January 23, 2008

DTQ&A: Elisha Cooper, Author Of Crawling: A Father's First Year

elisha_cooper_crawling.jpgI've been an admirer of Elisha Cooper's writing since I first got a copy of his book, Crawling: A Father's First Year from his publisher Pantheon in 2006. His stories of taking his newborn daughter to Chez Panisse cracked me up and kind of grossed me out [apparently, they don't have changing tables].

This past fall, Crawling came out in paperback, and I suggested to Elisha that we do an email Q&A about his experience writing the book and the perspectives and response he's received since. Then he kept following up with me as I totally flaked, as we moved, as I put the nursery2.0 together, and as we had the next kid. Parenthood's learned him to be patient, that's for sure. As a preface, he states,

i should say in advance, and in general, that i don’t feel i have great answers. much of “crawling” was realizing just that: that i didn’t have answers to the questions posed by fatherhood. maybe the answer is in the asking though.
Still, it's interesting stuff. Our discussion is after the jump. Check it out and join in if you like.

And also check out Crawling: A Father's First Year in paperback or giftier hardcover at Amazon. It's an easy, engaging, insightful, relateable read, whether you are a dad, you're becoming one, or you just know one. [That's not very blurby, is it? Oh well, read on.]

DT: Though some of the events are obviously hectic and exhausting, Crawling feels really clear and calmly written. How did you write it? Was it written in real time? Or begun in real time? Did you keep notes or a journal as you went?

EC: During my daughter’s first year, I went through around twenty notebooks (small brown 4x6 Strathmore sketchbooks). I sketched her while she nursed, or wrote notes about things we did that day. At the end of the year I entered the notes into my computer and started playing around. But it wasn’t until a year after that that I started crafting these journal entries into more distinct essays. It took time to see the connections (pulling together all my notes about going out to dinner, for instance). So, in a way, I always was writing the book, but it took much longer to really write the book.

elisha_cooper_crawling2.jpgDT: There's been a proliferation of parent blogs, or parents blogging, anyway, and we make giant pools of photos and video of our kids, on iPhoto, flickr, YouTube. What are your thoughts on the urge/need to document this new parent process/experience? What about the urge to share it? Or to read about someone else's? Is there a distinction between the moment-by-moment documenting of a blog or a photostream and the more reflective--and/or edited--view of a book? Are these things you thought about or wrestled with as you wrote, or that you hear about as you talk to people about the book?

Sharing is great. It’s why we write, I think: to share our experience in the world with others. But there is a difference between writing about your navel (“Hey, look at my belly!”) and writing about one’s belly in such a way that it makes someone else want to look at their own belly (“Hey, my belly is a punching bag for my child!”). Okay, inelegant metaphor, but you get the point. To expand on my earlier answer, there was a real process of taking my notes from my first year of fatherhood and expanding on them. Taking particulars and making them universal, playing with the anxieties and humors we all share. I’m not sure I did it, but that was the aim. I guess that means I strongly believe in editing, in taking a step back, in crafting, in books themselves. Though if there’s a writer who can pull off that stream-of-consciousness thing, good for them (though I believe that there’s skill and sneaky crafting in the best of that sort of writing as well).

DT: One of the thing that stood out most powerfully in Crawling was your frank but brief discussion of your temper. It's not something you really hear parents/dads talking about much, even though frustration and anger and short fuses are probably a hallmark of a new parent's experience. What's your sense of how people, especially guys, address or ignore anger? How did you decide to address and include it the way you did in the book?

First off, did I overcome the anger and impatience of being a parent? Fuck! I wish! [ed. note: sorry, mom. Cut & paste!] Again, as with the previous questions, the answer may be time. Distance and time. Because when the thing itself was happening, I was freaking furious. Confused and beaten. It was only later that I could make sense of what had made me so angry. Often two year later, in a different state (Illinois, where I wrote the book, and not California, where I mainly lived it). How I wrote about my feelings later may have been more nuanced than the initial raw reality. So it took space. And, the crazy irony of parenting is that the lessons I may have learned then don’t always seem to serve me well now. I’m still fucking up. Or, I’m fucking up in new ways. Though, there was something particularly naked about that first year.

To answer your question further: I don’t think men acknowledge anger, not much. But when we do, when we are aware of it and admit it to friends, it can be a tremendous relief. I still call my best male friends after getting angry at my daughters. Though acknowledging anger remains a delicate thing (maybe that’s why we’re attracted to the subject, in both bad and good ways). Anger is out of control, which means we’re out of control around these small people we’re supposed to love. But they do these annoying things. And we’re related to them. Fuck. See? I have no answers, though talking is good. Or, as I wrote in “Crawling,” taking one’s anger and redirecting it toward strangers. My peeve of the moment: delivery guys going the wrong way on one-way streets (we live in New York now), and almost running over me and the girls as we walk home from school. When I’m angry with my daughters, confused by the frustrations of being a father, a well-placed forearm to an unsuspecting cyclist turns everything sunny.

DT: Spoken like a true New Yorker. I always wanted to drop a shoulder into delivery bikers on the sidewalk, even before I had a kid.

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