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This past October 9, the world celebrated what would have been John Lennon’s 74th birthday. On that day, the Internet buzzed with its usual indefatigable hum of remembrances, best-of-lists, think pieces and social media posts in memoriam. We don’t need to discuss the importance of John Lennon or his impact on the collective cultural consciousness—it is there everyday. As I can attest, even three-year-olds know how to sing the tune to “Imagine.”

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I am filled with a rage fueled by sadness. Rage like a sourdough mother, a lump of material from which my outbursts grow. I cannot adequately express my emotions. My spectrum is happy to angry. The points between, obscured. This sourdough mother journeyed with me from my Irish childhood and has accompanied me across two continents and through several long-term relationships and two marriages. Its raw materials are to be unearthed in the fights and arguments of my childhood, long forgotten, but somehow embedded in my subconscious, dormant but alive.

Grown-Up Words

By Bethany Cox

Essay

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His name was Jeremiah and he was in my preschool class. He was five years old, tall for his age. His parents were divorced and he had an older brother, which meant he knew words like ass and hell. Once he accused me of saying the f word during story time.

“I said fox, Jeremiah.”

“It sure sounded like fuck,” he countered.

Adulthood

By Summer Block

Humor

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Extended adolescence is all the rage these days. Or extended childhood, or extended young adulthood, depending on whether your particular clock stopped during Star Wars: Episode III or Star Wars: Episode I.

My daughter is two.  Already sounding out letters, she’s learning the concept of reading, taking pleasure in memorizing  shapes and sounds, proudly scrawling the first few letters of her name.  On the night before “take-a-book-to-school” day a few weeks ago at her daycare, she had difficulty choosing from her favorites. Three feet tall, chubby-faced, she towered over the picture books she’d spread on the living room floor like a colorful hopscotch grid, her dirty blonde hair frizzing around her head in wild curls, her glasses cockeyed. “This one,” she kept saying. “No, this one!”

When do we begin to decide what books we love? At what point do we start choosing to read books about one subject, but not another?

Listen, I have blonde hair (when it isn’t gray), blue eyes, and a fair face. I know darn well that my 8 month-old son, with his cappuccino-colored skin, almost-black eyes, and chocolate hair was not created in the spitting image of me. Yes, if you look really close there are resemblances. He nabbed my chin divot. He possibly has my cheeks. And some people say he has my smile. That one makes me happy.

Martyrdom and motherhood are basically the same thing, sometimes. When I had surgery just four months after my daughter was born, I refused painkillers because I didn’t want Maddie’s breastfeeding to be disrupted. (Okay, this would be more impressive if it hadn’t been a laparoscopic surgery. I was sore, sure, but it wasn’t torture or anything.) When I need to finish writing a piece for my critique group, and Maddie is being particularly screamy, I let out this long, exaggerated sigh, and I say, “Well, I guess I’ll just put this aside until you’re in bed, and I’ll stay up until midnight finishing it.” Then there’s the very true cliché about making myself a warm lunch and getting to eat it around dinnertime when it’s stone cold. I’m a martyr sometimes, and I get a really annoying motherly pleasure from it. Then I ran over my toenail with the metal bottom of Maddie’s highchair, and I stopped being a martyr for a while.

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Being a parent is hard. We all know that. Sleepless nights, hours spent elbow-deep in vomit, pressure to do the right thing by your kids every waking hour of the day. You love them unconditionally, but you’re never off the clock. Most days you’re lucky if you find a minute to sit down and breathe.

But if you think you’ve got it hard, spare a thought for the characters in AMC’s hit TV show The Walking Dead. Scheduling nap times can be a bitch, but it’s a virtual impossibility when you’re dragging your kids through a violent post-apocalyptic hell, populated by looters, homegrown gun-toting militia, and flesh-eating corpses. You may fret over how much TV your kid should watch, but trust me – you’ve never encountered a true parenting dilemma until your son has helped deliver his baby sister in a prison block, then shot and killed his mother to keep her from turning into a slavering people-eater. Suddenly an extra hour of Sesame Street doesn’t seem so terrible.

For the last few years I’ve scratched a meager living as a travel writer. If that conjures images of five-star luxury and all expenses paid cruises around the Baltic, then I apologize. The reality was more like a cut-price buffet at a roach-infested diner, squatting in the ass-end of nowhere. While there have been perks – lots of travel, a few unexpected adventures, some truly global friendships – there were plenty of bad times too. It turns out that travel writers dress like bums for a reason. Those guys you see scrawling on scraps of card at the side of the road aren’t begging for small change – they’re on assignment for National Geographic.

