All writing is personal. How could it be otherwise? People spend what is most precious—their lives—doing it. Unlike most other activities, writing leaves a distinct and communicable trace of how one chooses to spend their time. But even then, not everything about the activity of writing finds its way onto the page. I asked three writers, who know one another, to talk about personal issues that don’t necessarily show up in the final draft, but that still shape their work. What challenges do they confront as writers? What are the ideal conditions for writing? And does family inspire or intrude on this experience?
John Kaag is the author, most recently, of Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are. Andre Dubus III is the author of Townie: A Memoir, House of Sand and Fog, and, most recently, Gone So Long. Clancy Martin is the author of How to Sell and Love and Lies. These three writers shared a recent correspondence with Guernica. Although the authors didn’t arrive at any definitive answers, they wrote honestly—at moments humorously, at others heartbreakingly—about many topics, including whether the best art requires solitude or being in the world, and the struggles of doing creative work while trying to be decent fathers and husbands.
–Regan Penaluna for Guernica.
JK, 1:32 AM
Dear Andre and Clancy,
Becca just woke me up with a bad dream. Carol sleeps deeply, and I don’t, so I get her. She’s back in bed and asleep, but I’m up, I hope not for very long—but long enough to write, I guess. This is how it goes these days. Okay—these six years. I sneak time when I can, and write between chores and errands.
Andre, I know that you have your version of a cloister in your house: a plywood box that you enter almost every day to be alone and write. Inspiring, really. I started to construct a house in our swamp this summer—thinking that I could, and should, have somewhere to escape—but the goddamn thing leaks and is buggy and dark. I don’t really use it. I’m making excuses. In truth, I’m probably too guilty to use it; Carol doesn’t have a swamp house and wouldn’t dream of building one (how many women have or need cloisters and swamp houses?). I’m not sure, but I know that she doesn’t exactly love the idea of my getaway. She never liked Thoreau or Nietzsche—”pampered,” she calls them. “Why do you need that to write in? We already have a house.” I also have insomnia, which gives me plenty of time to think and write. So maybe she is right. I don’t need a swamp house.
I wrote American Philosophy: A Love Story almost exclusively in the Grafton, the pub across the street from Harvard. Carol and I were on our own, and she was happy enough to see me go out and about for a night. So every Thursday I would give a lecture at the Extension School in the late afternoon, take my computer to the bar, and close the place down. Sherry, the middle-aged bartender, thought I was more or less single and a bit pathetic. “Don’t you have a home,” she’d ask, then pause for a second and sort of laugh, “on Thursdays?” She was, I think, relieved (and maybe half-sad?) when I brought Carol in and introduced her. There was something a little nice about the whole situation—not the part about introducing Carol, I mean. But the writing without kids. Probably also something a little false about the whole situation. Like I was writing about the human condition without knowing what the fuck I was talking about.
Now I don’t have that problem. I’m wide awake in the middle of the night, straining my ears to hear if a little one is crying. Time passes without my noticing it, and all I hear is owls and coyotes. I know what I am talking about now, at least a little. The difficulty, I think, is now to be honest about it. This is how I wrote most of Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are. No bar. No Sherry. Just me, Becca, Carol, and a little voice that narrated the first few years of parenting. Oh, and Nietzsche was there, I guess. Reminding me to cut it close. Hesse said, “Most men, the herd, have never tasted solitude. They leave father and mother, but only to crawl to a wife and quietly succumb to new warmth and new ties. They are never alone, they never commune with themselves.” Yeah, maybe. But I am inclined to think, that for many men, the “new warmth” is often too hot, and the “new ties” are often too tight. Some acclimate happily. Some don’t. It isn’t that I couldn’t write, but that what I wrote was different. Very different.
OK, fellas. I feel sleep approaching. I hope. And Carol worries if I stay up too long. Signing off. Hope you write back.
