[Paul Madonna, the well-known San Francisco artist who beautifully illustrated my book A Writer’s San Francisco, was recently seriously injured in a car accident. I am wishing him a speedy recovery and wanted to share with you a few pieces from that book that he enriched so much.]
if i asked you how you’d ideally like to spend an hour, you would probably reply, by quietly writing. If an observer watched you as you sat there quietly writing, he might see you eating a grape, staring into space, doodling on the pad beside your computer, and every so often clacking away with lightning speed at your computer keyboard. He would not see you typing for sixty minutes straight. Most of the time you would just be sitting there, which is exactly as it should be.
You would just be sitting there, canalizing your energy, focusing your being, and sometimes typing. What bliss! What perfection! Every writer knows that state of staring into space and occasionally transcribing. When a writer then turns to parenting her children, however, an entirely different model steals her brain. Her personal heaven is sitting quietly; her child, she mistakenly thinks, must be kept busy. Her child must do his homework, his piano lessons, his French translations, his chores, and everything else that will make him successful and accomplished. If he is caught staring into space, she is inclined to cry, “Don’t you have homework?”
A kind of cultural anxiety overcomes this otherwise soulful writer. She is anxious that her child be this thing called “successful,” even though she herself would never measure her life in such terms. Something in her psyche that is not her own voice tells her that her child must seize his opportunities, climb the ladder, and ace his math test. She feels an intense pressure to push him and something like an obligation to get him on the fast track. “Faster, Johnny! Faster! Mary is twenty yards closer than you to Harvard!”
I would like to present another model, one much closer to the writer’s actual heart. Whipping children into a frenzy of activity and demanding that they earn their seat at the table by their accomplishments are not the only ways to create ambitious children. Nor are they the healthiest. If you have the luxury of being a stay-at-home writer and parent, you have the opportunity to try a radically different approach. You can treat your kids as you would like to be treated.
What did you want as a child? A quiet environment. Freedom from chaos and conflict. A window seat, a view, and a pad and pencil. Some music. The chance to make mistakes without anyone caring. The chance to fry ants with your magnifying glass and chew on some blades of grass. Books to read. A Saturday movie. French fries. Nothing mysterious, nothing theoretical. Can’t you extrapolate from this vision of your ideal childhood exactly how to parent?
You write for an hour while your child makes a mess with Play-Doh. You write for an hour while your child reads a book. You sit with your child and exchange stories. You write your book, and he writes his. No getting in the car; no driving anywhere; no forced marches to the piano teacher. All that driving steals precious hours from your writing time and does far less for your child than if he got to watch you quietly write. Better you model writing than send him to writing camp! Quietly write in the presence of your child, and foster genius.
I was the stay-at-home parent to our daughters, Natalya and Kira. Every day I would take them out in their double-stroller to San Francisco State University, across the street from our apartment, and we would use that commuter university as our personal playground. We would roll on the grass. We would buy candy in the lobby shop of the student union. We would take the elevator up to the fifth floor of the library where, unbeknownst to the students on campus, a children’s library lived. We would take out books and read them at home. Our favorite was the story of a French lamb named Patapon; our second favorite, Lyle the Crocodile.
On our way out the door to State, I would slip Kira’s bottle into the back pocket of my jeans (a bottle will fit—try it). One day an irate student stopped me and cried, “Sir, that is not sanitary!” I smiled. I would not baptize my children in the Ganges, since I know something about typhoid and dysentery, but I also know that a bottle in your back pocket is exactly as God intended it, just as long as you keep its cap on. It was no more unsanitary than carrying it in a designer pouch. I suspect that it was more the image of casual parenting—what may even have seemed to him like a mockery of parenting—that offended him.
During the day, I would sing the girls songs (some of which, it turned out, scared them), cook pasta (many, many times a week), inexpertly do laundry, and inadvertently vacuum. Sometimes we would go to the playground tucked uphill behind the public library. Sometimes we went all the way to the zoo, where it was always foggy and atmospheric. Occasionally we hopped the streetcar for an in-town outing. And every day I would write.
Writing is a writer’s prime parenting skill. If you don’t write, you get sad, angry, unhinged, anxious, gloomy, pessimistic, and morose. By writing first thing in the morning, as your children play or toddle off to school, you put yourself in the mood to smile at them when next you see them. Writing is a tonic, an elixir, even if it goes badly, because even if it goes badly at least you have been writing.
I am pleased to say that this quiet, measured, writing-filled way did not ruin our daughters. To describe how well they are doing would be to brag and might also hex them, so I’ll keep mum on that score. But they are able to laugh; they are able to love; and they are happiest writing. What else could a writer-parent want?
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock