[Roger Rosenblatt is the author, most recently, of Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats. The article below was published in the New York Times Book Review of 13 May 2012. The author used to deliver oral essays at the end of occasional NewsHour broadcasts on PBS when that program often presented compositions by contributing writers. “The Writer in the Family” is very much in that vein and I found it both amusing and, as usual for Rosenblatt’s contemplations, accurate. I hope readers of ROT will enjoy this rumination of the status of writers at home as much as I did. ~Rick]
So there I stood at the front of my granddaughter Jessica’s fourth-grade classroom, still as a glazed dog, while Jessie introduced me to her classmates, to whom I was about to speak. “This is my grandfather, Boppo,” she said, invoking my grandpaternal nickname. “He lives in the basement and does nothing.”
Her description, if terse, was not inaccurate. My wife and I do live on the lower level of our son-in-law’s house with him and our three grandchildren. And, as far as anyone in the family can see, I do nothing, or next to it. This is the lot of the writer. You will hear someone referred to as “the writer in the family” — usually a quiet child who dresses strangely and shows inclinations to do nothing in the future. But when a supposedly grown-up writer is a member of the family, who knows what to make of him? A friend of my son-in-law’s asked me the other day, “You still writing?” — as if the profession were a new sport I’d picked up, like curling, or a disease I was trying to get rid of. Alexander Pope: “This long disease, my life.”
Writers cannot fairly object to being seen in this way. Since, in the nothing we do — the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (Wallace Stevens) — we do not live in the real world, or wish to, it is fruitless and dishonest to protest that we do. When family members introduce us to one of their friends, it is always with bewilderment camouflaged by hyperbole. “This is so-and-so,” they will say, too heartily. “He’s a great and esteemed writer.” To which their friend will reply, “Would I have read anything you’ve written?” To which I reply, “How should I know?”
At home, they will treat us like domesticated, dangerous animals, pet pandas or snow leopards, patting and feeding us, while eyeing our teeth. Or they will make touching attempts to associate us with comprehensible pursuits, such as commerce. When he was 3, my 5-year-old grandson, James, proposed that the two of us go into business together. “We will write things and we will sell things,” he said, thereby yoking two enterprises that are rarely yoked.
Much of our familial treatment as weirdos is not only merited, it is also sought. We deliberately cultivate a distance from normal experience, whatever that may be. We seek and relish anarchy. One day, another writer and I were standing on a hill overlooking the irritatingly civilized village of Williamstown, Mass. The sun was shining, the flowers flowering, the air had just been sterilized. I remarked, “What I would like to see now is a gang of thugs stripping that car over there.” My companion added, “With the church bells tolling.”
The world of orderly decency, harmless ceremonies and modest expectations, i.e., family life, is not the writer’s. One morning at breakfast, when she was in the first or second grade, E. L. Doctorow’s daughter, Caroline, asked her father to write a note explaining her absence from school, due to a cold, the previous day. Doctorow began, “My daughter, Caroline. . . . ” He stopped. “Of course she’s my daughter,” he said to himself. “Who else would be writing a note for her?” He began again. “Please excuse Caroline Doctorow. . . . ” He stopped again. “Why do I have to beg and plead for her?” he said. “She had a virus. She didn’t commit a crime!” On he went, note after failed note, until a pile of crumpled pages lay at his feet. Finally, his wife, Helen, said, “I can’t take this anymore,” penned a perfect note and sent Caroline off to school. Doctorow concluded: “Writing is very difficult, especially in the short form.”
If the sad truth be known, writers, being the misfits we are, probably ought not to belong to families in the first place. We simply are too self-interested, though we may excuse the flaw by calling it “focused.” As artists, writers hardly are alone in this failing. In Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork, “Sunday in the Park With George” (at least the first act was a masterwork), we are shown the gloriously self-involved Seurat dotting away at isolated trees and people in his all-consuming pursuit of the famous park painting. Among those consumed by his zeal is his mistress — not technically family, but in the family way. He ignores her, leaves her high and dry. He’s an artiste, after all. If one took a straw vote of the audience a few minutes before the first act ended, they gladly would have stoned the miserable son-of-a-bitch artiste to death. But then, in the very last scene, the separate parts of Seurat’s painting coalesce before our eyes. Everything magically comes together. And the audience gasps, weeps in wonder. So who is the superior character — the man who attends to the feelings of his loved ones, or the artist who affects eternity?
Even when writers move to embrace the family, appearing to be one of the group, it is often in the interest of putting the group to use in their work. Alex Haley defined the family as a “link to our past,” another way of saying Roots. For the wolf of a writer, the family is a crowd of sitting ducks. There they assemble at the Thanksgiving table, poor dears — blithering uncles, drugged-out siblings, warring couples — posing for a painting, though they do not know it. The objects of the writer’s scrutiny may be as blameless as a day in Williamstown, but in the story he has in mind, the writer, being the freak he is, will infuse his family with warts and all, because defects make for better reading than virtues.
A few writers have expressed themselves on the matter of families, not always encouragingly. Reluctant high school students learn from Bacon that wife and children are “hostages to fortune.” John Cheever, recalling life in the family he grew up in, remembered their backs. “They were always indignantly leaving places,” he said. Margaret Drabble saw families as “dangerous.” On the sunnier side, André Maurois, George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain lustily sang the praises of family life. George Santayana called the family “one of nature’s masterpieces.” Once you learn that line, you are not bound to repeat it.
See what I just did? I made a lame quip that only someone who knew Santayana’s adage about the mistakes of history being repeated would get, and even then, at best, the quip would produce an embittered smirk. And from whom? Another writer. Need I also mention the quotations from Pope and Stevens dropped into this essay earlier, just to show off? This is how precious, not to say annoying, we writers can be. By the way, as soon as Jessie introduced me as jobless and subterranean, I immediately thought of Ellison’s Invisible Man, thus displaying yet another of the writer’s antisocial features — Romantic self-aggrandizement. In fact, the writer in the family is so out of things, so socially inept, that it may require an institution as basically benign as the family to take him in. We writers may be unfit for human consumption, but something about the malleable, permeable family structure says to us, That’s O.K. Of course, to further indicate how unfit we can be, we are perfectly capable of abusing that tolerance and calling it boring.
Whatever. The writer may not be good for the family, but the family may do wonders for the writer simply by teaching him that “it takes all kinds,” including him. A generous view of the world may not be as artistically riveting as crazy acrimony, but it is a lot more pleasant to live with. (Who among us would choose Scott and Zelda as our folks?) Besides, “It takes all kinds” is what the best of art says anyway, albeit with finer brush strokes. When Jessie introduced me, I watched her classmates for a reaction, either laughter or horror. There was no reaction whatever, not one bat of one eye. A man who lives in the basement and does nothing? And his name is Boppo? They treated me like family.