12 May 2017

Two Writers—And a Third in the Making?

  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fourteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Art Taylor

Earlier in our Family Fortnight series, Brian Thornton asked his wife Robyn to contribute a post about being married to a writer—a terrific and insightful essay all around, ending with Robyn inspired to start writing herself. I'd already planned on getting my wife, Tara Laskowski, involved in my post, but in our case, Tara and I are both long-time writers—which at times may seem double trouble (more on that below!) and at other times may give us at least glimpses into what the other person is going through, whether that's a burst of creative energy (needing time for ideas to play out, for the imagination to indulge itself) or a stroke of self-doubt (needing support and encouragement).

Art and Tara at Malice Domestic, April 2016
Tara and I first met at George Mason University, where we were both working toward our MFAs in creative writing. We were in fiction workshops together, sharing and commenting on our respective stories, and it was our mutual admiration for one another's work that led first to friendship and then to more. Since graduation, we have both been very fortunate with the generous attention our writing has received, especially in more recent years—and even recent days. Since my last post here at SleuthSayers, my story "Parallel Play" won the Agatha Award for Best Short Story, and in recent weeks, Tara's collection Bystanders won the Balcones Fiction Prize and her story "The Jar" was named by Wigleaf among the top 50 flash fiction stories of 2016. We're grateful on all counts, of course, but while friends and acquaintances have sometimes complimented us how how easily we seem to navigate being writers alongside managing day jobs and raising our son Dash, the truth is that behind the scenes... well, let's get straight to the interview.

Art Taylor: We talk sometimes about navigating our various day-to-day roles and responsibilities, but too often that “navigation” seems more like steering a foundering ship through tempest-tossed seas. (This sentence is, of course, the most creative writing I’ve done in a while.) Can you give folks a glimpse into our writing processes? How do we accomplish things as two writers in the same household, parenting a five-year-old and more? 
Tara Laskowski: I don’t know. How do we? Do we actually accomplish anything? Sometimes I feel like we are super-hero bad-asses. Other times I feel like we are fumbling and failing. I suppose that’s part of your tempest sea, right? The up-and-down motion of the waves. Sadly, I get really seasick, so this isn’t boding well for me…

Ok, writing process. Well, you have the summer and winter breaks in between classes to do massive crunch time writing since the academic year provides a challenge. I have a 40-minute train ride to and from work each day to try to fit in my work. I guess that’s how we’ve been managing it, with a few luxurious-seeming writing retreats and an occasional “I need an hour to do this thing” on the weekend request. It all feels very piecemeal at times, but it seems to be working for us, right now anyway.
Earlier this week here at SleuthSayers, Melissa Yi wrote about her children telling her, “Mom. You don’t spend enough time with us” and “You’re always on your computer.” Do you get those questions or feel that pressure as well? And if so, how do you deal with that—by which I mean both deal with the question and deal with it internally, emotionally, etc.?
Oh yes. That is a horrible guilt. Every time I pick up my phone to check something with Dash in the room, I hear the "Cats in the Cradle" song start playing in my head. That is a constant struggle. So much of what we do is device-related. It's not even just writing—although I often suffer from "novel head" where I'm working on a scene or thinking about a character while going about my normal daily life. If I have a second, I usually am reminded of something I need to put on our grocery list (which is on my phone) or someone I need to email back. Or we're talking and we can't remember who wrote that song or what the weather is going to be like the next day. The worst thing Dash ever utters to either of us is "Come play with me!" when we're doing something on our phone or computer. I think we try with varying degrees of success to put the phone away, but it's definitely not something that either of us has figured out how to conquer. Would you agree?
I would—and you’re right that it’s not just writing but everything. I still remember a small epiphany back during those first couple of years, when I was teaching online classes and evening classes so I could take care of Dash during the day. I had ended up in a middle of a tense series of emails with a student complaining about a grade, and I felt this urgency to keep responding. Even though Dash and I were out at a playground and Dash was pulling at me to pay attention to him, I kept peck, peck, pecking at my phone and—and suddenly I realized that the email could wait and that in the long-run this student wasn’t going to remember me or the class, but that the little boy in front of me…. well, short-term, long-run, he was the one who meant the most. I put the phone away, and these days I put it away each evening until after Dash is in bed, just to keep my attention centered.

