May 11, 2018

"I'm going to give you some advice... Don't have children... That's it. Do not... You can write great books... Or you can have kids. It's up to you.... Poe. O'Connor. Welty. None of them had children. Chekhov. Beckett. Woolf."

So said an unnamed great writer to the novelist Michael Chabon, Chabon tells us in GQ.
“Put it this way, Michael,” the great man said, and then he sketched out the brutal logic: Writing was a practice. The more you wrote, the better a writer you became and the more books you produced. Excellence plus productivity, that was the formula for sustained success, and time was the coefficient of both. Children, the great man said, were notorious thieves of time. Then there was the question of subject matter, settings, experiences; books were hungry things, and if you stayed too long in any one place, they would consume everything and everyone around you. You needed to keep moving, always onward, a literary Masai driving your ravenous herd of novels. Travel, therefore, was a must, and I should take his word for it because he had made a careful study: Traveling with children was the world's biggest pain in the ass. Anyway, writers were restless folk. They could not thrive without being able to pick up and go, wherever and whenever it suited them. Writers needed to be irresponsible, ultimately, to everything but the writing, free of commitments to everything but the daily word count. Children, by contrast, needed stability, consistency, routine, and above all, commitment. In short, he was saying, children are the opposite of writing....
Chabon went on to have 4 children and 14 books.
Once they're written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings, and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back. Anyway, if, 100 years hence, those books lie moldering and forgotten, I'll never know. That's the problem, in the end, with putting all your chips on posterity: You never stick around long enough to enjoy it.
The linked essay is also in his new book "Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces," which comes out in 4 days.

74 comments:

MikeR said...

There are a whole lot of non-great writers out there. Not safe to bet your entire life on winning that lottery. And single-minded focus isn't always the way to get important things done.

MikeR said...

I would bet that my grandkids will never hear the name of Michael Chabon, nor of the unnamed "great writer".

chickelit said...

Odds are that the unnamed “great writer” here was — like the “elder black statesman” — obsessed with “getting pussy.”

robother said...

Joyce had a kid. Hemingway had kids. Even the Author of the Bible had an only begotten son.

Rob said...

Tolstoy, 13 children, of whom eight survived. Shakespeare, two children. Melville, three children.

n.n said...

Or you can have an adult conversation with your wife and reconcile your individual and mutual imperatives. You can have your career and Posterity, too. Perhaps not all at once, and priorities will need to be set that favor healthy children and reduced-risk pregnancies.

Unknown said...

have put off reading chabon but will buy one of his books now (through the althouse amazon portal of course) based solely on this.

rhhardin said...

It depends on whether you're writing for women.

tcrosse said...

Did Chabon feel unfree ?

rhhardin said...

Some math guy, in the preface to his book, said it was customary to thank wives, but in this case there was active hostility to the book when it became apparent there was no fame or money in it. But he would like to help her with her help with the index, such as it was.

Maybe I can remember which book and find it.

Caldwell Titcomb IV said...

List of prolific writers, click some names, most have kids. And 14 books is next to nothing.

MayBee said...

Hahahahhaha! Non-women have choices to make, too. Who knew?

buwaya said...

99 out of a hundred writers are well advised to have kids, as a better use of their time.

As for concentration on writing - dealing with kids is more of an excuse for lack of concentration and work ethic than a genuine problem. There is way too much to distract from hard work. I am on year 12 of a translation project, and I can't blame the kids.

SDaly said...

I'll be that having children wouldn't give an author any insight into human nature. Hanging out in bars though, that's really where it's at.

Jason said...

Laughs in J.S. Bach

I Have Misplaced My Pants said...

Maybe I can remember which book and find it.

We're all waiting with bated breath.

have put off reading chabon but will buy one of his books now (through the althouse amazon portal of course) based solely on this.

I didn't much care for his fiction, of which I have read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policeman's Union, but I much enjoyed his book of essays on family relationships, Manhood for Amateurs. Look forward to this new one.

Tolstoy, 13 children, of whom eight survived. Shakespeare, two children. Melville, three children.

None of whom were expected to drive their daughters to ballet, attend childbirth classes or coach Little League.

Caldwell Titcomb IV said...

"Ryoki Inoue is a Brazilian writer, acknowledged by the Guinness World Records as the world's most prolific writer. Since he began his career in 1986, he had 1075 books published, under his own name or 39 pseudonyms." Dunno if he has kids or not...