I used to have a infant who slept through the night. We’d put her down at 9:00pm or so, she’d sleep until 6:00am, and then I’d pull her into bed with me, feed her lying down, and we’d nap on and off until 10:00am. It was phenomenal. When other mothers told me that I looked/sounded/seemed great, I didn’t reveal my secret, because a.) I am always a little worried that someone is going to kidnap my baby, and this would only make her more attractive to potential kidnappers, and b.) it seemed a little naughty. No one else got to sleep in with a newborn, so it must be some form of illegal. In response to these women, I shrugged my well-rested shoulders and said, “Well, I really love being a mom.” Now, that part is still true, but the rest is not. Madeline doesn’t sleep anymore. She goes down at 9:00pm, and screams and screams. Then she falls asleep, and wakes up anywhere between two and eight times throughout the night. Last night was one of the really, really bad ones.

I received an email this morning from a current student at my alma mater. She was putting together a Where Are They Now? newsletter piece about some of the graduates who are continuing to work in their fields of study. Mine was creative writing. I wrote out the blurb she asked for, but I was pretty loose with the details. And with the definition of the word “working.” I write and edit, but I don’t actually get paid for most of it. And when I do, I take a picture of the check for posterity, which tells you exactly how rare those checks are. I told her about grad school and some of my publications, and that I’m juggling my writing life with my stay-at-home-mommy life, because writing with a five-month-old daughter in the picture is hard McFricken work. I didn’t actually use the word McFricken in my blurb. There are many things I didn’t tell her.

1. You are not, and will never be, a mother.

In this age of growing equality – sexual, racial, interspecies – men are still second class citizens when it comes to parenthood. Never mind that your sperm helped make the whole kid and caboodle: your lack of breasts and a vagina will forever be held against you. In fact, if you do grow breasts – or a vagina – it will only make matters worse. Men are still portrayed in the media as cartoonish fools, incompetent diaper-illiterate Stooges who are about as capable of looking after a baby as they are of making a casserole. Women, we are told, have an innate ability to nurture, which includes a genetic predisposition for cleaning up poop with moistened wipes, and a built-in Spidey-sense that detects squalling infants at a range of up to five miles. Men, meanwhile, are quite good at playing games. Or pulling faces. Or, in the case of the truly talented, both at once.

I sit with my two-month old son on my lap, surrounded by the detritus of parenthood – burp cloths, bottles encrusted with the grainy residue of infant formula, drool-glistening pacifiers, neglected toys – and try to dredge a diversion from my battered and sleep-deprived brain. Most days something rises to the surface. A silly rhyme, a Stewie-inspired internal monologue, a popular rock song with the lyrics changed to include the infant triumvirate of milk, pee and poop. But today, nothing comes. I’m an empty vessel, a vacant-eyed zombie casualty of the babyocalypse.

In the beginning of You Can Make Him Like You, the new novel by Ben Tanzer, the narrator introduces himself: “Hello, my name is Keith, and I am a selfish cocksucker.” From that point forward, hearing Keith’s voice was just like hearing my own voice, but the version of me I don’t have to live with. Which makes it that much more entertaining.

Hello, my name is Seth Pollins and I am a writer. I say this, today, not as a fist-pumping gesture. I say this in the spirit of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I admit defeat. I’m addicted. I do not always feel this way, that my impulse to write is actually governed by uncontrollable compulsion, but today, an otherwise cheery, bright day in Ambler, I do.

I am a married man, childless, creeping towards my mid-thirties, and I’m currently working on my–I’m embarrassed to say this–sixth novel.  I’d like to think that the time I spend writing is productive–that I write not because I expect my work to take me somewhere, but because I believe that perseverance just might. But I have to admit, writing often feels like a compulsion to me; and my writing life does share a certain affinity with the life of an addict.

Right now, I divide my time between two types of work: work that makes money; and work (my writing) that makes no money. Although I do enjoy my moneymaking work, I often feel “unpleasant symptoms” when I am engaged in it. In reality, I’m suffering withdrawal from my writing.  At work, I tell myself: I am not doing what I want to be doing. I am not doing what I am meant to do. It depresses me, creates anxiety. I often have this urge: to just quit my job, to go home and write. That wouldn’t be very responsible, would it? And yet, I think about it all the time.

How many writers, successful and not, believe this is so: Writing is what your meant to do?

I think of the seemingly delusional contestant on “American Idol”, the contestant who struts into his tryout with absolute certainty: I am the next American Idol. Even before he sings it’s obvious: this guy will fail; this guy will torture (or delight, depending on your perversity) in some serious way. Then he opens his mouth and your fear/glee is confirmed: he is terrible. How could he not know? He’s twenty-eight! How could he have made it this far not knowing how bad he really is? He had tried for so many years, but it’s obvious: all along he had been failing. Day after day, year after year, he had been failing. I sometimes wonder if these contestants really have worked so hard. And yet, what if they have? It certainly throws the value of perseverance into question. Yet, without perseverance, what does he have?

