Writing fiction does not come easily to me and, as it turns out, neither does raising teenagers. Both demand things of me—subtle skills and a kind of spiritual martial artistry—that writing nonfiction and parenting younger children did not require.
The urge to write has always been a restless animal that paces back and forth day and night, a beast I have tried to feed until it bursts, stuffing it full of enough food and booze and sex and drugs and coffee and cigarettes and children (what nobler excuse to neglect one’s creative work than by attending to one’s other creative work?) so that it will finally lie down, curl up and, for the love of God, go to sleep. I imagine this is how the saints must feel, hounded as they seem to be. I am no saint, but I know what it means to be pursued by a relentless, mysterious force, a drive, a desire unstoppable, irrepressible, unquenchable as the force that sends green shoots up through hairline fractures in concrete, juicy and vibrating with life. The urge to have children felt similar to the urge to write, though less hysterical, more presentable—like your sensible, more successful cousin—and producing offspring turned out to be easier than producing a manuscript.
Before I had a real career, I had an imaginary one, and it was spectacular. In my twenties, I flirted hard with fiction. Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, and Joyce Carol Oates were the celebrated masters of the genre, and national magazines ran fiction every month. With great expectations, I mailed off an overwrought story to Redbook, and when it was returned with a note explaining what the editor liked and didn’t like, as well as encouragement to keep trying, I was crushed. Devastated as only the raw and immature can be, I cringed inwardly for months at what I perceived as humiliation for my hubris. The following year, at the urging of people who believed in me, I attended a weeklong writing intensive where Madeleine L’Engle was my reader. When we met to discuss the piece I had submitted for critique, she declared it beautifully written and asked if it was part of a novel. She suggested I begin sending work to The New Yorker, thrilling and terrifying advice that I tucked away and ignored. I wasn’t nearly tough enough for the inevitable rejections. Giving the dream one last shot, I enrolled in a class at The New School in New York City’s Greenwich Village—where else would one go to become a famous writer?—where the heartiest praise I received was for having “an excellent ear for realistic dialogue.” Better than nothing, but not good enough. I finally decided (rather stoically, I thought at the time) that I didn’t have what it takes to write fiction and turned my attention to pursuing more accessible goals.
By happy accident I wound up in newspapers as a writer and editor with the occasional freelance gig on the side. I found the work fun, interesting, and just challenging enough. Parenting young children turned out to have the same sense of meaningful ease; I found their needs straightforward, uncomplicated, if occasionally exasperating and exhausting. Raising children up to the threshold of adolescence was fun, interesting, and just challenging enough. The two paths suited me just fine.
I should mention, perhaps, that before I had real children I had imaginary ones, and they were spectacular. They excelled in all the shiny ways the world applauds: academically, socially, professionally, maybe even athletically—in this fantasy anything was possible—while I, their mère extraordinaire, basked in the glow of their reflected glory. My ambition, not unlike my dream of becoming a novelist, was as narcissistic as it was naïve—a pitiful madness. I planned to provide my offspring (those lucky kids) with an environment in which success was not only possible, but inevitable. My only defense is that I came by my crazy, as they say, honestly.
By the time I was old enough to think in such terms, one of my sacred missions was to raise whatever children came my way in an atmosphere of sanity and stability, two vital nutrients in short supply when I was growing up. I was convinced, and not entirely off the mark, that the obstacles I faced as a fledgling adult were the bitter fruit of the scalding shame of poverty, a pernicious sense of isolation and taint, and my father’s terrifying illnesses—schizophrenia and alcoholism. No child of mine would be so hobbled. In addition to years of therapy, one of the earnest ways I prepped for parent-sainthood was by reading everything I could find about child development, about enriching the soil, so to speak, for a bountiful harvest. My future children would be exquisitely well-adjusted, endowed with uncommon strength and grace, equipped to flourish in all the ways I had fallen short.
It began well enough as these things go. My sons were conceived without effort and born without incident: unmerited blessings. My first marriage ended, but it could have been much worse. My ex and I remained friends, lived minutes from each other, and shared a flexible custody. I remarried, had two more boys, and my three sons grew to love each other deeply. My job was stimulating and rewarding, my boys healthy, rambunctious, and intelligent. I won an award for a piece I wrote about my oldest son, sold an essay to Cosmo, began writing a weekly column. Life was often a three-ring circus, but I couldn’t have imagined a sweeter one.
And then all hell broke loose.
When son number one entered the teen years, I learned the hard way that I was breathtakingly unprepared for the storms I had failed to see brewing. I thought the foundation had been laid, the heavy lifting, as it were, behind us. My son would be fine—a little rebellion, a little trouble—maybe more than I had anticipated, but nothing major or life-altering. And he was fine, until he wasn’t, until he was a full-blown heroin addict, and part of what blinded me to the truth was that when I looked at my son, I saw an imaginary child.
When denial is no longer an option, you learn as much as you can as quickly as you can, and one of the first things I learned was that I had to look an unimaginable reality squarely in the eye—see my son and his life-threatening addiction with unflinching clarity. The second thing I learned was that this hell was out of my hands. If there was to be any hope, for him or for us, I had to confront two primal fears: bearing witness to a loved one’s devastatingly destructive disease, and bearing with a situation whose ultimate outcome was beyond my control. To say this woke only half-slumbering dragons in my psyche would be an understatement.
