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Friday, January 18, 2008

Quite a number of writers I know don't have kids, and don't seem to be planning to have any. I'm sure everyone has different reasons. You typically want to have a permanent relationship before you have kids, and for guys it's kind of crucial to have a woman involved. The writing life is unstable, with financial peaks and valleys, and the financial stakes come with very long days and often long trips. I went to Cape Town for 4 months when my daughter was six months old, and my agent is often asking me if I'd like to be considered for shows in places like Calgary or Jo'burg. And, I imagine, many people become writers out of their own personal craziness, which they may perhaps prefer to inflict on an audience who can turn them off, than a child who may forever curse their name.

[And as the amusingly self-dubbed Stercus Accidit points out below, some writers just don't feel like reproducing.]

But. Kids are a big part of life, eh? I've done some of the best writing in my life since my daughter was born and I became Hunter's stepdad. I keep putting bits of them into my screenplays. As an only child, I don't have a wealth of sibling rivalry to draw on, or nieces and nephews. And even if I had, I'm not sure it's the same thing as watching your own kids grow up.

Learning to be a writer is not just a process of learning your craft. It is also observing life. And to really observe life, you have to be part of it. You cannot perfect your craft in a vacuum. You not only need to get your words up on the screen; you need to have life experiences to draw from. Write another spec, or go on a safari? I say go on the safari. Read another screenwriting book or make a new friend? I say make the new friend. Your life and your craft need to be in balance, or your craft has nothing to draw from but old episodes of UGLY BETTY. And that's not pretty.

You might think your young family's needs will prevent you from having a writing career. I don't think it will. You may have to become a more focused writer. You might have to give up your AIM account, and Facebook less, at least until you're getting paid to do it. You might need to get up at 4 in the morning to write before everyone wakes up.

But I know many writers who broke in after they began a family. Having kids gives you a sense of perspective about the ups and downs of a writing career. Once you have someone else who needs you forever, it's harder to feel crushed by some development exec's diss. Once you absolutely need to put food on the table, and can no longer go live with your mother, you may find that you start making more serious decisions about whether to spec that unproducable historical fantasy comedy versus the "very set-up-able" low-budget rom-com.

And having a family can come across as a credit. My pay cable network has greenlit development on three more scripts for the series I'm creating for them. I'm putting together a small writing room to break story for episodes 4-10. My show's about a mom. My four criteria are staffing experience, brilliantly original writing, love for genre -- and kids. Not a deal-breaker, but it sure is a plus.

I think that moreover many people bond over their kids. I've often felt that network execs warmed to me after we discussed our kids.

Obviously no one has kids for the sake of their writing career; and if you don't want kids, God bless you, too. More room for the rest of us. I'm just saying that if you want to start a family, I don't think you should feel that a writing career is a reason not to have one. Your career may benefit, and your understanding of human life certainly will.

Labels: , ,

13 Comments:

Wow. This post floored me.

Did you ever stop to think that not having kids is just that: no desire to reproduce? That being "child free" is not due to a lack of stability or ideal circumstances?

Not having kids doesn't mean not being around kids. Or people from other countries. Or folks from other states. Or other cultures. Or women. Or men.

This type of breeders' condescension is less than I expected from this blog.

By Blogger Stercus Accidit, at 11:52 AM  

Yeah, I dunno Alex. This kind of post makes me pretty uncomfortable too. And the other side of that is the great ongoing argument between us: many writers with kids also start to adopt the "I don't want to see that" mindset - when it comes to kids, or families in jeopardy and pain. You've said that yourself. Which is fine, but that closes off an area of drama -- and it naturally steers you away from upping the stakes in a certain way.

It's also a very short trip from this argument to one that I just can't cotton to: that men can't write women, that whites can't write stories about the black experience, that straight writers can't write gay.

I remember very clearly reading "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" and knowing nothing of Michael Chabon. I naturally assumed he was gay, and older.

Then I find out he's a contemporary of mine, and he's got oodles of kids and is married to another swish female writer.

He managed to capture an identity so completely merely through research, sensitivity, and talent.