Shift in focus now. The year that Dash was born, I read a story—a Derringer Award finalist—that was about the abduction and then return of a child, and even though references to abuse were only hinted at instead of explicitly depicted, the story was nearly crippling to read. And yet, not long after that, I wrote a story myself that was about a child in peril and a parent’s determination to protect her son and about the anxieties of parenting in general. How has your own writing or your reading changed since Dash was born?

I am a huge horror fan. Before Dash, I’d watch pretty much any horror movie, even the torture porn (though it was never my favorite). After Dash, that changed dramatically. I still love the genre, but I can’t read or watch anything that involves kids or even something very domestic (think Funny Games). I trend more toward the supernatural scares now, I guess. Part of it is just some parental instinct, I think—you can’t help but project yourself on the things you watch/read, and you certainly cannot bear to think of your child being in harm’s way. But more than that, I’ve realized how senseless some of the kid stuff is in horror. It either seems like a cheap device to get an emotional reaction out of the consumer, or it is just badly done.

I’ve also found that I write more about kids now that I have one. I was always hesitant to put children characters in my writing because I didn’t think I knew them well enough—knew how they thought, acted, etc. (See my above gripe about this being badly done.) But now that so much of my life is interacting with these little people, I feel like I have a slightly (slightly!) better understanding of how they work. And that is: they never want to brush their teeth, they never want to put on their shoes, they never want to take a bath, they never want to get out of the bath, they never want to go to sleep, they never want to get up in the morning. So they are, basically, just like me.
Dash at his first writing conference:
Bay to Ocean, Maryland, March 2016
I can’t recall if it was after I'd been away at Malice Domestic one year or after Bouchercon, but I do remember the evening that we caught Dash sitting up in bed, his stuffed animals arranged in a semi-circle in front of them, and each of them with a book tucked next to them. “We’re at a conference,” he told us, when we asked what he was doing.

And then there was the time he tried to explain to his preschool teachers that he’d been at a book launch over the weekend, and he got frustrated when they didn’t understand the phrase. (“You bought a book and then had lunch?”) How do you think it impacts Dash’s life to have two writers as parents?
I think Dash will either completely embrace reading and writing as his life or he will rebel against us and do something completely, utterly different. I do not care. I mean, I care a little; obviously I’d like for him to be a lit geek. But as long as he has a passion for learning and creativity in whatever form that takes—computers, math, fine arts, dancing, video game design, dinosaurs, baseball—I’m cool with it. I hope that in seeing how passionate we are about our craft, Dash will understand the importance of keeping at something even when it’s difficult, even when you fail sometimes. That’s all I ask.

28 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Art and Tara, there's so many good points and funny and touching moments in your post. Love the image of Dash with his stuffed animals and books at a "conference." Also that his teachers didn't understand a book launch. And then there's "Cat's in the Cradle" playing Tara's head and Art's "this student wasn’t going to remember me or the class, but that the little boy in front of me…. well, short-term, long-run, he was the one who meant the most." So much to consider, but it sounds like you guys are on the right track and that Dash is very lucky!

Mary Sutton said...

"We're at a conference." That's cute.

He's adorable. With the way the universe works, he'll grow up to be an accountant. A book-loving one, of course. =)

janice law said...

Based on observations within our family, I suspect that writing like certain other arts, is in part genetic. I think you'd better be prepared for Dash to be another prisoner of the arts!

Good luck with your writing- and for Dash's in the future.

R.T. Lawton said...

Art, another great blog. The comments of those above me pretty well cover what I would have said.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks for the kind comments, y'all! It's a joy to watch how Dash processes the world--just generally but also the specific writing world that we've brought him into. The conference thing cracked us up indeed!

