Parenting as a Study in Chiaroscuro
Chiaroscuro is the use of deep and subtle contrasts of light and dark in order to create a more dramatic effect. This variation of light and dark creates shadows, nuances and textures within an overall work, both visual works and textual works. As you navigate the first days of parenting, you may notice how very different our expectations of parenting and the actuality of parenting can be. Use this expected and actual contrast, the positives and negatives, the light and dark of parenting to create a sense of irony and humor. You will likely have very little time to write, except when the baby is sleeping, and then you probably need to sleep, pick up, make a meal…. Here are some tips from veteran writers who have navigated the difficulties of being a new parent and still being a writer.
Finding Time to Write
Here are a few suggestions:
- Send yourself text messages with story ideas so you don’t forget!
- Keep a small journal in the bedroom, by the bed, the bathroom, the kitchen, in the car, in your baby bag, by your favorite place on the couch. Have a small journal, such as a Moleskine, in each of these locations so when inspiration AND exhaustion are competing, you can more easily jot down that story idea without having to search through the house.
- Small spurts of narrative count! Don’t worry about writing an entire story draft in a single sitting. A few lines will do. It might take longer, but at least you are recording your creativities along the way.
- If you’re working and parenting a newborn AND still trying to be a writer, leave for work fifteen minutes early. Run through drive-thru for your coffee then find a place to park and sit with your journal for a few minutes. Let this space be creative time. Even if all you can concentrate on is how incredibly tired you are, write about that. Just a paragraph. Designate your spouse or a family member to be on point for a half hour in the morning while you get your coffee, write a few words and get yourself to work. You deserve it. (It is very easy to let ourselves become “guilty moms and dads,” feeling like if we turn the phone off for even fifteen minutes, some tragedy will strike, but as long as you have someone responsible and who you trust on point for that short time period, you can feel confident and have a bit of time to yourself and check your messages when you turn it back on. The world will still be there if you take a short breather.)
- Read your favorite author to your baby while you’re are feeding or napping. Babies don’t know the context of the language, only the tone. Reading is an essential part of keeping your narrative creativities flowing. And don’t hesitate to jot a note or two in the back of your favorite novel or collection. When inspiration hits, any writing surface is fair game!
- Most of all, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. With a newborn, you are going to be exhausted and many things you might want to do perfectly and quickly will simply take more time, so give yourself that time. If you are a writer who was used to writing of the first draft of a short story in a single sitting, retrain your craft so that you can dedicate your creativities to a short story draft over a week or two weeks, a month, letting the first draft come out imperfectly along the way. You can take as much time as you need to perfect it later.
The Many Shades of Narrative Chiaroscuro
Chiaroscuro is a foundational element in developing excellent narrative. It can be incorporated into nearly every facet of storytelling. Though literary narrative takes a less dramatic arc as what a more commercial narrative would (we do not write car chases and blowing up city scenes, usually), we do write a great deal of emotional highs and lows into our character arcs.
Consider the following contrasts as you write your parenting narratives, whether you are working in nonfiction, fiction or whatever your chosen form is:
- Setting: Think of setting chiaroscuro as the paint and the background on the canvas. How do you use light and dark within the visual, auditory, aromatic and sensual (the see, hear, smell, taste and touch) details of your settings?
- Moralistic/Ethical: Is there a spectrum of innocence and sin? Are you setting the moral compass of your characters/subjects or are you allowing them to work through the highs and lows of being human and fallible on the page? Fallible parents are human, connective and accessible to readers.
- Pacing: Are you allowing for a variable speed? Slow and quick?
- Language: Does your diction change from character to character? Do your sentences vary in length and poetic vehicles?
Reading to Our Babies
What is your favorite novel, collection or nonfiction? Start reading this now to your baby, every chance you get. Your child will love the sound of your soothing voice and the context makes no matter. Just read it melodiously. One mistake that many parents make, when having their first baby, is they lose a sense of self and aesthetic, replacing it with a person they think they should be for their child, when the person they are organically is exactly the person they should be. This lack of confidence in self can be a leading cause of postpartum depression. It is true that parenting changes us all and in many ways for the better, but instead of changing self completely, try “bending self.” If your favorite book of all time is Brett Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero, by all means, read it to your baby. She has no idea what you’re saying, she just likes the sound of your voice. Of course, as our children grow older, we must make choices as to what we feel is appropriate at what age, but babies are an easy audience.
