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Brian Gresko

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What Writing Teaches Us About Parenting

Posted: 03/22/11 09:59 AM ET

Perhaps it's my writerly instincts, but I'm always on the lookout for connections and metaphors. Someday I hope to uncover a grand theory that unifies all of my life's pursuits, but for now, I'm content finding a few parallels between being a writer and a stay-at-home dad.

Communicate With Precision

The cliché goes that a writer must "find his or her voice." Sound advice, but what does this mean, practically? I've come to understand it as a close attention to mechanics and musicality. Every detail, from word choice to punctuation, plays a part in how a story or essay unfolds. No matter how engaging the content, the reader tunes out if the narrator doesn't command attention.

The same holds true when communicating with children. During my five years as a middle school teacher, I developed the habit of using direct imperatives rather than draping my commands in the pretense of questions -- a social convention of my upbringing. As a parent, I'm retraining myself to clearly wield authority in the same manner.

Even at 22 month,s my son notices. When asked, "Can you please clean up that mess?" he'll respond, "No, no, no." But if I tell him, "Clean up those blocks, please," he'll usually snap to and get straightening. (Of course, a toddler to a T, he sometimes runs away in defiance, no matter what my phrasing!)

Discipline is the most obvious or extreme example, but in many cases -- explaining how something works, defining a word, etc. -- the more precise your use of language, the better you're able to get across ideas on the page or to your child.

Go Where The Heat Is

When I'm struggling to make an essay come together, it's almost always because I'm holding back or talking around ideas, feelings or events that cause me discomfort. Essays click when I go there, putting words to what makes me most tense.

I write a column called "Fathering From the Hip" for my neighborhood Patch site. In my most recent column about how my son -- whom I take care of full-time, except that he prefers his mother on the weekends to me -- I was impelled to draw my wife into what had originally been a father-son portrait. She hates when I write about her, but the piece didn't feel authentic without her in it. I needed to risk her ire for the piece to work.

Sometimes heading into the fire of the conflict, as scary as it seems, is the way to go when parenting, as well.

Recently, my wife and I took away our son's pacifier. He learned that if the binkie fell out of the crib, we would come and replace it, so he began throwing it out on purpose to keep us by his side. Sometimes I wouldn't even make it back to bed before hearing it hit the floor again. We felt powerless. He had spent every slumber for the first 20 months of his life happily sucking away on the bulbous piece of rubber. We couldn't just take it away, cold turkey.

But that's just what we did. His antics were already keeping us up at night, so we figured we had nothing to lose. And we didn't. Despite our worries, he fell asleep just fine without it the next night.

Revision Is A Wonderful Thing

In writing, there are no decisions that, once made, can not be undone in later drafts. Open roads sometimes turn into blind alleys, and vice versa, but it's impossible to know without exploration. It's called the writing process for a reason -- work rarely pops out perfect in one take.

The same goes for parenting. Children are resilient and flexible, eager to learn, mimic and please. Never feel like a policy or decision can not be changed or over-turned if it no longer works.

When our toddler, after almost a year of great sleeping, decided to become nocturnal and stay up all hours, we tried a multitude of techniques. But every strategy that brought relief eventually backfired. For example, co-sleeping gave us a couple of blissful nights before our bed became a war zone, with him literally in -- well, more like on -- our faces, battling to keep us up with him.

Instead of surrendering, we simply rebooted and tried something new. A few nights of tears and tantrums later, we managed to re-instill in him the value of a good night's sleep.

As Karen Russell said when I interviewed her for The Huffington Post, persistence is everything. Don't give up, or ever succumb to the feeling that either your work or child is out of your control. That might be the case for a bit, but not forever.

Sadly, the reverse of this rings true as well. Even the best phases come to an end, eventually.

Don't Go It Alone

While the author holds ultimate responsibility for what appears on the page, writing is a practice informed and guided by other influences -- reading, obviously, but also by the hand of an editor or critical reader. When I lose my way in a piece, I seek out other opinions, escaping the hall of mirrors to find an outside perspective.

As a parent, I often turn to other parents for advice -- first and foremost, my own. Sometimes they can only listen and commiserate, reminding me that what feels like forever now will one day be a blip in our family's history. In fact, we might just be wringing our hands over a problem we'll one day not even remember.

As a writer and a parent, and especially as a stay-at-home parent, it can be hard not to feel alone. In some ways, one is, as the particulars of your work and your child are unique and special. But every writer and parent feels this way at some point. Never hesitate to dip into the well for advice.

Take comfort in the fact that while no one can magically pull the perfect piece of prose out of you, or provide you a golden strategy for best raising your child, we're all engaged in the struggle.

And what a worthwhile pursuit it is.

 

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