Monday, 20 January 2014

On Demographics and German Writers

Two newspaper articles have caused a storm in the German literary teacup over the past few days: one about the family backgrounds of creative writing graduates, and one about having kids and trying to write.

In Die Zeit (now online), creative writing graduate Florian Kessler, the son of a teacher and a neurology professor, wrote a longish piece about how creative writing graduates are almost all sons and daughters of middle-class professionals. Cue mild outrage over one middle-class kid outing other middle-class kids (or getting it wrong). For me, it's a bit of a no-brainer: if you're the first person in your family to go to university, you're more likely to study something that will help you earn a decent living later on. Creative writing? Not so much. Luckily, the German-speaking world only has four creative writing schools at university level (two in Germany, one each in Switzerland and Austria). So all those working-class poets, essayists and novelists can still make it big.

Something I found more interesting, although perhaps a little derivative of an American discussion a while back, was an article by the novelist and mother-of-two Julia Franck in Die Welt. Her theory: writing and children are incompatible. This seems a tiny bit odd because she seems to manage it anyway. But she argues that having children makes it impossible for her to devote as much time and attention to her writing as she would like (i.e. all of it) - and also that having children means writers can't travel and promote their books as much as is expected of them.
Looking at the world of the literary business and our state and financial system, the combination of writing and parenting appears an alien concept. Germany is one of the countries with the most numerous literary grants, and writers even receive invitations to events and writer-in-residence programmes from abroad. None of these makes practical sense for us, because a person with children is not a dis-social entity – and every prerequisite for our writing depends more on childcare than on Roman olive trees or the Californian coast.
How many invitations to readings and festivals, lectures and book fairs around the world have I had to turn down over the past decade, what attention and income have I had to forgo? (...)
And what does the mother-writer travelling in such a temporal corset "bring back" from these trips? Rio, Stockholm, Saint Petersburg – and every evening your own voice in your ears, the illustrious event "Julia Franck reads – and speaks" – to the point of tedium if not self-disgust, afterwards a small dark cramped room, in between a series of people asking questions, people you'll never see again – and in hardly a hotel room in the world or airport or station waiting room a desk, quiet, concentration, and everywhere you miss the children terribly and feel all the more restless and insecure and vain and in the end absolutely overloaded by the conversion to profit of this love and disease so intimate, that of writing.
Up until the latter paragraph above, I did not get Franck's article one little bit. You have kids, you get childcare, you work when they're not around, like everyone else. I understand that people feel a special drive to write and that writing is an activity that sucks people in and makes them obsessive. One of the reasons I understand that is that translation is similar for me, sometimes. Like Franck, I can go into a mental tunnel and lose track of everything around me while I'm working. Children, I have found, are a good way to stop a person doing that all the time, and that's a good thing in my book because spending all your time in another world is not very healthy. I don't like to tell people how to live their lives but hey, it's OK that children need to eat because that reminds their parents to eat as well.

But then came that paragraph, and it shocked me because I've felt exactly the same way. I enjoy getting away from family routine for a short time, but after a few days it becomes hollow and empty and sad and heartbreakingly lonely, because I start missing my daughter. And people who don't have kids don't seem to understand that. For a while, I've been apologising for "not liking travelling". I turn things down or don't apply for things or just avoid the subject of working anywhere other than Berlin. Too complicated. I sometimes think it's very gauche of me not to like travelling. What I don't like though, it turns out, is missing my daughter. I shall stop apologising.

So yes, in a sense children are incompatible with pursuing an all-encompassing creative passion to the full. I'm finding it hard to write about this without sounding moralistic and preachy. The best I can do is this: children bring parents a lot of rewards and if you want to have them, they're a wonderful thing. They earth you, but that means they tie you down. They make you attached to something other than yourself. For me, that's a good thing, but I can see it might be difficult if writing is the only thing you want to do in life. I'm grateful to Julia Franck for writing about the problem so eloquently without denying the terrifying love on both sides of the equation.

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