The writers who write kids the way you describe may be laboring under notes or dictates that demand that glib and wisecracky approach; you don't know.

Every (childless) writer I know with chops does the same thing when they need to write kids: they draw upon brothers, or nieces or nephews, or they visit their friends with kids.

It's the writing that matters. If you look to put together a crew that has kids because you think you'll relate to them more, that's one thing. But while your larger point (getting out there and experiencing life makes you a better writer) is golden, your example is a little hinky.

At best, it's a neutral skill. And at the end of the day, if you find yourself with childless writers who don't write kids the way you want, well, that's where you spread the wisdom, no? Sharing experience in the room is what makes all of us better.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to my hilarious baby vivisection comedy.

Oooh.

Too far?

By Blogger DMc, at 12:27 PM  

Oh no. Another club I have to get into. The kids club. I knew the stars were into it. But now the writers, the intelligent, the ones who still believe in meritocracy to some degree? You might hire a writer with kids. Dang. You're less self aware than you give yourself credit for, letting that into your post.

By Blogger Cat, at 1:11 PM  

The kids club. I knew the stars were playing that game, but now the writers, too? Intelligent people who might still hold up some hope for a meritocracy? "I might be more inclined to hire someone with kids than without. And I know that some people have warmed to me when we started talking about kids." Dang. You're less self-aware than you think, letting that into your post.

By Blogger Cat, at 1:13 PM  

It's not a club you have to get into, Cat. As DMc points out, you can learn a lot from observing other people's kids.

But I think all three of you are being a leetle bit defensive. I'm trying to pass on my own experience here, because, prior to having kids, I was worried that it would screw up my career for all the reasons I've mentioned. And it hasn't. And there have been benefits that I did not know about at the time.

DMc, would you argue that personal, direct experience is unnecessary to a writer? When I write about a marriage, I think it's useful that I've been in two long term relationships. When I write about a divorce, I think it's relevant that I've had one. And I think there's a difference between observing something and living it. Can someone who's had nothing but a series of one-night stands write a divorce? Sure, why not. But would it make you uncomfortable to suggest that the writer who's been through one has an edge?

(And if you're looking for someone to write a Don Juan, I may not have the edge, either. And if you're looking for a baby vivisection comedy, I'm out.)

Most actors can only play facets of themselves. They can't play just anybody. Writers tend to have more range because their instrument is their imagination only, and not their imagination plus their body. But not every writer can write every show. Or every character.

I think there are writers out there who are where I was, wondering if you can have a writing career and a family. What I'm trying to do is encourage them to think they can have both. Is that so wrong?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 1:31 PM  

Ya, I have to say I didn't sense condescension from the post, but as a father of two, maybe I just understood where you are coming from a bit more. Which is probably EXACTLY your point, I'm guessing. Having kids isn't for everyone, and as I was telling a childless friend of mine (I still have quite a few of those), both sides sometimes may look to the other side with some envy, but, in the end, you are usually happy (or at least should be) with the choices you made. I LOVE being a father, but it often rules your life. So much revolves around your kids that it's sometimes difficult for childless people to fully understand that.

As for your criteria, if you were doing a show that takes place in a factory involving blue collar people, I'm guessing you would want as many writers from blue collar backgrounds as possible.

People with kids generally would write kids better. People with military background would generally write military people better. People write what they know. It's as simple as that. If Alex was doing a show about Naturalized Americans, I wouldn't be insulted if he were to say that one of his criteria was that the writers be from the US. Hey, if I'm putting together a writing room, I'm more likely to bond with someone who likes basketball than hockey (yes, even tough I'm Canadian), but that's me. You want to start a conversation with me, three things you could easily do it about are kids, basketball and movies.

By Blogger Tim W., at 2:34 PM  

"But I think all three of you are being a leetle bit defensive."

I agree on my part. This topic struck a nerve because I'm constantly defending my lifestyle choice against yours, and it's exhausting.

Also, I don't think anyone would say that direct experience re: writing is unnecessary. We use what advantage we have.

