One of my absolute favorite children's authors is Frank Cottrell Boyce, British father of seven and author of three of the funniest, most gorgeous novels of the last decade--Millions, Framed and Cosmic. Last summer, he wrote a piece for The Guardian: "The Parent Trap: art after children.
I'm pasting the entire piece here. It's too good to miss.
We were still students when we got married and had our first baby. It must have been hard work. We didn't have a washing machine and we couldn't afford disposable nappies – but mostly we were drugged with happiness. Our only conversational gambit was: "Isn't he amazing?" Friends were mostly delighted, but also slightly appalled. From the first they'd take me aside and commiserate. "That's it now, Frank, the pram is in the hallway."
The full quote – from Cyril Connolly – is: "There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway." In fact, we didn't have a pram or a hallway, but in the dark watches of the night I would sometimes look at the Maclaren Dreamer buggy in the corner of the tiny kitchen and think, is that it then? Will I have to go and get a proper job and never write again?
Happily, I had married a woman of terrifying courage who, the day I was offered a proper job, said: "Don't do it, Frank. Go to the library, write something for us." I didn't produce a work of precocious genius, but I did get myself started as a TV hack. Ever since then, fatherhood and writing have been inextricably intertwined for me.
I'm not the only one. The most commercially successful British writer (JK Rowling) and the most ferociously inventive (JG Ballard) were both single parents. Edith Nesbit had three children of her own, and then adopted the two that her feckless husband had with his mistress. She founded the Fabian Society, precursor of the Labour party, and still had time to write 60 novels, among them the most purely funny pages in the language.
My children have been a crucial part of my work in ways that I find hard to account for or anticipate. If I need to go on a research trip for a book or a film, we'll usually go as a family, and I find that – apart from the fact that it's useful to have extra eyes and ears – people and places tend to open up to you more. In southern Europe, in particular – now that the birth rate is practically zero – there is much nostalgia surrounding big families: when we turn up, all nine of us, it's as though a bunch of rock stars have arrived by steam train. Once, in Sicily, we got a round of applause just for walking down the street.
Making trips and meeting unusual people is good for the children as well as the work, of course. Usually. There was the time I got a gig on a big-budget children's movie. I thought how fabulous it would be for the children to come down to the set and hang out with dragons and knights and goblins. The producer, Brad, was intensely committed to the idea that every frame of the film should be "kid-relatable". Oh, what animated and exciting discussions Brad and I had about what was kid-relatable (dragons, knights, Kinder eggs) and what wasn't (unicorns, jesters, aniseed).
Brad himself seemed very relatable to me, so I invited him back to our place to meet our real, live kids. He turned up with a body bag full of Kinder eggs. How relatable! He got down with the kids and opened egg after egg, whooping when he found some elegant, complicated assembly kit and casting aside any keyrings or character figurines. It was fun to start with, but soon he was discarding chocolate, too. This was disturbing. Chocolate is a controlled substance in our house, something to be treasured and shared. The sheer scale of Brad's treat was crushing the magic out of it. It was as if your fairy godmother had appeared and brought with her the massed infantry of the People's Republic of Fairy Godmothers.
Then, with a mountain of surprises piled up in front of him like poker chips, Brad began to barter away the ones he didn't like. My children were too polite to say no. They were also too polite to scream, even though I could see that they now viewed Brad as their First Hellish Vision of the Existential Void. He had unleashed his inner child, and it was the illegitimate offspring of Augustus Gloop and Violet Beauregarde. That night, after prayers, I promised my children that I would never ever work with, talk to or mention Brad again. How had I failed, in all those hours of meetings, to spot what was so obvious the minute he walked through the door? That he was an infantile, narcissistic suit.
