Bringing up Baby
Elizabeth Treadwell requested an essay on writing and parenting, so here it is:
We are written into life, whereupon we begin the authorship of our own lives. In fact, the authors of our lives are many, and all these parents, teachers, and rivals love to interfere. Harold Bloom developed his theory of the anxiety of influence around the Oedipal relationship between master poets and their students. In order to become a master, the child must slay the parent.
I’m not a great supporter of this theory, but I see its application everywhere. Even though we live in a liberal democracy, our social relations are largely guided by the Middle Ages, a world of courtly patronage, in which favors and punishments are handed out. Every poet over fifty has played his or her Lear to a Goneril, Regan, or Cordelia. Both sides of the parent-child conundrum should retain as much innocence they can, because generational turmoil is inevitable.
The writing instructor who turns out clones of himself is behaving as a bad parent. The student who too closely obeys the teacher is behaving as a subservient child. The instructor should be discreet about his or her role in the student’s growth process. You will have an influence over the student’s work, but you must never expect, as Lear did of Cordelia, that a superior child will stoop to please the parent’s vain demand. Flattery by either party is the beginning of bad faith. Everything should come down to modesty and accuracy.
Parents and teachers must be generous. But, for a writing teacher, generosity also means working to insure the success of someone other than himself. Some writers will play only the role of a demanding and adored child. They never seek to gratify or help others, except to win greater success from having done so. Even if they have children, they keep the spotlight on themselves. Robert Frost must have been such a caretaker. Though she never had children, Lorine Niedecker would have been a good parent. Laura Riding would have made a horrid one.
Oscar Wilde was a good parent, an indifferent husband, and a self-sacrificing lover of young men. He allowed his young lover to open a male prostitution service in the residence they shared. When they had to escape police by climbing the rooftop to a neighboring building, he must have sensed the need for more discipline.
When I have fully mined a poetic form or approach, I am ready to give it over to my students in the form of a writing exercise. Freely received, freely given. But there is always the risk of inviting others to jump my claim. One prominent poet told me that she found teaching intolerable because it meant giving away her own writing secrets. If you’re going to teach, you must have confidence that you will be able to develop new practices for yourself.
When he realizes his only talent has been to serve others, Uncle Vanya begins to loathe first himself and then the world. He has foolishly failed to care for his own needs. Such a person makes for a bad parent and a bad child. Like Blake’s Thel, who flees back to her mother in the Vales of Har, Vanya is an emotional infant. He refuses any opportunity for transformation, and lives in a world incapable of growth. The wisest character of Chekhov’s play is the elderly maid, whose rule is that of nature. She follows rhythms of hen and hawk that are beneath the consciousness of the dacha’s “cultured” inhabitants.
The beauty of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is its romantic notion that it’s never too late for repentance, change, and forgiveness. In relinquishing his desperate hold on a bad adulthood, Scrooge gains innocence and becomes a well-balanced child for the first time. It’s the same for a writer, who must recognize either the power of the eternal return (all is one great cycle; nothing changes) or hold to a theory of historical progress leading to deliverance. Like the peasant maid of Uncle Vanya, the good parent takes us in her arms and whispers, “There, there, the pains will go away. Someday the pains will go away.” She is fate and earth (eternal return), and the renowned professor and Vanya are fools who imagine they can author their own transformations. The true writer has the voice of fate in his ear, a grounded parent philosophy. It gives texture to his writing, even in the burlesque mode of postmodern indeterminacy.
The bad parent competes with his children. The normal child competes with his parents. Not infrequently, the author has the ego of a squalling infant.