Recently, I posted a letter from my uncle, a poet, on my blog. In the letter, written to me when I was twenty-one, my uncle tried to offer a realistic portrait of what it takes to be a successful writer:

“But one thing that won’t just happen to you, like life, is teaching yourself to write well. So whatever time you spend doing that, can stand to spend, and need to spend, all that time that seems wasted and those rare moments that seem volcanic and so sure, is the time that must be spent, otherwise you’ll never become the writer you want to become. And there’s a funny thing about that, too…You’ll never become the writer you want to become. You’ll never be satisfied, never really know if you are any good.”

If you aren’t any good, though, what’s the use of spending all that time “teaching yourself to write well”? Without talent, perseverance begins to look a lot like compulsion.

*

Gabriel García Márquez wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude in a furious 18-month burst. He tells of the hardships of this time in the wonderful book The Fragrance of Guava: Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez:

“You already know how much lunacy of this sort Mercedes [his wife] has had to put up with…She took charge of the situation. I’d bought a car a few months earlier so I pawned it and gave her the money. I reckoned that we could live on it for six months, but it took me a year and a half to write the book. When the money ran out she never said a word. I don’t know how she did it, but she got the butcher to give us credit for the meat, the baker for his bread, and the landlord to wait nine months for the rent.”

García Márquez had already published a few books, and yet he knew this was his make-or-break moment. “Either this book will be my break-though,” he said, “Or I’ll blow my brains out.”

Of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude went on to become one of the most famous novels of all time. But what if he had failed? He had two children at the time, a wife. How might we look at his compulsive behavior if it led not to worldwide fame, but suicide? Two children.  To abandon your responsibilities as a care-giver for eighteen months! Was García Márquez selfish? Do you have to be selfish to write a masterpiece?

Children. Since adolescence, I’ve associated the writing-life with the images borne towards me from my uncle’s life. My uncle introduced me to many of his poet friends–truly genuine, loving, funny people. One thing I noticed as a teen and young adult, without ever thinking too much about it, was that many of these poets did not have children. So it seemed to me, growing up, that a life of poetry might not be compatible with parenthood. Of course, this is an egregious generalization. And, of course, people have and do not have children for any number of reasons–reasons that need not be explained to anyone. But I often truly do wonder: is the writing life compatible with parenthood?

I’m speaking specifically of a writer at the beginning of their career: the unpublished, the hopeful, the compulsive–me.  Because, obviously, many successful writers have successfully raised children. No, I wonder, more specifically, of the writer I soon hope to be: the writer trying to break into the business who is also raising a child–or two, or three, or more.

For me, just now, this question of the writer-parenthood paradigm is important. My wife and I, we are trying to get pregnant. If we are blessed with a child, well, then, I will need to make more money. It’s not merely a question of my wife not being able to work. She will go back to work; she will continue to make money. That’s her preference. And, of course, I will spend time at home with my child, feasibly writing. No, it’s a question of the way I feel about my role. I want to provide for my wife and my child. I want to contribute meaningfully to our financial situation in a way that will enable us to move out of our apartment, buy a house, perhaps buy a second car–basically ease the burden that is now primarily on my wife, a successful lawyer. I am frantically searching for teaching jobs. I am frantically applying to writing fellowships. I am frantically trying to finish my third rewrite of my novel.

All of this strikes me as productive.

On most days, too, the time I spend writing strikes me as worthwhile and productive.

But at what point in the near future will the time I spend writing begin to compromise my ability to meet my responsibilities as a husband, a father? How long can I continue to spend my time writing (without making money) before the ballooning financial responsibilities of adulthood swallow more and more of my time–the time I had previously set aside for writing? It seems I’m confronting a make-or-break moment.

Obviously the people who become successful writers are the ones who do it. Perseverance, finally, is more important than talent. You can’t just write when inspiration puts your head in the furnace. And the more you write, the more you discover: inspiration comes later in the process. You have to work through the soot. You have to spend weeks looking into the twilight just to see the twinkle in the first star. Writers do this. Writers write, frantically.

And yet, when you make no money, this frantic activity seems a bit suspicious, doesn’t it?

I do not believe I have an addiction. But really, what is the difference between addiction and perseverance? What is the difference between Gabriel García Márquez writing furiously for 18 months, and, say the terrible “American Idol” contestant singing furiously for 18 months? Talent, obviously. Talent is important too. How do you know if you got any? At what point do you decide that you’ve tried hard enough–that you’re just not talented enough, that your wife, and your potential child, need you more than you need your writing?

I’ve found the best thing to do is to not think about these things. The best thing to do is to simply write. And that’s not hard for me: I’m addicted.