Three dads discuss a recent declaration that written works about raising kids make dull reads.
Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they discuss the notion that confessional writing about child-rearing is boring. Part one of the discussion is below; parts two and three are here and here.
"3. The confessional journalist must not be boring.The following subjects are boring: the rearing of children..." –Juliet Jacques, from "Manifesto for Confessional Journalism," posted on the website of The New Inquiry on 1/9/13
Life's a drag. It is pointless. Long and unencumbered by events of note. Characterless and colorless; insipid and uninspiring. Bland, mundane, and banal. Boring, as Jacques so helpfully points out. Even the most exciting things—the bursts of non-boredom found in violence or birth or sex or victory or decision or calamity or terror or charity or good fortune or the like—can't counterbalance the overwhelming and unvarying dead weight of the ordinary. Boredom is many peeved elephants in a small, stuffy, badly lit, drably decorated room. All know this, at least those with any sense. Consider it the first realization at—and of—the end of childhood. Life. This is it.
Nothing, not one thing, is more boring than parenthood: being a parent, living as one, thinking as one, characterizing it, enduring it, accepting it, embracing it, clutching it as a source of identity, pleasure, remorse, happiness, and pain. I lead an exemplary boring life, populated with three beloved and boring kids, freighted, as must be, with the utter inanity of all of it, this rearing of children business, with no end in sight (or worse, now that I am 40—with an end in sight).
I fight off bouts of lethargy by walking the neighborhood with my little ones. We don't go anywhere in particular, just out for a stroll, up and down blocks I know in detail. To vary things, sometimes we will stop for a bite or for little things needed around the house. If I get ambitious, and the weather stays fair, I'll make for the open spaces of the park. It's green, and there's a little pond in which dogs are permitted to swim, and that never fails to excite the children. They enjoy watching the ducks that congregate on the pond's far banks. Later today, I stop by the fishmonger about a quarter-mile from my home. I have a hankering for broiled mackerel for tonight's dinner. After that, if I can get away, I'll sneak into Manhattan and catch an old movie. Yesterday, shepherding my oldest girl (she's two) to daycare, my wife remarked on the cornice of a brownstone that had been painted a vivid yellow. "I never noticed that before," she said. I nodded. I hadn't noticed it either, although I said I supposed it had probably been there awhile. I added that I rarely looked up at this particular building, instead focusing on the exterior door, with its rough-hued iron bars and blue-tinted plate glass windowpanes. That always caught my eye. Such conversation! American Gothic comes to Brooklyn.
Most weekends are given over to activities for the kids. My boy goes to karate. I help knot his belt and send him to the sensei, and he kicks and punches and shouts and bows until the class ends. Then we go home. We took my older daughter for a ballet lesson a couple of weeks back, but it didn't go well. The teacher expected her to stand quietly on circular plastic dot awaiting instruction. She is rather too young for that sort of thing, and her wandering about the studio met with disapproving looks, so we didn't go back. For now, running around at the YMCA, kicking a volleyball and screaming, will suffice. No activities for our five-month-old, but Music Together beckons.
Last week's New Yorker featured a chapter from an unfinished memoir by Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell wrote of his obsessive touring about New York, his love of its public spaces. He described the mysterious power the city had over him, the hold of its quotidian and forgotten and neglected beauty. He wrote of the "psychic pull" of old buildings and his passion for climbing atop construction scaffolding and how attending Mass in a strange church was like "finding an aperture through which I could look into my unconscious, a tiny crack in a wall that all my adult life I had been striving to see through or over or around." But most of it is devoted to walking or taking the bus.
I also recently finished David Foster Wallace's novel The Pale King. A stunning elevation of boredom, a clinical investigation and winking celebration of it, a riff on its demands and depths, I enjoyed it mightily. Sometimes meandering through its tangential character studies and context-free sequences my mind would wander. I fell asleep over its pages at least once. Some footnotes got short shrift. But I take satisfaction in having read it because it was wise and amusing and odd and, yes, boring.
A thing I don't find boring: television. I watch the hell out of it, maybe too much. Reality programming, sports, reams of cooking, plenty of movies—I'm engrossed. I stayed up late the other night to catch up on episodes of The Walking Dead that I'd recorded, in advance of the new season. When the premiere came this past Sunday, I was ready. Drinking, too, I like—whiskey, wine, and beer. I'm not much for clear spirits, but a cold and crisp gin martini scratches an itch once in awhile.
In college, I read the Confessional poets. I found many of them a revelation: Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds, and Alan Ginsberg in particular. I majored in creative writing, to my parents' chagrin, and took several poetry workshops, which I loved. A few poems that I produced could, with some latitude, be called confessional. I'm not sharing them, in this forum or any, but I will confess that they were bad. A single example: In a sonnet to an early girlfriend, I described our first sexual encounter, when I was still a virgin. In one line, I compared my state of coital innocence not to a summer's day, a rose of Sharon, or a lily of the valleys, but an "unshucked clam." I never published any poems and no longer write them.
I haven't read Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation, but I did read her recent essay in New York,"Elizabeth Wurtzel Confronts Her One-Night Stand of a Life," which wasn't at all likeable, not particularly honest, and definitely self-serving, frequently lazy, and often silly—but I read to the end, with captivated disdain and envy.
