The other night, instead of reading books to my children and sharing bedtime duties with my wife, I was in my attic debating who is the superior piano man: Elton John or Billy Joel.
A friend and I recently started a twice-monthly podcast called Flat Sharp. In each episode, we discuss a random pairing of two songs. We sit across a table from one another in my attic and record the conversation. Most nights, we don't take off our headphones or pack up the microphones until after 11 p.m. I go to bed around midnight, wake up five and a half hours later, and then I'm off to another full day of parenting and teaching high school English.
The podcast isn't my only artistic pursuit. I also recently earned my MFA in creative writing, which kept me away from home 20-plus days a year and bulldozed me to the brink of exhaustion. On top of that, I've spent countless hours over the past decade using every scrap of available time writing — primarily literary fiction. In addition to a novel I'm trying to publish about a washed-up tennis prodigy, I'm currently finishing a short story collection about a family of blues musicians from rural New York.
I've dragged myself up to the attic office on endless weeknights and stared out the windows on sunny Saturdays, wondering what other people are doing as I sit pouring sentences onto the page.
My wife, Shannon, also a teacher, makes time for herself as well. She practices yoga once or twice a week and loves going out with friends. In addition, to challenge herself and invigorate her teaching practice, she recently started a master's program through the Vermont Mathematics Initiative.
But my hobbies are more solitary, and they seem less practical. I wish I could say otherwise, but to date, my artistic pursuits have produced basically no money. In fact, rather than paying off, they come with an expensive price tag — and I'm not just talking about the MFA tuition. After all, when I'm working on my podcast or doing endless rewrites of a novel or short story, I'm not with Shannon, or my two sons, 7-year-old Felix and 5-year-old Leo. I miss parties with friends. Family events. Soccer games. School concerts. Bedtimes galore. I'm overstressed. I don't get enough sleep. Many days, it feels like there's no trough of coffee deep enough.
But I don't want to stop.
In her essay A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom, author Kim Brooks writes about the struggle of maintaining a rich creative life while also being a parent. She wrestles, as I do, with the possibility, or perhaps the fear, "that parenting itself makes art hard, that you must always sacrifice one for the other."
It's difficult to avoid this feeling and the guilt it entails. When the words are flowing and I'm spending more time at my desk, I feel guilty for not being a more involved parent. There's nothing logical about making art, or the sacrifices it requires — especially when we have young kids and we're just barely keeping our lives afloat. Yet I also feel guilty when I'm not carving out time to write.
Which raises the question, why do it? Life is hard enough with family, career, and — ahem — an aging body. Why muddy the waters? Thoreau advised, "let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand." He called for "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" I seem to be always doing the opposite, shouting back "Complexity, complexity, complexity!" I've tried and I officially suck at simplicity.
For me, the stress and exhaustion are worthy trade-offs for the soul-fuel my creative endeavors supply. Publishing my stories and growing our podcast audience provide tangible encouragement, but doing the work well is also its own reward — finding that magical anecdote for a podcast conversation about Amy Winehouse's vocal influences or the relative merits of Jim Morrison's lyrics; writing the perfect last line to a new short story.
As I age, and my publishing dreams grow fuzzy, I feel compelled to keep cranking them back into focus, if only because it makes me feel more alive.
I'm lucky that my kids are curious about my creative life. When I'm recording the podcast, Leo and Felix like to try on the headphones and talk into the microphone. They giggle supportively when they hear I've published a short story, and they'll love seeing their names in print in this essay.
I think they get frustrated sometimes when it's another dinner with just dad or another bedtime with just mom, but Shannon and I are committed to prioritizing "me" time, even sometimes at the expense of "we" time. I trust that when the boys are older, they'll understand why their mom and I make sure we keep moving forward as individuals. We're better parents because of it — more present, more patient and, hopefully, more fun.
I do sometimes wonder if burning the candle at both ends will catch up with me and one day I'll hurl my keyboard out the window, start watching a lot more TV and go to bed early every night. Until then, I'm trying to model for my kids what it means to live a full, passionate life.
For me, that means that after I make lunches and polish tomorrow's lesson plan, I've got a podcast episode to edit and a short story about a dysfunctional musical family to finish. The bags under my eyes are growing, but I hear they make some good products for that.
So keep the coffee coming. And check out our podcast on iTunes?
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