Dear John and Clancy,
Hesse’s choice of words pisses me off, though I don’t completely disagree with him either. (“Most men, the herd, have never tasted solitude. They leave father and mother, but only to crawl to a wife and quietly succumb to new warmth and new ties. They are never alone, they never commune with themselves.”) I have a dear friend who did just that; he was an only child who lived with his mother and father until his wedding day. Before the ceremony, on the morning of his wedding, he drove alone to his and his bride’s new apartment, and he walked from one small empty room to another, and then he sat down at the kitchen table for a while. I asked him why he did this, and he said, “I just wanted to get a taste of living alone, I guess.”
I, on the other hand, have been fortunate enough to have more than tasted solitude. In the years before getting married at age 29, I lived alone in cramped motel rooms and run-down apartment houses; I slept under bridges and in jail cells; I crossed the country by train and by bus; I spent hours running alone, alone, alone. And I have spent all my adult life stealing time to sit alone in silence somewhere in order to summon words from my pencil onto the page. I know the power of this solitude, and the terror of it, and the joy. And I believe it has helped to form me, whoever the hell that is. But where I break from Hesse is in his word choice of “crawl” and “succumb,” as if becoming a husband and a father were a pathetic act of emasculating subservience. Hesse’s line, to my ear, smacks of self-righteous narcissism. Why? Because when I married my wife—a dancer and choreographer who requires quite a bit of solitude herself—and when we began to have our three children, it became clear to me that the heart of my fullest life possible had arrived. Nothing, not one thing, has come close to equaling the power of the fierce love I have for my two sons and daughter, or the joy and terror loving them has caused me, or the degree to which they’ve introduced to me the notion of the soul—of something deeply mysterious and eternal existing inside and among us.
Yes, when they were young, it was harder to find the time and space to write. But I still stole that daily time (so that I wouldn’t die before I’m dead, to paraphrase the novelist Thomas Williams), and—because I was a father and a husband—I had so much more life with which to work. We lived in a small rented half-house then, and I had no office, nor could I afford to rent one, so I started writing in my parked car in a graveyard near our house. During those years, I worked as an adjunct writing professor and a self-employed carpenter, my old Toyota littered with student manuscripts and power tools and sawdust. Whether it was a teaching day or a carpentry day or both, I’d drive to the graveyard and write for 20 minutes in the early morning. Then, 12 hours later, I’d write for another 20 minutes before I drove home to the finest thing that could ever have happened to me: my wife and three children. Because loving them has given me the deepest possible way to “commune”—to use Hesse’s word—with my deepest self.
CM, 2:01 PM
Dear John and Andre,
I have an eight-month-old baby—my fourth child—who doesn’t sleep much at nights, and the past couple of weeks my 13-year-old is refusing to go to eighth grade, and my eldest daughter is pregnant with her first child. This afternoon, not even Milarepa—much less Hesse—can convince me that solitude is how the real men do it, and that family life is only for those who take the easy way out. My wife, a writer, said to me not long ago, “I guess we might not ever read your best novel, unless you move to the mountains and change your name and hide from all of us for the next twenty years.” These German Romantics and their thinly veiled asceticism! I have a friend who, after being a Theravadan Buddhist for many years, wanted at last to become a monk. He went to a great Tibetan Buddhist lama and asked for his advice. The lama told him that, if he really wanted to work on himself, he should get married and go into politics or start a school for children.
I don’t know if life has less suffering with a wife or without a wife, with children or without children, with writing or without writing. But this is something I admire about your book Hiking With Nietzsche, John: that you are comfortable working within this uncertain space of trying to have it all. In your book, I don’t see you emerging out of anything or trying to end up somewhere else. There is a myth that is hard to escape, about when we were innocents; there is another myth, especially common among the German Romantics and their existentialist progeny, that the great mass of people are living lives of quiet despair or numb thoughtlessness or mummified warmth. But when you actually go to talk to people, you find that they are all having more or less the same struggles, and sometimes their lives are easier and sometimes they are more difficult, and that probably it has always been that way and always will be that way. A lesson you learned from Nietzsche, and teach us, is that teleology is bullshit.
But what then? Because it’s hard to stop thinking that way. And it seems like a challenge to selfishness—if it’s not about my development, do I really matter all that much?—which might sound odd coming from Nietzsche.