Steve Liskow said...

Great post, Art & Tara. Love how you both complement and encourage each other and still make the family work. Terrific lessons there. I love the Book Lunch/Launch story.

My wife and I met doing theater, and she continues to do that because she's much better than I was, but it means we have to be flexible about meals so she can make rehearsals and sound checks. She doesn't believe it, but she's also a much better writer than I am so I use her as a sounding board when all else isn't working, and she's always right.

I don't know how "normal" families survive without some form of creativity to add to the spark. You can only watch so much TV or play so many games, but when you're inventing new stuff every day, it always stays new and exciting.

Congratulations.

David Dean said...

Having met Dash, the Endearing, I really enjoyed this piece (I would have enjoyed it without having met him, and all of you, but the experience was enhanced by that happy day). Robin and I have been reliving our younger family days of late by caring for grandsons Finn and Declan. Finn, like Dash, is slow to move when time is of the essence, and in a tearing great hurry when we're not. He also dislikes socks, jackets, and going outside. Though once he is outside he dislikes going back in regardless of the weather. Little brother Declan watches and learns. My posting on Monday is almost a companion piece to yours, Art and Tara, covering a later time when the children get a little older and you can yell at them and they at you. It's fun. Lots to look forward to.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks for chiming in, Steve and David!

Steve, thanks for sharing your story of creativity in the family--much appreciate the resonant perspective indeed. And like you, I think my wife is the better writer in the family too!

And David — so much appreciate again all your kindness with Dash and have loved hearing your stories of your own grandchildren. Very much looking forward to your post on Monday!

LynDee Walker said...

Oh y'all. This is the best blog post I've read in a long time.

I generally think you two are super-hero bad-asses, because while I've sometimes felt it would be nice for Justin to really understand all the ups and downs of this business, I'm not sure we could handle it if we were trying to juggle the kids and their activities and school and two writing careers. Plus I need someone who's grounded and logical to keep my anxiety in check. :) But you guys make it look easy from the outside, even when I know it's probably not. And I've told you this before, but...Dash really is a great kid. I get the guilt (and I hear Harry Chapin in my head, too), but y'all are doing the parenting thing right.

Having seen the personality variety in my three (I have one math/sci geek, one book nerd, and one who likes everything), I'm interested to see if Dash grows into a writer (I have to admit if I were betting, my money would go on that), or an architect or automotive engineer or doctor.

Hope y'all have a nice weekend, and Happy Mother's Day, Tara!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks for the nice note here, LynDee—and the encouragement always!

Appreciate the perspectives here--both on the writing life and relationships and kids.

And as for Dash's future career, it looks like he's leaning heavily toward ghostbusting these days.... :-)

Robert Lopresti said...

Fun piece. In the last decade I have written three stories about kidnapped children. A friend of mine won't let me near his kids.

mickibrowning.com said...

This post made me smile. I'm so glad I had the opportunity to meet Dash at Malice. Regardless of the path he choses, it's obvious he will succeed. Reading your post explains why.

Art Taylor said...

Rob: Ha!!
And Micki: Thanks so much for the kind words! Having Dash at Malice was really a lot of fun for us too!

Eve Fisher said...

You guys are wonderful! And yes, Dash will grow up reading and writing and in general like the rest of us crazies!

Paula Gail Benson said...

What a terrific and inspiring message! It was a delight to get to see you all at Malice this year. How wonderful to think I know a new literary dynasty. But, if Dash does decide to design cars instead of write dashingly suspenseful stories, I'll buy his first convertible!

Leigh Lundin said...

Art and Tara, what a wonderful article. Tara, in past articles I loved hearing about you and your son and this puts more frosting on the cake.

Given the name Dashiell and his enjoyment of conferences, how can he avoid being a writer? And didn’t he have a Legos Shaggy Mystery van? It’s a given! You’ll have to incorporate, write off his toys as a business expense, and register him on panels.

Love the interview.