I Have Misplaced My Pants said...

Whenever I hear about Michael Chabon I remember that he and his wife Ayelet Waldman terminated a pregnancy halfway through as there was an abnormality of some kind. Maybe one of those chromosomal things that seem to torment Jewish people particularly. Very sad.

rcocean said...

Pretty much every great writer had kids. So I don't know what he's talking about.

rcocean said...

I've never heard of Chabon. Did he win a nobel prize?

Bay Area Guy said...

It's amazing how many supposedly smart intellectuals peddle such monumentally stupid ideas.

"Don't have kids" might be one of stupidest ideas yet.

Not a big fan of Michael Chabon, but at least he ignored this poor advice.

wwww said...


Michael Chabon and his wife are both published authors.

The idea that you can't have kids and write at the same time is dumb. Humans are made to have kids and do other stuff At The Same Time. We'd Starve otherwise.

Rick Turley said...

Charles Dickens had 10 children. He seemed fairly productive...both ways.

Unknown said...

Before we can assess the quality of this advice we will have to agree on the definition and list of great writers.

-sw

William said...

Very few people are inspired by their happy childhoods to write novels detailing the virtues of their parents. I suppose there must be an exception somewhere but I can't recall a single great writer who did so. In giving their child both their intellectual genes and an unhappy childhood to tell stories about, novelists are giving their children inestimable gifts. A great many writers are the children of unsuccessful writers and other failed intellectuals. Perhaps Chabon's child will turn out to be the great novelist he failed to be.

Nonapod said...

Yeah, that's obviously nonsense. There's loads of people who I consider "great writers" that had kids and were good parents, as well as ones that didn't.

Some people are just more effective at things like time management. Some people are just naturally better writers. Some people even need the distraction of children to get their minds going, to break blocks, or to reset their thinking.

Some people are just better people.

Otto said...

So ann tell us, is that what held you back from being a great lawyer?

Freeman Hunt said...

You don't have to do everything at the same time. Geeze. Plenty of great writers died young. How many people will have at least a similar amount of time, ten to twenty years, after their kids are out of the house? Lots.

traditionalguy said...

The acknowledged greatest English writer of all times had 10 children, and loved them all.( See, Dickens, Charles)

Sebastian said...

If you are a great writer, you can afford to send your kids to boarding school.

Which will supply them with plenty of material to become great writers as well.

Maya S said...

People who don't have kids always get the cost/benefit analysis of having kids wrong.

This is just the writer version of everyday cluelessness.



Gabriel said...

True excellence in ANYTHING, 99.999th percentile excellence, is going to come at the cost of other things. Time spent cultivating talent is not time spent on family or friends. Doesn't matter if you're a writer, or Warren Buffet, or Michael Jordan, or Isaac Newton, it doesn't matter what kind of excellence it is.

If you have any interests other than being really really really good at something you are either a) not going to have time for much else or b) going to have to settle for never being as good as you had the talent to be.

Which may be why the people who are so excellent at things are frequently not very good with relationships.

Earnest Prole said...

Chabon’s writer-wife Ayelet Waldman scandalized polite lib-lefty society in 2005 when she wrote that her husband was the center of her universe and that she loved him more than her four children.

Gabriel said...

@traditionalguy:The acknowledged greatest English writer of all times had 10 children, and loved them all.( See, Dickens, Charles)

As a Victorian parent he had a household staff, and his love for his children didn't prevent his having affairs and breaking up his marriage--family relationships were very different then.

"Loving" one's children is a very, very low bar. Any divorced parent who hardly ever interacts with their children probably can say they "love" their children; and so can most any abusive parent. Actually putting them ahead of yourself, which is "love" as defined by actions rather than meaningless "feelz", is what most parents nowadays at least claim to aspire to.

Doing that comes at a cost to other things.

Freeman Hunt said...

"Chabon’s writer-wife Ayelet Waldman scandalized polite lib-lefty society in 2005 when she wrote that her husband was the center of her universe and that she loved him more than her four children."

From that piece:

"I have been to many mothers' groups and each time, within three minutes, the conversation comes around to the topic of primary interest: how often we feel compelled to put out."

That's funny. I've hardly ever heard this come up. It only seems to come up if someone is worried that she hasn't had sex with her husband in a month or more. In that case the advice is, "That's probably not good. Go home and have sex today."