AD3 11:19 AM
Dear John and Clancy,
John, I finished your wonderful Hiking With Nietzsche, over the weekend. I read the final pages in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, beside the bed of my sedated, nearly 80-year-old mother, who had just undergone triple bypass surgery. Every few pages, I would glance up at her—her eyes closed, a ventilator tube down her throat, various tubes connecting her to various life-saving machines—and my own eyes would fill, and I would rise to kiss her cool forehead, then sit back down with you and Nietzsche and your lovely wife and young daughter in the Alpine heights. And all I felt was gratitude for the richness of this life, for its pain and suffering, for—to paraphrase Empedocles—its love and strife.
After a while, it was time to remove my mother’s ventilator (she began to breathe on her own, and I’m happy to report that she’s doing well), so I stepped outside and called one of my three grown children, who had just had a hard week in many ways. After that conversation was over, I recalled that old cliché that you are only as happy as your unhappiest child. I then called one of my happier children (that week anyway) to make sure he was ready for his trip back to his university for his senior year. Then I called our oldest child, who lives on the West Coast, to tell him of his grandmother. Then I called my wife, just to hear her voice, and to tell her that I loved her and how hard it was to see my mother so vulnerable, so mortal. It was a hot summer afternoon in Boston, the sun high over the tall buildings of commerce, and standing outside of that bustling institution of hope and loss—strangers walking in and out of it, or being wheeled in and out of it, some unconscious under white sheets on gurneys—I felt utterly alone and yet one with them all.
In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes: “The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust.” After living side-by-side with the same woman for thirty years, I could not agree with Rilke more strongly. One of the central themes of your deeply compelling new book, of course, has to do with the struggle to guard one’s own solitude, especially if one is a philosopher or a writer or any man or woman who requires daily solitary quiet in order to get his or her work done. Yet I reject Thomas Hobbes’s notion that “leisure is the mother of philosophy.” And I am suspicious of the young Nietzsche’s escape from the “throbbing, intoxicating mass of life,” to use your apt words. Strife, it seems to me, has to be the mother of philosophy: the kind of philosophy that can only come from living in the bloody, loving thick of it, as a wife and mother, as a husband and father, as a child, a sister, a brother, a lover. And so I love the conclusion you reach here, that “Becoming is the ongoing process of losing and finding yourself.” And yes, what better way to lose oneself than to free-fall into those quotidian acts of love that make a family a family—a place where even we recluses of the soul can wake up one day, blinking at the light of having found ourselves one more time?
Congratulations on having made a beautiful book, brother.
CM 3:48 PM
Two quotations I like about being a parent.
First, from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra:“I have a question for you alone, my brother. I cast this question into your soul like a sounding-stone, to learn its depth. You are young, and you want a wife and child. But I ask you: are you entitled to want a child? Are you victorious, a self-conqueror, ruler of your passions, master of your virtues? That’s what I ask you. Or is it nature and necessity speaking? Or loneliness? Or your frustration?
Your victory and your freedom should want a child. Let your child reveal your victory and your freedom. Build beyond yourself with your child. But first you must build yourself well.”
And second, from Keanu Reeves in Parenthood: “You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog, or drive a car. Hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.”
Of course if we all waited for our victory and our freedom to have children, few—if any—of us would have children. Speaking as the father of my children, I am neither victorious nor free, even though I do think my children are in some sense the expression of me at my best. And speaking as the child of parents who were neither victorious nor free, as far as I can tell, I am glad they had me—and not just because I’m glad to be here, most days, but specifically because they had me, and I wouldn’t be me otherwise, and my children wouldn’t be who they are.
A philosopher friend of mine (who has no children) wrote to me a few years ago and asked me, “Can you tell me any other-focused reasons to have children?” Because we are both philosophers, the question was not supposed to be complicated by the fact that (1) I have children, (2) he had repeatedly told me that he wanted children, but had none, and (3) he was married to a partner who I knew did not want children. Had we continued this line of investigation (which we did not) all of these facts might have messily tangled up our philosophizing—and we might have become better friends. Instead, since then we seem not to have corresponded. I think we realized that we suddenly had nothing to talk about. Because there are no other-focused reasons to have children.
