On Being a Parent and a Writer

I keep beating myself up about doing what I thought was right, all those many years ago when we first had children, when I saw the world growing modern around me, when I thought it would be important for my children to have access to the same technologies that I had access to as a grown-up. I make no apologies for the fact that I thought, and still, to an extent, think that each of my children should have their own computer, that they should have internet access, and that I should be as light-touch a regulator of their internet use as possible.

However, and it’s a big however, I see them vanishing into the distance more quickly than I can run to catch them up. And I don’t just mean in their understanding of the technologies, but in their disappearance into their own space, into their own rooms, into their own gatherings of virtual friendships. Because that’s the crux. They can’t balance the two worlds they inhabit, and are in danger of becoming people who can only interact virtually, people who have difficulty gathering around the dinner table and leading civil conversations which might require an attention period that lasts longer than a Tweet.

It’s self-inflicted, I know, and it is my fault for equipping them with, albeit second-hand technology that takes them away from the traditional campfire (= round table) of the storyteller, and which makes it difficult for me to reach them unless I communicate with them digitally. But then I look at their faces when I tell them I’m going to start writing another book, and I can see that they have the same fears for me, that the tables are so easily turned. Because writing is an antisocial occupation in its execution, though not necessarily in its information gathering. I need characters to people my books, and I can’t invent them: they have to come from flesh and blood.

But here it is, and this is the crux: I write in a world of my own. I lock out the rest of my family, put on my headphones or demand absolute silence in the house when I start tapping words into my keyboard, words that are meant to gather themselves into plot, characters, beginning and end. I live on my own planet when I write, to such an extent that my wife has been known to stand behind me for ten minutes or more before she’s nearly given me a heart attack by touching me, because I haven’t realised she’s there. And the children might be standing outside the door, waiting for the clickety-clack of the keys to end, and not dare to interrupt me, even if they’re feeling sick or have woken from a bad dream – because Dad’s WRITING, and you know what he’s like when he’s WRITING.

So where can I find a balance, where can any writer find a balance? My beating myself up about their online habits is, in essence, hypocritical. I live in my virtual worlds, and they in theirs. But there is a big difference, I suppose, to an extent. I have conversations with people I don’t know. I invent people (based on flesh and blood). They just find it easier to talk with people they do know hidden behind their online masks of bravado and bad language. I let myself be led into the darkest corners of my mind by the characters I let into my books, and those places can be very dark indeed, full of fear and despair, although I try to impose some sort of redemption on those manifestations of my weaknesses and temptations. The children just continue their fights with school mates – and enemies – after hours.

There’s something else, though, something vitally different. I can switch easily from my virtual existence into the touchy-feely bloke people see in public, I can hold a conversation with real people, I can deal with the fact that I blush when I do stand up in front of a crowd of people, or even when I meet someone whom I perceive to be more important than me. They can’t. They think it’s unacceptable to be anything less than that perfect, non-blushing persona they are online, they think communication is all about words, not about feelings and gestures, not about being human with other humans. And, when it comes down to it, the worlds in my books are still more real than the antiseptic and anonymous worlds of Facebook and Twitter.

Many children of famous writers are always quoted as saying they remember their father/mother sitting behind closed doors to write and not allowing any interruption. But these recollections are always followed by a recounting of what that writer parent smelled like, and how they hugged, when they finally emerged from their self-imposed exile in their study. Will my children remember my scent when I am gone, or will they remember only the plastic stench of their keyboards

Richard Pierce

Richard Pierce is the author of the novel Dead Men, published by Duckworth in the UK and Overlook Press in the US. He is also a poet and a painter, and administers two charities. He lives in Suffolk with his wife and their four children. His Twitter handle is @tettig, and his website is www.tettig.com.

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