No matter how old we are we never lose that excited yet nervous feeling, once Labor Day ends. Writer Joel Schwartzberg explores his adventures in parenting, and shows us in a fresh way that it’s not easy being a Dad, or a kid, especially after a divorce. Below my “writer to writer” interview with Joel, a prolific author, columnist and blogger. Let his energy inspire you, and after you read this, sit down and do your (writing) homework!
I’d been writing personal essays for outlets like The Star Ledger, New Jersey Monthly and The New York Times Magazine for a few years, but a real theme didn’t emerge in my work until after my divorce. That change, and my transition to a new kind of fatherhood, brought forth so many feelings, conflicts, fears, and thoughts to the surface, where they consequently inspired my writer’s brain. Each new realization seemed connected to a rich story about my parenting life.
I’d been kicking around the idea of a random collection of work, but now I had a specific niche. These were the kind of stories I was looking when I first got separated, but never found. The book market has many “how to’s” and legal advice for divorced fathers, but few real-life adventures and encouragements. So I knew the book would be unique, yet speak to experiences shared by millions of men. Not just divorced dads, but all dads, really.
When my publisher and I agreed to create “The 40-Year-Old Version,” it was easy for me to fill it out with new essays, because I was learning more about my dadhood each week, and I have a passion for writing. It energizes me.
JD: What's your writing routine like? Any advice or writers juggling small children and their books (not literally)?
Every writer finds his or her “writing zone” in personal places. Or in my case, highly public places. Since I have a full-time job, I do almost all of my writing during my train commute between New Jersey and New York City. Maybe I write best when I’m not standing still. In fact, I regret not thanking New Jersey Transit in the dedication.
While my children often inspire my work, I write on my own time, not theirs. My advice to writers is to find your comfortable workspace -- safe from distraction -- and spend as much time there as you can.
JD: What about the title? Any arguments in house (yours or the publishing house)? What does Steve Carell think?
When The New York Times Magazine accepted my comic essay about moving in with my parents, the “Lives” editor suggested “The 37-Year-Old Version” as the title. I thought it was perfect for that piece. So perfect, in fact, that I later altered and appropriated it for my book.
It’s wonderfully appropriate because this is such a new chapter in my life in so many ways. The essays illustrate that transition point with both wit and honesty. Everyone seems to like both the title and the book’s cover image, which also conveys a clear point with humor.
JD: You really go out on a limb in exposing your very human fallability. Was this a risky book for you to write? What kind of reader responses have you gotten?
I find that American dads are strongly stereotyped. We're cast as clumsy failures (think: Ray Romano), but expected to be consistently strong. We're stereotyped as cool and disinterested, but expected to sacrifice everything for the sake of our children, as if our lives end when theirs begin. We're told to bury anxiety, vulnerability, and depression so deep that we're not even aware of it ourselves. With these stories, I’m reclaiming our humanity and fallibility because I think dads are often denied the rights to have -- much less express -- those feelings.
That stance earned me as much derision as admiration. Probably more so. Callers to a national radio show on which I appeared as well as people reacting to my Newsweek essay saw me as incredibly selfish and self-centered. Among other things, they called me a “coward”, a “whiner,” and a “terrible excuse” for a husband and father. Many people have told me I need to “man up.”
But a number of fathers have also approached me quietly to share their own stories of isolation, confusion, and stress. By and large – and to my surprise -- mothers have been very supportive of me finding my voice and sharing personal stories that, in men, are often kept secret or just plain denied.
JD: What are you working on next and what can you tell us about it?
I’m still writing about parenting in various magazines and weekly for a popular blog from The Star Ledger called “Parental Guidance”, so I know I have more funny and meaningful stories to share. How they become accessible to a mass market is yet to be decided.
I also teach well-received courses in public speaking and book marketing, and might like to distill those ideas into a book. But as long as I’m writing one way or another, on one public platform or another, I’m a pretty happy clam.
JD: Thanks, Joel! For more on this author’s many works: http://www.joelschwartzberg.net
For more tips on writing: (Bang the Keys )
Get to work, kiddies!
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