Should writers have families?

This is my family. They need me to do stuff.

I only just got around to writing about this infuriating essay by Roger Rosenblatt in The New York Times Sunday Book Review from May 11. I only just got to it because I was busy ushering my kids out of the school year and into summer camp—with all the report cards and teacher evaluations and forms, the camp bags and the sunblock and the forms—while slamming toward my own deadlines. It begins,

So there I stood at the front of my granddaughter Jessica’s fourth-grade classroom, still as a glazed dog, while Jessie introduced me to her classmates, to whom I was about to speak. “This is my grandfather, Boppo,” she said, invoking my grandpaternal nickname. “He lives in the basement and does nothing.”

Aw, I thought, as I folded the laundry. Boppo. So sweet. But what could that mean, he “does nothing”?

…as far as anyone in the family can see, I do nothing, or next to it. This is the lot of the writer.


Writers and families don’t mix, Rosenblatt says. Writers “do not live in the real world, or wish to,” and therefore “it is fruitless and dishonest to protest that we do.” Families should treat writers like exotic animals or anarchists—with care and a bit of caution.

Yeah, I thought. My family treats me just like an African gray parrot. Who makes dinner and wipes butts.

But apparently I’m wrong, because writers as a species are totally useless at any of the millions of tasks that make a family function. As proof, he cites an anecdote about E.L. Doctorow, who, asked by his wife to write a note to their daughter’s school, wound up so tangled up in crafting the perfectly worded letter that his wife gave up and wrote it herself.

If the sad truth be known, writers, being the misfits we are, probably ought not to belong to families in the first place. We simply are too self-interested, though we may excuse the flaw by calling it “focused.”

What I would give to be called self-interested. Or focused.

He concludes,

The writer may not be good for the family, but the family may do wonders for the writer simply by teaching him that “it takes all kinds,” including him.

So here’s the gist: while writers add nothing but dead weight to their families, families sure do enrich a writer’s work—if only as material.

Reading his bio, I recalled that Roger Rosenblatt wrote this book and this book about how, following the death of his daughter, he and his wife moved in with their son-in-law and grandchildren. And then I felt bad, because, come on, that’s a lovely and noble thing to do. Besides, Rosenblatt is the grandfather in the house, not the father. It’s enough that he’s there. Surely he’s entitled to “do nothing.” He’s earned it.

But he doesn’t speak for me. Nor any writer I know.

I suppose his kind of writer exists among my generation. There’s probably a 40-year-old genius in Brooklyn who hunches over his laptop while ignoring his wife’s plea for a hand with a poopy diaper. But I doubt it. Because very soon he’d be divorced, or dead.

Notice I speculate only about a dude. That’s because no way any writer mom would ever be accused of self-interest. Or focus.

Rosenblatt cites Alexander Pope and John Cheever and George Seurat as artists who viewed family as an impediment. Of course, many male writers marry. I’ve read that John Updike wrote three pages a day, every day, even when his kids were little. Which leads me to suspect he wasn’t changing those poopy diapers.

And yet, moms write. And sometimes, we write well. Jennifer Egan’s said that she wrote her Pulitzer-winning book during the hours of 9 and 2, in between the school run. If she’s like me, during that time she’s also shoving in the laundry and marinating the ribs and buying the gifts for the weekend birthday parties.

I’m not really mad at Roger Rosenblatt. He’s a distinguished journalist whose work I’ve long admired. I’m just pointing out that some writers, many writers, don’t get to check out from family life. Without us, our families would fall apart. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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  1. Writer’s probably shouldn’t. But I do. Because my wife didn’t know she was marrying a writer. She thought she was marrying a future college professor. Good thing her father grew up in the Depression; she was well-trained in the art of living on nothing. And the art of growing her own veggies. I have changed plenty of diapers in my day, though.

    I look forward to reading more about that spectacular ball of vomit-fire crashing and burning in that swirling slop-bucket of frustration. Maybe it will scare me straight. I doubt it, though. I’ve already forsaken reason entirely. Good thing too — it’s made me a better writer.

    • I should say male writers. Because you’re right … female writers don’t have the luxury. I don’t think they would even want to be so abstracted or myopic, like you’ve said. Maybe they couldn’t be. And that’s a good thing. And you know what? They don’t even need to be. It’s men who have to have their heads in the sand/clouds/nether-regions to be able to make out the voice of the muse over the sounds of their stomachs, spleens or gonads.