Flavorwire put together a fantastic top 50 list of bedtime books every parent should read to her or his child. We highly recommend this list, including Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.
Films and Films from Text
Parenting.com put together a great list of family friendly movies. If you need some fantastic quiet time with baby, The Snowman is a wonderful, soothing film, with an introduction and narration by DAVID BOWIE!
Sometimes, we just need to know that we aren’t bad parents. Neighbors is a film that is guaranteed to help you feel better about any parenting mistake you might have made, today.
If you can find time during the daily chaos and family, jot notes. Jot them wherever you can. If you do well with taking audio notes on your iPhone, do it. Find an easy go to recording system so when inspirtaion hits, you can quickly get the idea out of your head and onto paper or in your smartphone so you won’t feel like you’re “missing” creative time. This feeling of missing out on your creativity can be really difficult for writers, artists, musicians. Value your need to find creative time. Make sure that your spouse or supporting family member or best friend understands this and values it, too.
Try to record the moments that strike you as particularly humorous, dichotic, ironic and resonant. Wait until you have a stretch of time, whenever that is, to go back and read your notes.
As you review your notes:
- Consider which of these recorded moments jump out as the most cathartic and emotional.
- Choose the two main people in this moment and assign them as subjects of your essay or characters in your fiction.
- Once you’ve identified the moment and the main subjects/characters, explore the subjects/characters. Consider this primary moment from each individual perspective and write the scene/moment from each subject/character perspective.
- Then move onto another moment….
Before long, you may find you have a longer work developing or you may find that you have an excellent short short work under 1000 words. Either way, keep this exploration and let it grow gradually. Don’t feel like you need to clean it up right away and send it off. Let it marinate, grow and speak to you. If you find you have something that sticks, consider sharing it with us in one of our group workshops, such as Short Story I, Personal Essay, Magic Realism I, The Bukowski Workshop, Mindfulness + Writing, Poetry I or any other that strikes you as suited to your work.
Writing Guidelines and Process for When You Have a Stretch of Time
First Draft: As you write the first draft, let your creativity go where it needs to go. First drafts are meant to be messy and creatively uninhibited. After writing the first draft, lay it to the side for at least a day before looking at it again. Many writers prefer to give it a few weeks or even a month. In the meantime, start working on another narrative or set of notes.
Second Draft: You aren’t under any quick turnaround deadlines, so take your time with this draft. Don’t worry yet about the line edits and so on. This is an exploration draft. Consider what in the narrative stands out. How well do you know your narrator, protagonist and antagonist? Spend more time with your characters and really focus on them. Where do you lose interest? What is incomplete and what can be more surgically detailed? Consider, during this revision, how the two characters interact and what that might mean in a sociopolitical and/or human relationship way. How do they foil each other? Flesh out any sections that might further reflect this sociopolitical undercurrent of the work but be careful not to make this undercurrent too obvious. Let the reader have room to work this out for him or herself. Remember, we don’t answer questions for our readers, we simply prompt our readers to ask good questions. Giving our readers room to make meaning for themselves within our narratives is a sign of artistic and literary excellence. This is also an excellent time to explore more than one PoV. (See the next lesson for a great PoV exercise.)
Third Draft: Read through again, and revise for language and lyricism. Now, lay the work aside for at least a day, few weeks, months, before your next step. In the meantime, start another narrative or set of notes.
Fourth Draft: Now read your most recent revision aloud as you record yourself. Upon listening to your recording, consider any language issues in your revision. You might also ask a trusted reader to read the manuscript aloud to you as you sit with your own copy and make revisions. Read it aloud to your baby, again and again. Imagine how fun it will be to tell your son or daughter, when they are older, that they were your first audience for the short story you had published. Hearing our language aloud is one of the quickest and surest ways to improve pacing, tone, and cadence.
It is always a good idea to give yourself time and space to begin this process of revision again, starting with the first draft suggestions. Anytime you rewrite any significant portion of a narrative, it will affect the rest of the narrative flow and so it is wise to begin the revision process again. Remember, revision is always a marathon, never a sprint.