In 1969, John Berryman, a noted poet of the Confessional school, if one can be referred to that way, published "Dream Song 14," which contained the following lines:
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so./After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,/we ourselves flash and yearn,/and moreover my mother told me as a boy/ (repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored means you have no/Inner Resources."
The first sentence of Jacques' Manifesto, which comes under the heading "The duties of the confessional journalist are to entertain and inform," states that in the "age of the Internet," one must "aim to encourage comments, generating enlightening discourse around your work... Failing this, aim to get hits." I've read the Manifesto several times—boring, too, but engaging, in a done-for-science way—and I can't say for sure if it is advancing an argument or perpetrating a satire. Berryman, for his part, when asked, in a 1972 interview in The Paris Review,how he reacted to being labeled a confessional poet, replied: "With rage and contempt! Next question."
The other morning, when I dropped my daughter Sasha off at pre-K, I witnessed something amazing. After Sasha had hung up her coat in her cubby, a troop of her classmates marched in, yelled "Sasha!," and surrounded her for a huge group hug. Sasha smiled and accepted their love, almost as if she was used to it, while I stood there, stunned. Then I went to work.
My other daughter, 5-month-old Sandy, is not quite there yet. In fact, she's not quite anywhere at all. She kicks, she cries, she will smile at you if you smile at her, but mostly she just sits there and looks cute. She's wonderful, and I love her. As a source of entertainment, she needs work. But OMG—cute!!!!
Neither of these observations is particularly new or unique. Millions of children have had the same experiences; billions of parents have made the same observations. Were I to leave it at that, you'd be entirely justified in deriding the "rearing of children" as a subject best ignored.
Unfortunately, too much of the writing about parenting—mom blogs, dad blogs, grandparental blogs—does kind of leave it at that. There are too many tales of "Here's this cute thing my kid did," and too many stories full of fake or willed wonder, all creating a bland miasma of cheap entitlement, as if the mere fact of procreation meant parents suddenly had the right to force their clichés on a public busy with more important matters. Also, most of the stories just sucked.
They were boring, as all subjects are boring when poorly discussed. We each have our own beloved topics (I will read anything about running or Taiwanese food, no matter how amateurish), and our annoyances (as great a writer as Roger Angell is, I won't read a word he, or anyone, writes on baseball). But to elevate those personal peccadilloes to the level of manifesto bullet points is to embrace the same kind of blinkered presumption displayed by the very parent-writers being condemned. (And I'm not sure framing the manifesto as coming from a "queer, white, self-flagellating middle-class Marxist perspective"—as the author of the New Inquiry post put it—works either as justification or explanation.)
The point is, everything is boring until a writer makes it not-boring. This was part of the idea behind DadWagon.com, the website that Nathan, Theodore, our friend Christopher Bonanos, and I created a few years ago. Rather than simply rehash what we, then still new fathers, already knew would be stereotypical tales, we sought to put them in context, to connect them to the larger issues faced by anyone—or any straight, white, self-flagellating middle-class gentrifier—in a major American metropolis: money (the getting and spending of it), work (and its pointlessness), the endless opportunities for distraction and entertainment, and, of course, baby yoga.
I won't claim that we were (or are) ever entirely successful. Unpacking the entire web of forces that determine how we parent, eat, travel, labor, and live in 600-word blog posts is a fool's mission. But usually, if it was Nathan apologizing for his son's fecal blowout at a restaurant or Theodore trying to make sense of his divorce, it was not boring. At the very least, reading and writing those posts let us ignore our own boring, clichéd kids in order to spend a few more minutes staring at glowing computer screens. Which is all anyone really cares about anymore, right?
I am perfectly content with the New Inquiry's assertion that writing about children is boring. Children, in turn, would certainly think that the New Inquiry's digital salon of ideas and commentary is equally dull. My own kids, who are lovestruck enough to think me very tall and somewhat handsome, think that my day job, which involves a lot of drinking coffee and hunching over keyboards, is one of the worst, most tedious things they've ever seen. I think it was almost in anticipation of this that I started, years ago, doing more video when on assignments overseas; I just wanted to grab my kids' attention once in a while with my work.
Where I think the New Inquiry and DadWagon might agree is that writing about one's children, unless one is a developmental neuropsychologist or some other adept scientist who can explain the fascinating wrinkles in children's mental lives, is folly. I'm not sure that I agree with my colleague Matt that we at DadWagon have always made our own child-rearing stories interesting. I never really saw writing about my kids as an undertaking meant wholly for readers. It was always more of an exorcism of my own doubts, fears, and rages. If you are even halfway paying attention, your children will colonize your brain, fill it with untold quantities of fear and love and anxiety and regret, and for writers, there's only one way to deal with that. You write it.
So there we are, together with the childless idea-mavens at the New Inquiry: writing reflexively, because that's what we do. All of us now have, thanks to the infinite papyrus of the Internet, somewhere to put our musings. The founders of the New Inquiry (whom I support in every way, not least because I am also a founder of another fledgling online journal) are younger than I and therefore their hearts swell with the love of their own thoughts and treatises and of their friends' and colleagues' thoughts and treatises. My heart belongs, instead, to two completely banal and beautiful little creatures, and though the urge to write about them dims as they grow older, I still feel compelled, from time to time, to make another pot of coffee, hunch over the keyboard, and write about my children. The choice to read it or not, dear Inquirists, is yours.
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