One of the very first authors who really turned me on was William Saroyan, the warm jazzy humanism of whose novels and stories opened me up, when I discovered them in ninth-grade English, to what fiction writing can do. As much as Saroyan had meant to my own work, that was almost as much as I was dismayed and disappointed to discover that, as a father, he was a nasty piece of work.
That’s the picture convincingly painted in Aram Saroyan’s 1984 memoir, Last Rites: The Death of William Saroyan as Chronicled by His Son. When I found that book in a library, many years after ninth grade, I hunched over it expecting to find the open-hearted energy that gives the best work of Aram’s dad a creativity-stirring impact not quite like anyone else’s, at least for me. But then here was Aram — whose own name William had pilfered to title his best-known story collection, My Name Is Aram, in 1940 — writing that his dad was cold, selfish, degrading, and just downright mean to his ex-wife and his children. I didn’t know what to make of that. I still don’t.
What brought this confusion back was reading an article, in the July 22 New Yorker, on four other memoirs by children of famous late-20th-century male novelists, each of whom seems to have make his work so complete a priority that his kids have, to varying degrees, paid the price. The books are Home Before Dark, 1984, by Susan Cheever; My Father Is a Book, 2006, by Janna Malamud Smith; Reading My Father, 2011, by Alexandra Styron; and the new Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir, by Greg Bellow.
“Do great novelists make bad parents?” asks the subhead to James Wood’s article. Personally, reading his piece led me to ask a different question. How often would a woman novelist give herself permission to disregard, even degrade, her own children in favor of her work?
Unless alcohol was a factor, which sadly it often is, I strongly suspect that few women writers, whatever their level of ambition and ability, would even consider that a choice. They would say, You’ve got to do both.
And hell. You do.
Admittedly, these guy writers worked in an era very different from now: “a moment of utmost domestic conventionality that coincided with the waning of American patriarchy,” Wood writes. But so what? If we’re given or we achieve sacred responsibilities — which can include both raising children, as best we can, and doing the most we can with an ability and a mission to write — then why should we dump one in favor of the other?
Here’s a better question: How is any creative work well-served by choosing to carve away part of our deepest selves?
I’ll never be a Styron or a Saroyan, but I’m pretty sure that I would never have written anything worth reading had it not been for my son. Brad came along at the end of my ten-year failed effort to write, refine and sell my first book, which went through two good agents and got turned down over 75 times. It never saw print, and never will. By the time my boy was three, it seemed like I had failed at everything important — my first marriage had fallen apart, and I’d had by then two adult and two children’s books rejected, at least 115 times in all.
I was not going to give up trying to write — but I know that wasn’t the critical vital resolution I made back then. It was that, no matter what else I seemed to have failed at or loused up, I was not going to fail at being a dad. I was not going to let this little boy down.
Brad today is about to start his final year in law school, and I’m about to publish my 14th book. Had I turned my back on him, would any of my work since then be worth anything? Would I be worth anything? I doubt it.
Being a parent humanized me. It let me touch, and dwell in, and return again and again to something that mattered far beyond myself. I wasn’t the perfect dad, and Brad had to trundle back and forth between our two homes; but I was there. I showed up. Had I not, I can’t imagine I would ever have written anything worth anyone’s time to read.
I think our deeper potential as people doing creative work, whatever it is, is tapped when we do our best to make the embracive choice. Plus we have less worry that our kids will someday write some very sad truth. Alexandra Styron “was relieved when her father died,” says Wood’s New Yorker piece. Greg Bellow says his own son asked, “What was all the fuss about Grandpa changing American literature? He was just a grouchy old man.”
Yes, those guys were great writers. I still admire Saroyan. J.D. Salinger too, though pretty clearly he was also a jerk to his kids. But if these guys had given themselves wholeheartedly to both their work and their children ... would their novels and stories have had less depth and humanity? The assumption is yes, because they writers would have had less to give. But I don’t believe that.
I think they would have had more.