I think I learned from both your American Philosophy and Hiking With Nietzsche, John, and from your The Garden of Last Days, Andre (and maybe from a couple of your other books, too), that we’re not searching for morality so much as we’re searching for meaning. So do my children and my parents and our parenting and our being children take us towards more-meaningful or less-meaningful lives?
Which leads me to the question: am I a butt-reaming asshole? Yes, we all agree that we try to mess up our children as little as possible, while recognizing that all parents mess up their children, and that we were messed up by our own parents. Did my loneliness, my frustration, my nature, my incapacity create my children? Does it create them still? I mean, whose perfect life would I choose for my child? Do I hope they will be Leonardo DiCaprio and Emily Dickinson? Or…who, then? Who else do I actually want to be? Especially given these four children of mine.
As I write this, my eight-month-old crawls up and pulls himself up on the blue sofa. He is trying to get my attention and, probably, investigate the glowing apple on the back of my computer. So, now I’m going to stop this blabbing and take him in a walk around the neighborhood before bed.
JK 3:14 AM
Andre, I told my daughter about your mother in the hospital, about how you kissed her head while she slept. My six year-old just nodded slowly and said, “Yeah, that is a little like ‘softing,’ Papa.” Softing is the lightest of strokes: she gets close when I’m lying down, and brushes the tip of her nose over my cheek. Softly. She’s done it for years. It’s difficult to be ungrateful or unhappy in the face of this. But I want to be honest: somehow, sometimes, I still manage. How is it possible to laugh often and love much—to have succeeded by almost any standard—and yet to have these thoughts that frighten and disgust me?
I read both of your words with no small amount of envy. You seem well-adjusted in a way that usually eludes me. Hopefully I will have a few more years to work on it. I’m reminded of this part from Horace’s Satires that I also envy: “This is what I prayed for: a small piece of land, with a garden, a fresh flowing spring of water at hand near the house. It is perfect. I ask for nothing else, except to implore, O sons of Maia, that you make these blessings my own for the rest of my life.” I should not begrudge anyone this prayer. I pray that someday I will pray in this way. You already do.
Andre, yes: parenting does allow you to commune with your deepest self. For me—for some people, I suspect—that may be the problem. This communion reveals something that I’d rather not face: that I’m petty, that my insecurities and jealousies make me mean, that my natural self-centeredness makes me far less of a parent than I think I ought to be, that I occasionally want to murder my dearest loved ones and myself. I suspect your Gone So Long will be read and reread, because I am not alone in this. Daniel embodies the tragedies of enduring love. That is, I think, why the character stays with us. At least, that is why he stays with me. Maybe hell is other people, but unfortunately, nothing else can keep us warm. The affection of others is heavenly, hot like the upper atmosphere—which is to say, immolating. The trick, one that I am trying not to suck at, is to endure in the right way.
Clancy, Hiking with Nietzsche is, as you say, trying to “stay in it” while being awake to the tensions as they arise. My own father, Jan, lacked staying power. He left without warning when I was four. Jan loved my mother on a certain level, but the mirror of parenting was too much for him. He didn’t want to share his wife with the duties of childrearing. He lost his temper, and was what old people call “free with his hands.” When he moved out, he told us—all of us—that he’d never wanted kids, and that we were holding him back from his career on Wall Street (like a Romantic who says that family life is holding him back from his “art”).
Clancy, you’re right: that was bullshit. He drank himself out of his Wall Street job in two years. After that, he picked his surroundings carefully: an investment-banker wife, no children, a beautiful old mansion on the Hudson, a part-time job at the antique store on Madison Avenue, another job as a master carpenter. He embraced what he probably always was: an aesthete. And for a long time, I imagined he was a very happy one. But now I know better. Aestheticism is no more escape than asceticism. And, as you say, where do we go from here? Probably somewhere “deep” and simultaneously mundane—in Andre’s words, “a place where even we recluses of the soul can wake up one day blinking at the light of having found ourselves one more time.” I can pray for that.