You Can’t Make This Shit Up

A few years back, when I was still unmarried, more or less out of the blue my friend Gavin said to me, “You really ought to get Johanna pregnant.” This was weird. Not that weird, given that Johanna was my girlfriend at the time (and is now my wife), but still pretty weird, given that a pregnant Johanna would mean less time for Gavin and me to drink beer. As I pondered this odd reproductive viewpoint, Gavin went on to explain, “I think it’ll make you a better writer.”

Now this was truly bizarre. I am very prone to distraction, and kids, as I suspected then and know now, can be delightfully distracting. There was, however, a method to Gavin’s madness. He went on to argue that there are some experiences in life – love (both eros and agape, to use the Greek terms), true friendship, the sorrow that comes with the death of a close friend or family member, travel to foreign places – that form the primary colors of a writer’s emotional palette. Having helped to raise two delightful boys himself, he was arguing that this experience, the care, feeding, mentoring, and unconditional love for a youngster, was one of those crucial primary colors. “Imagine trying to write sex scenes,” he pointed out, appealing to my baser instincts, “if you’d never had sex.”

I found this suggestion at once persuasive and totally bizarre. After all, I write fantasy. I like to think I lead an interesting life, but I’ve never been chased by the undead, or flown on the back of a giant bird, or channeled the mind of a god, or seen through the eyes of ravens. I haven’t commanded armies in the field or disrupted a spice-trading monopoly. Shit, the only creature I’ve killed is a mouse, and I don’t even like emptying the mouse traps. I’m pretty sure that none of this matters. After all, the whole idea with fantasy is to make shit up.

But still, I had a nagging suspicion that Gavin was on to something. To return to the metaphor of the emotional palette, I think one could make the case that there are two types of emotional experience: primary and secondary. The secondary comes from a mixing of the primary. So, although I don’t know what it’s like to fly on a giant bird, I know what it’s like to fly from my experience in planes and I know what it’s like to be right on the edge of excitement and fear, from my experience rock climbing, and it’s not too much of a stretch to mix those two together to get something that approximates flying a massive bird. As long as the writer is equipped with all the primary colors, he can mix ‘em up to his heart’s content. Want to write a sex scene with a fire goddess? Great – provided you’ve burned yourself, had sex, and met some formidable women.

I suspect that what Gavin was saying was that the emotions involved in raising children are primary. They are not a mix, reconfiguration, or derivation of something else. You can’t get them from combining two other emotions (pet ownership with sibling love, for example).

So now that I’ve got an urchin living rent-free in my own house, do I think he was right? I guess so. I can’t think of anything I’d compare it to. There’s nothing quite like the stupid grin that sneaks onto my face when I’m watching my son stare in perplexity at his own toes, or annihilate a raviolo (singular of ravioli?), or chant his strange little chant while playing with his wooden spoon.

That said, I’m not sure the experience has improved my writing any. I think that even before my son was born I’d seen enough movies, read enough books, known enough parents, and generally absorbed enough of the childrearing gestalt to write decent parent-child interactions. To my surprise, however, I think the experience of being a father has made me a different and better reader.

One of my teaching colleagues put down A Song of Ice and Fire after the chapter in which two small children (who will remain nameless for the uninitiated) were killed. She said that she used to be able to read stuff like that before she had kids, but now she didn’t really want to experience the mother’s grief on the page. It was too close to something that she could imagine. I haven’t stopped reading (or writing) grisly scenes involving children, but I get what she means. I feel like I understand the emotional heft of these scenes in a way that I never did before, and as a result, the books including them are even richer to me.

Of course, the whole matter has got me wondering which emotions and experiences are, to stick with the metaphor, primary, and which are mixtures or compounds. How much do we need to experience in our own lives in order to be capable writers or readers?

2 thoughts on “You Can’t Make This Shit Up

  1. Worth considering that Gavin is right, and that more time needs to pass before this is obvious. I’m deeply suspicious of people that claim transformative emotional bonding with their children at the moment of birth. Either they are deluded or their maximum emotional depth is that of a shallow grave. Babies are sweet – but philosophizing small humans is a different phase altogether.

    • And arriving out of the internet ether after an occultation of… what… ten years, at least — Cailin Anne. Or maybe I was the one in occultation. Either way, I admit to being one of those people who felt surprised by the depth of the emotional bond with my kid within days of birth, but you’re right, that bond is only getting stronger and more complex with time.

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