Lewis Wetzel said...

Anthony Trollope wrote dozens of novels (in longhand), was a world traveler, and had a wife and two children. He also held down a demanding job for most of his life. Trollope awoke early, and set himself a pace of 1,000 words per hour. He was done writing for the day by breakfast.
That schedule, to me, would be ideal for a writer. Writing undisturbed only in the early morning, leaving the day for other pursuits. What do you write about if you spend your entire life focused on your writing?

tcrosse said...

Louis Auchincloss was a prolific writer, essayist and novelist, while holding down a partnership at a white-shoe New York law firm. He had three sons.

LincolnTf said...

I thought Kavalier and Clay was great, as it fit right into my comic book nostalgia phase, and that Y.P.U was almost as good.

joshbraid said...

"None of whom were expected to drive their daughters to ballet, attend childbirth classes or coach Little League."

That really is the crux, isn't it!? Having raised four children and not written any novels, I would say that these implicit expectations are the problem. If you are going to have kids, then please raise them but do not expect to fulfill your peer group's or tribe's values and expectations as part of childrearing. Family first, tribe later.

Luke Lea said...

Updike, who published fifty books, had four children, I believe, and they are an important subject of his writing. Of course he was an unusual talent.

William Chadwick said...

MikeR wrote: "Not safe basing your whole life on winning that lottery"(i.e. becoming a successful, financially self-sufficient writer). Not safe at all, but I'm thankful there are brave souls who play that lottery--else little to no literature, theater, music or any other art; any of the things that, as Voltaire said, keep a lot of us from committing suicide. It would be a world only for the Babbits.

SDaly said...

"Oh, no! I'm not one of the Babbits!! I am refined and self-contemplative (I'm so deep I've contemplated suicide!)"

tim maguire said...

Interesting that what sounds at first like a plea to not have kids is instead a plea not to bank to much on your writing output.

bagoh20 said...

If you do both, you have an excuse for doing them poorly, and that's probably what most of really need anyway - an excuse for our inevitable failure.

bagoh20 said...

I dropped out of college, so that people wouldn't expect much from me. So now, no matter what, I'm a success.

Teller said...

"Hey, Dad, what's a book?"

Ken B said...

Great books about swimming home via all the neighborhood pools perhaps. Deep Topics, Inner Soul.

Otto said...

In the end it's just kvetching from a a writer that is in the twilight of a mediocre career

SDaly said...

"The Twilight of a Mediocre Career" is a great title for a novel.

William Chadwick said...

SDaley: Wow, great job of mind-reading there! You really saw through me, chief! I was just trying to impress, because down deep the approval of strangers is just so important.

"The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on."

Mrs. X said...

Any guesses about who the advice dispensing writer was? My initial bet was Philip Roth, who, according to ex Claire Bloom “forced her 18-year-old daughter by a previous marriage to move out of the house because he regarded the girl as a rival for her attention and because the girl's conversation ‘bored’ him.” However, a little googling revealed that Chabon studied writing with Chuck Kinder (of whom I’d not previously heard), and more intense googling uncovered no Kinder children, much old age Kinder infirmity.

Anonymous said...

JRR Tolkien claims he had to write down The Hobbit because his kids got old enough to notice that every time he told that particular bedtime story to them, the details would change. (Kids care about such things.)

The follow-up ("Can you write more about hobbits?") is one of the bestselling books of the 20th century. One of his sons helped him with the maps, world details, editing, and helping with business details.

Sebastian said...

Apart from the fact that the advice doesn't make sense, it doesn't even make sense: if you family-plan it right, you can spend 15 years or so rearing a couple of kids 24/7, and still have plenty of time before and afterward to write up your great thoughts.

SDaly said...

Chad -

It's not the approval of strangers you seek, nor did I suggest that you did. It was an internal monologue.

Njall said...

Tolstoy, on the other hand, had about seven children. So this seems to be one of those meaningless generalizations.

Njall said...

Correction - Tolstoy had fourteen children.

Lewis Wetzel said...

How many writers in the US are financially successful? I would define that as being a writer who writes what he/she wants to write (not on assignment), and is able to live a prosperous, bourgeois lifestyle without holding down a second career?
Maybe a few dozen?
I stopped reading most SF in the 80s, when it began to be taken over by hausfraus with MFAs.

Martin said...