Art Taylor said...

Hi, Eve, Paula, and Leigh --
Thanks so much for the enthusiastic comments here!

"Literary dynasty"—such fun to think about! And Dash is indeed a storyteller already, so... now he just needs to learn to write without asking us to spell each individual word for him. :-)

Step by step....

And yes, Leigh, I like the idea of writing off his toys!

Scott Adlerberg said...

Art, so much of this struck a chord. My son is 11 now, so he wants to do more stuff on his own or with his friends than he used to, but he still says that I spend too much time checking my phone. And I completely relate to what Tara was saying about watching horror films. Somehow I can't easily watch all the harder edged horror stuff I used to without batting an eye. And I'm plotting a novel now that will have a kid as a central character. You feel now's your chance to put a child dead smack at the center of a story because you're completely in that mental and emotional space and it might not come back once your child is older. Great post.

Jeff Baker said...

Yes! Wonderful article! I agree with all the comments!

B.K. Stevens said...

Wonderful post, Art and Tara! And I loved seeing Dash at Malice, seeing how comfortable and at home he seemed there. I think it's great that you bring him to conferences, readings, and, yes, book launches (though a book lunch sounds like fun, too). If we can find ways to involve our children in our work, if they come to understand why we find it so fascinating and satisfying, I think it can bring us closer together. (I'll have more to say about that in my Family Fortnight post tomorrow.)

Cynthia Kuhn said...

LOVE this post. It touches on so many of the complexities of trying to pursue a writing career while raising children (not to mention juggling other jobs). And you're obviously succeeding at both! Dash is so delightful--really enjoyed talking with him at Malice. And with both of you, of course!

Agree completely with the superhero badass designation.

“You bought a book and then had lunch?” = HA!

Tara Laskowski said...

Oh my goodness! Thanks so much to everyone for leaving such kind comments here! I appreciate you taking the time to read and for all your lovely remarks about Dash. We think he's pretty cool, but we're also biased. :-) XO

Art Taylor said...

Thanks so much, Scott, Jeff, Bonnie, and Cynthia.

Scott: Hope that book is coming along well! And as you know, I've loved your posts/essays about your own son; it's meant a lot to me to read your writing on fatherhood and family, so doubly looking forward to it.

Bonnie: Looking forward to your post tomorrow too! And yes, book lunch--indeed!

And Cynthia: Thanks again for all your kindness with Dash; he loved meeting you too!

Shari Randall said...

You and Tara have a wonderful partnership and it's great to see Dash so at home in your world. I look forward to seeing what path the youngest member of the Laskowski-Taylor writing dynasty takes. BTW, in the photo, does Dash have leather elbow patches on his sweater? How writerly!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks for the kind words, Shari--and yes on those leather patches! It's a great sweater. :-)

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Enjoyed seeing Dash at Malice and observing him during your panel (don't worry, I was listening, too). Most importantly, as you note in your post, is recognizing the need to balance child time, for parents to still find time to personally achieve and be satisfied (you guys are both winners), and being encouraging (the three of you seem to be doing that for each other). This generational thing can work - look at the Kellermans, kings , etc and as you note - even if Dash finds a different field, he is proud of you and you'll both be behind him. A very touching and thoughtful post

Art Taylor said...

Thanks so much, Debra! I'll admit, I'd hoped that Dash and Tara might sit in the back at the panel in case he got restless--but they had the side door there as an escape route, and I'm so glad that all turned out well. Several people came up later and remarked on how well-behaved he was. We couldn't have been prouder. :-)

And proud generally of him, of course! We've very fortunate in all ways.

Appreciate your kind words here and encouragement always!

John Floyd said...

Great post, Art, and a great interview--I'm really enjoying these SS Family Fortnight columns, even though I'm late catching up on many of them.

Though I've met you on several occasions, Art, I've not met Dash, and I look forward to doing that. I'll say about Dash what I said about Leigh Lundin--how could he NOT be a writer? What talent you and Tara have, in your family!!