Tim W. says, “People with kids would generally write kids better.” For the most part...perhaps. Would that statement still stand if you knew I was a “child-free” teacher with 23 years' experience? How about a child-free aunt with 1 nephew? Would you include me in your current writing womb-I mean, room?

I think the art of writing is what rings true, not necessarily how you got there. Reminds me of the saying: "Experience is the best teacher, but fools know no other."

No harshes, though. I’m just shooting off my mouth for those of us who wanna write what we know…and beyond.

By Blogger Stercus Accidit, at 4:36 PM  

"“People with kids would generally write kids better.” For the most part...perhaps. Would that statement still stand if you knew I was a “child-free” teacher with 23 years' experience? How about a child-free aunt with 1 nephew? Would you include me in your current writing womb-I mean, room?"

Hence why I included the word `generally'. Just because you have kids doesn't mean you spend much time with them. And just because you don't have kids doesn't mean you don't spend much time with them.

As for your lifestyle choice, I would never try to push someone into having kids. It's not as if the world needs populating. Having a child doesn't make you a real man or real woman. A 13 year old can do that. Considering what I see from many people who DO have kids, I'd much rather see fewer people having kids. Some people seem to choose having kids because it completes a picture, but in the end, the kids become an inconvenience. You're either all in, or don't get in at all. The world doesn't need any more kids raised by parents who wish they weren't.

Quite frankly, anyone who you have to defend not having children to either are your parents, or don't seem to fully understand what being a parent is about.

By Blogger Tim W., at 5:11 PM  

I GOT IT Alex. You're speaking for those of us who HAVE kids, and who question if we're still able to produce what we want to.

I spent my teens and 20s partying around the world (running away from having to write). I met my wife back here in Montreal, and three months later she was pregnant.

We're both wise enough (we think) to know that this was how it was meant to be.

Fast forward through 2 shitty apartments on the Plateau, to a real home in NDG and our 6 month old having a seizure on moving day.

It's two years later, and I've produced more quality writing than complaints about how 'hard' it is to be part of our family. I've taken the anger at the Hospitals and burned it at (like you say) 4 a.m. I've turned my frustrations towards my wife into female characters with power and intelligence. And instead of worrying about how everything can so easily seem to fall apart, I meditate on what stories I want to tell-- comedies.

So, I believe I hit 3 out of your 4 criteria -- not having staffed B4.

I met you at your Hurley's invite. Heidi introduced us. I'm also mentored by Leo St.Pierre, and submitted to the QWF -- the piece about the Television Morning News Program.

If you're still reading samples, please let me know -- I got the title page thing nailed ages ago.

By Blogger The UPbeat Down, at 5:54 PM  

Without wading into the "do you need to have lived it to write about it" argument, I will say that from a purely personal view, this is a reassuring post.

My wife is expecting our first in a few months and it's nice to read about how having a family to support can be a positive thing to a writer's career. All too often, the stories that float around are of doom and gloom - the long hours and travel hurt the family.

As someone trying to gain a foothold in this business, while worrying about supporting a new family, what I take away from this post is..... it can be done.

By Blogger Callaghan, at 11:40 PM  

I do appreciate the encouragement that a writer can "have it all." I gave up all boyfriends during my doctorate, and I think that was a good thing. But a person can take renunciation too far. So many people think that if they're not suffering (esp. in the pre-approved ways) they're not artists. And that's hogwash. And your post is saying that. The "hiring" and "experience" parts hadn't stuck in my caw. But yes, good job. An unusual and much needed kind of message. I wish I'd said that the first time, but I was posting from work. P.S. If you like delete one of those double entries.

By Blogger Cat, at 12:19 AM  

callaghan, you dog! Mazel Tov!

By Blogger DMc, at 12:05 PM  

Another Dad chiming in.

I write with a partner who's childless and much more productive than I am, which bothers me, but I also see some of the upside of being a Dad. Stuff like love and encouragement and goofy drawings for the fridge.

So, sometimes when I'm building robots with my daughter on a bitterly cold wintry day I sorta wish I could be writing my latest screenplay, but then I think to myself, "I'm building robots with my daughter," and it doesn't seem quite so important.

By Blogger Jason, at 1:34 PM  

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