Ever since Brad, I have been suspicious of the modern philosophy of "me time". I happened to make a throwaway comment to this effect earlier this year, on Desert Island Discs, and honestly you'd think I'd refused to abide by the laws of gravity. At every event I have done since, the traditional "Where d'you get your ideas from?" question has been replaced by a perplexed, testy quizzing about "me time". One young man asked me if I wasn't worried about "the pram in the hallway". I asked him where the phrase came from. "Cyril Connolly." "And what did he ever write?" The questioner thought for a minute then said, "Shit. Yeah", and thanked me for "liberating him from fear". Blimey.
It's not that I don't like a break now and then. I just don't buy the idea that the break is "because I'm worth it" or that I'm taking "the time to be me". What is "me", if not the sum of all my relationships and obligations? A customer, that's what. The more you give, the more you are. Think of Chekhov, with his patients and his crowds of dependent relatives, whose living room became such a public space that he had to put up no smoking signs. His advice to young writers was "travel third class". Ralph Waldo Emerson's was to "buy carrots and turnips".
For centuries, writers have sung the virtues of staying connected to the routine and the mundane. Real creativity should feel like a game, not a career. Having to hang out the washing or get up and make breakfast helps you remember that your "work" is actually fun. And for it to stay fun, you have to be unafraid of failure. It's very powerful to be surrounded by people who love you for something other than your work, who are unaware of the daily, painful fluctations of your reputation. I discovered recently that my youngest child thought I spent my days typing out more and more copies of my book Millions, so that everyone could have one.
Writing is a peculiar balancing act between freedom and discipline. Writers are free to spend their days doing whatever they like; but if they don't write, then they are not writers. They are on their own and so vulnerable to every distraction, whether that's drink or the Antiques Roadshow. Jonathan Franzen has said that "it is doubtful that anyone with an internet connection in his workplace is writing good fiction". Family is, of course, the most potent distraction, and probably the only distraction that makes you feel virtuous when you surrender to it.
There's a belief that to do great work you need tranquility and control, that the pram is cluttering up the hallway; life needs to be neat and tidy. This isn't the case. Tranquility and control provide the best conditions for completing the work you imagined. But surely the real trick is to produce the work that you never imagined. The great creative moments in our history are almost all stories of distraction and daydreaming – Archimedes in the bath, Einstein dreaming of riding a sunbeam – of alert minds open to the grace of chaos.
Writers have produced great work in the face of things far more stressful than the school run: being shot at, in the case of Wilfred Owen; being banged up in jail, in the case of Cervantes or John Bunyan. Yet that pram is lodged in our imaginations, like a secret parasite sucking on our juices.
In fact, if you go back to Connolly's terrific book, you'll see that the pram is only one of the many Enemies of Promise. Others include a public school education (so emotionally overwhelming you can't move on) and success, surely the greatest enemy of all. But no one warns you about these. It's just the pram.
Why does it retain its power to chill? I don't think it's about fear of distraction or domesticity. I think it's a fear of babies. Being a parent – or really loving someone other than yourself, whether that's your children, parents or your lover – forces you to confront a horrible truth: the fact that we get older. The amazing boy who was born when I was still a student is a man now. There is no way that I can still think of myself as "quite young, really" or "a child at heart". Parenthood confronts us with our own mortality, every day.
As a society, we are in flight from our own mortality. What made Brad the producer so monstrous was that he was fleeing in terror from his own adulthood. What Brad did in my living room, our whole culture is currently doing in its multiplexes, in its chemists, in its bars and department stores. Brad thought it was going to be his turn for ever. It's not.
The mess we've made of this planet comes partly from the fact that we all feel we're going to live for ever. Has art done much to make us think differently? When I think of art that tries to address these things – well, there's not much of it, and it's not much cop.
I remember reading that when the writer Tracey Chevalier had her first baby, someone told her that "every baby costs one book"; she said something to the effect that that seemed fair enough. But we should turn Connolly's equation upside-down and say that maybe what's in the pram – breathing, vulnerable life, hope, a present responsibility – is actually more important than good art. It might make us produce less art, but maybe it would be art with the future at its heart.