Chabon had a hell of a lot more on the ball than his unnamed "great writer".

Lewis Wetzel said...

The dream: You carelessly toss off book after book, while your fans and the literary world clamor for more.
The reality: You spend ten years writing a novel, suffer multiple rejections, get it published by a small house, are left to promote it yourself, have terrible sales figures. You cherish the obscure award it receives. You try not to think that you've sacrificed years of your life for a novel which earned you $14,000 and was on the remainder shelves two weeks after its release.

dustbunny said...

Like Earnest Prole I too remember the outrage that followed when Ayelet Waldman wrote that she loved her husband, Chabon, more than her kids. Perhaps it was her devotion to him that allowed him to overcome the great writer’s advice to not have children. The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of the most purely entertaining books I’ve ever read.

Njall said...

Undset, Dostoyevsky, Graves, Goethe had multiple children - although Goethe’s did not survive him - but Hesse, Heine, Nietzsche, Kafka, Thoreau did not. So it seems to be an interesting, but without value, data point, since writers, like other humans, are varied.

Seeing Red said...

If there’s no kids, who’s going to read the books?

who-knew said...

I like Chabon's novels, at least those I have read. That would be The Amazing Adventures fo Kavalier and Kane, The Yiddish Policemans Union and Telegraph Avenue (although technically I haven't read Telegraph Avenue yet as I am only 1/2 way through it). If I had to make a recommendation, I start with the Yiddish Policeman

robother said...

Of course, "having kids" need not equate to being a helicopter parent.

William Chadwick said...

"Chad -

It's not the approval of strangers you seek, nor did I suggest that you did. It was an internal monologue."

Whose?

John Lynch said...

I have three kids and have written three books. I plan to write more. Writing is a job and parents have jobs. Big deal.

exiledonmainstreet said...

Rick Turley said...

Charles Dickens had 10 children. He seemed fairly productive...both ways.

5/11/18, 9:38 AM

Dickens tried to stop siring children. He put his wife in a separate bedroom and told her to keep it locked at night. Separate bedrooms for master and mistress were commonplace among middle and upper class Victorians, of course, but apparently the Dickens did not part until Charles decided they had enough kids. He did not want temptation so close at hand. She still had several more children after that. I can picture Dickens outside her door at 1 in the morning, knocking and loudly whispering, "I simply want to talk to you for a few minutes, my dear. Just talk..."

The "great writer" who advised Chabon also seemed to think travel is essential or writers will run out of things to write about. Maybe that's true if you're, say, Paul Theroux. But Jane Austen didn't leave home much. Thomas Hardy stayed within 100 miles of his birthplace his entire life. Both were childless, but they didn't their freedom to roam around the planet having adventures. Would Austen's insights into human nature been any more insightful if she had used Rome or New York as a backdrop?

I really enjoyed Chabon's "Wonder Boys," which I bought after Jonathan Yardley raved about it in the WaPo. For a long time,Jonathan Yardley's book reviews were my number one reason for subscribing. I didn't like Chabon's other books nearly as much.

rcocean said...

We have "Alice in wonderland" and through "the looking glass" because the author told the stories to his daughter.

How many great children's novels were written by single men?

RichardJohnson said...

Rick Turley
Charles Dickens had 10 children. He seemed fairly productive...both ways.

Charles Dickens was productive in addition to his 10 children and his writings. He had a very active social life. He was involved in various periodicals and also made money by giving readings of his work. After reading his biography, I wondered, how did he fit all that in?
For Charles Dickens, "down time" generally meant switching to another activity. Very little rest for him.

John Christopher said...

I'm sure he works hard at his craft, but Chabon undoubtedly has more innate talent than the writer who gave him that advice. He really is terrific.

mtrobertslaw said...

Too bad we don't know who this "great man" is so we could all run out and read what he wrote. Just think of all the profound secrets of the meaning of life that he revealed in his books. But of course I'm joking. What we would learn from this thoroughly modern man is the depth of the angst and despair he suffered in discovering his true self.

iowan2 said...

Dont write a novel. If you dont, you can have time for love, children, grandchildren. That's a life lived full.

Molly said...

(Eaglebeak)

Also Milton, Chaucer, Cervantes,John Donne, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, F. Scott Fitzgerald....

dustbunny said...

Rcocean, Lewis Carroll was never married and had no children. The Alice stories were inspired by Alice Liddell, the daughter of a friend.