible for all housework and caring for the baby—to get a day job, too. She soon filed for divorce. As a father, William Burroughs was much more Jack Torrance than Danny Tanner: he accidentally shot his son’s mother, introduced him to drugs and alcohol, and exposed him to situations where grown men made sexual advances on him. The list of accusations reads like a nightmare, and it culminates with Burroughs’s son drinking himself to death at thirty-three.
There is some light on this topic. I’ve discovered many writer-fathers who not only continued to produce work, but produced work that is richer and more interesting because of their fatherhood. William Vollmann has a daughter. He rarely mentions her in interviews, and I can’t recall a single instance where she appears explicitly in his writing, but Vollmann once told an interviewer that having a child was the most fulfilling part of his life; he enjoys having her in his studio as he works. Vollmann has always been prolific, but arguably his best work, the National Book Award–winning Europe Central, was written while his daughter was a small child. J. M. Coetzee, Thomas Pynchon, Ben Marcus, Rick Moody, Martin Amis, Richard Brautigan, and Vladimir Nabokov are all fathers who created powerful work after having children. For the right man—and for plenty of men—the pram in the hall has the opposite effect of Connolly’s: it’s a motivator.
I do realize that I’m writing this from a place of privilege, as a white, educated male with a relaxed day job that allows me the brain space for ideas such as this very piece. Trying to imagine myself as a full-time, stay-at-home mother, trying to work on a novel with an infant attached to my breast, sends a chill through me. It would be much harder to get work done. My wife, Melanie, is our son’s primary caregiver, a full-time student, and works part-time as a massage therapist. Where I can come to the office and grab a cup of coffee, she has little to no time with her own thoughts. Doris Lessing, echoing Connolly, became so frustrated with her children that she left two of them with her father and moved away: “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.”
I believe in the magic of fiction and I want to believe that it can connect with the magic of children, with all its weirdness and imagination-play, in a positive way. I want to believe it’s possible to adhere to more than one image—that you don’t have to choose between parent or writer. In fact, I want to believe that writers can make the best kind of parents. J. G. Ballard once described his ambitions as a writer: “I wanted to rub the human race in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.” But he raised three children as a single dad. His daughter, in 2011, said, “My father was a kind, clever, and imaginative parent who, far from regarding his three children as an impediment to creativity, thought of us as an inspiration.” Ballard created some of his best-loved work as a father. He never complained. He was a writer and a father and was proud to be both.
Photo By: Hans Splinter