After excruciating episodes of short-term recovery and long-term relapse, my son has accumulated more than two years clean and sober. He has done battle with powerful forces to build the beginnings of a healthy, productive life; I have grieved the loss of an imaginary child. Today he works in construction, is covered in ink, lives with his girlfriend, and is helping to raise her two young children. He recently became a 12-step sponsor and shares his story in hospitals and prisons. This is not a life I envisioned for my son back when I took his being alive for granted, back when I thought I knew what uncommon strength and grace looked like.
At 14, in the midst of his older brother’s struggles, my middle son plunged into a downward spiral that was more than teenage angst. Thanks to strong medicine and good therapy, he gradually emerged from a very dark place, but his journey back into the light took uncommon strength and grace. At 17 he works part-time, excels in college classes, and continues to develop as a gifted guitarist. He talks about pursuing a career in neuropsychology and we joke about how unsurprising that is, but we both know he is drawn, perhaps even called, to the radically uncertain, potentially dream-crushing path of a career in music.
My youngest, my I-should-know-better-by-now son, a budding writer and visual artist, lover of Bob Marley and Catcher in the Rye, is just beginning to forge his own identity. Unlike his brothers, he is an introvert, a seeker of solitude in a clamoring world. I worry about his reluctance to socialize, to engage with his peers, and I have pushed him to participate—organized sports, after school clubs, churchy youth groups—in ways that run counter to the natural contours of his soul. His response of late has become one of gentle but firm refusal, as if to say it is time to trust that he—that each of my sons—will be who he will be, and not only is that enough, it will be more than I could have imagined.
My real-life children bear little resemblance to the imaginary ones, except for their uncommon strength and grace, and in those virtues, it is safe to say, they are instructing me.
Through every tumultuous season, every crisis and catastrophe, I have written, for profit or in private. Some days, it was all that held me together. In 2010, not long before my son’s addiction was revealed in all its monstrous detail, I left what was left of newspapers in the northeast and relocated to the south for my husband’s new job. For several years I freelanced steadily for a university communications department until budget cuts hit, and I have recently found work that has nothing to do with writing but, ironically, everything to do with teenagers, at the college where my husband teaches. The part-time hours along with the relative peace of our days allow me, for the first time in a long time, to revisit the idea of storytelling. Subsequently, I have noticed that parenting teens in their nerve-racking recklessness and complexity parallels some of the difficulties I face turning from nonfiction to fiction.
I can’t control a short story the way I controlled a feature. Unexpected characters and inconvenient scenes pop into my head with no regard for how I had planned for events to unfold, in the same way I can’t control a teenager as I did his younger self. In both cases, the unanticipated interferes with my well-laid plans. What had been going so well can run right off the rails in the blink of an eye leaving me lost, stranded, and perplexed. Sometimes I am undone by the strangeness of writing about things that didn’t happen to people who don’t exist; sometimes I am undone by the strangeness of teenagers. Writing fiction and raising teenagers can frighten and frustrate me like nothing else in my life until I swear my hair is on fire. One difference I have noted, however, is that, as a writer, I am never tempted to murder my darlings.
It has taken me a disgracefully long time to absorb an obvious lesson: The common denominator in parenting wisely and writing well is the ability to listen—wholeheartedly, single-mindedly, emptied of need or agenda, utterly open and receptive, turned in full to the person at hand, to the waiting page, warmly and fully present. This is necessary for children of any age and writing of any substance, but it becomes exponentially more important—and difficult for me—with teenagers and fiction. I believe that to attend is our highest calling—the truest thing I know—yet it can take a shocking effort of will. I am surprised at the struggle. After more than two decades as a parent and a working writer, I had expected to be much more disciplined by now.
Something within still resists the surrenders that can feel like deaths—in parenting, in creative work—even though I know they are not only inevitable but fruitful. If I insist on imposing my will because I am impatient or arrogant or afraid, I will end up doing damage. I have ruined many a story that way. But damage to writing is one thing—a wrecked piece of writing can be tossed or redone, a small or large disappointment depending upon how seriously one takes oneself. A wrecked relationship, on the other hand, can take light-years to mend, and I have made more mistakes than my disheveled heart can number. Sometimes days have passed before one or another of my sons and I could talk together without the sense of something smashed to smithereens between us, something tender and mending. We have dealt with the grittier issues, some of the more outrageous slings and arrows of fortune, but too often I have looked back in shame and sorrow at how clumsy and inhospitable I have been, how headstrong and selfish, buffeted by passions and tossed away, as my Zen colleagues would say, by the wind and the waves. Late have I sought to be still and know that I am not God.
As the mother of teenagers—such dazzling, bewildering creatures—I strive to pay careful, quiet attention so that I may more gracefully shepherd them, develop an increasingly nimble sense of when to step in and when to step aside, whether to reach out or retreat. It can feel so touch-and-go. As a writer, I want to approach my work in the same spirit of humility, patience, and generosity. How else to give an old dream a new chance? I suspect the only way is to practice as a writer what I keep learning as a parent. Abandon certainty. Welcome the stranger. Trust wild things to lead where the blessings flow.