What Having a Baby Taught Me About Writing

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Marston Atticus

Introducing Marston Atticus Stephen Bunting!

On Thursday, April 18, my son Marston Atticus made his dramatic entrance into the world. In the last week, I have changed forty-seven diapers, swaddled him sixty-four times, and bounced him to sleep for innumerable hours.

What I haven't done much of is write. Yes, I've jotted down the occasional note to jog my memory later, but this post is the first serious writing I've managed to do. Babies take a lot of time!

However, having a baby has also taught me something surprising about writing and drama.

The Two Elements of Drama

There are two essential elements to create drama and suspense in your writing:

  1. A character you care about.
  2. Doubt about the future (in other words, a dramatic question).

If you don't have a character you care about, you won't care about her future and whether she gets the things she wants. That's why so much writing advice says protagonists must be likable.

Suspense requires empathy, and to tell a good story, you have to make the reader care about your characters. (Care to tweet that?)

However, if you don't create events that throw the future of your characters into doubt, if you don't make the reader ask “What happens next,” you won't have much of a story. Suspense requires both empathy and doubt.

How to Create Drama In Life and Art

Life contains it's own drama, but different stages of life have different levels of drama:

  • Dating. In my experience, dating is full of emotional mood swings, ecstatic highs and despondent lows. You care about your significant other, but there's doubt about your future together—a perfect recipe for drama.
  • Marriage. When your relationship progresses from dating to marriage, some of the drama disappears, for better or worse. While you care about your spouse even more than you did when you were dating, there is less doubt about the future and thus less drama.
  • Children. While some of the drama of life disappears in marriage, in my brief experience, the drama returns when you have a baby. You care about your child almost more than you can bear, but at the same time, the future is completely in doubt. The drama that faded in marriage returns as strong, if not stronger, than before.

As a new parent, I've found I'm constantly asking dramatic questions: Will he like me? Will he grow up to be happy? Will I be a good parent? 

And of course, there are the worries, the vivid scenarios that every parent plays in their minds. The question “What's the worst that could happen” is much worse than ever: What if I drop him on the concrete sidewalk? What if we get into a car accident and his car seat fails? What if he chokes on something and I can't get it out?

Writing With a Baby

Your characters are your babies, and I'm realizing that having a child of your own helps you become a better parent to your characters.

You become more empathetic. You have a deeper perspective into the human condition. And you're constantly imagining vivid, frightening scenes of things that could go wrong for your child (or is that just me?), perfect material for your stories.

The suggestion that you should have children to improve your writing might be going to far, but what I'm coming to find is that living life to its fullest and caring deeply about others is one of the best ways to become a better writer.

What about you? What has having children taught you about writing and storytelling?

PRACTICE

Tell a story that answers the question, “What's the worst that could happen?”

Write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to comment on a few practices by other writers.

Good luck!

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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30 Comments

  1. Eileen

    Congrats again, Joe. Having my son has taught me and continues to teach me so much about life and about myself. So many of the things I’ve written have been prompted by things I’ve seen him do or heard him say. And, you are right, if our eyes are open, they do give us a deeper perspective in the the human condition.

    Reply
  2. Tyler Braun

    Being a new dad myself I can directly relate with quite a bit of this. My struggle lately is that parenting a newborn is a lot of work with little reward. The kid can’t talk, might smile if you’re lucky, and cries a lot. It’s a pretty boring story. So like you, I haven’t written much but what I have written has been about finding purpose in the mundane.

    Reply
    • Birgitte Rasine

      Hey Tyler… keep your head up! That first seemingly “boring” investment of endless nights and laundry and feeding and diaper changing eventually bears a lot of fruit. A LOT of fruit. Just because your babe can’t talk yet doesn’t mean s/he isn’t drinking in every stimulus around her, by the bucketfuls. Babies are much more perceptive than most people realize. Keep interacting and talking to your baby; and one day it will explode into a “sudden” evolutionary boom.

      One thing I can say, enjoy the pre-walking months as much as you possibly can. Once your child starts walking, it really is all over. 🙂

      Reply
      • Tyler Braun

        This is great Birgitte. Thanks.

        Reply
        • Man O' Clay

          Yeah, Tyler, enjoy the little one while you can. We have three boys and now they run around so much – and all you want is to cuddle them like you did when they were new.

          Count how many times you actually get to hold that baby. No, really, count up how many times you get to. I tried to imagine the exact number when we had our first. It really made me grateful for each moment.

          Reply
  3. KathyPooler

    Hi Joe, Welcome to the wonderful, exhausting, exhilarating world of parenthood! Having children has filled my life with love, adventure, humor, angst and lots of fodder for storytelling. Once you hold that baby in your arms, you never see the world in quite the same way again. That applies to grandchildren , too. Great post!

    Reply
  4. staci troilo

    I’m so happy for you. And I wish I could tell you it gets easier. But the challenges and the worries just change. My son is driving now and my daughter is about to start learning. College is looming in the not-too-distant future. Soon I won’t be able to intervene if I want to. You think it’s scary having all the control? Try facing giving it up when you’re certain they aren’t ready! Enjoy the snuggles while you have them. And congratulations again.

    Reply
  5. Birgitte Rasine

    What a sweet, thoughtful post Joe. I can empathize (!!) with your sentiments because it was the birth of my daughter who inspired me to get my talent in gear (and shape) and start writing again after many years of complete and utter neglect.

    And my literary fountain hasn’t stopped gushing since.

    Reply
  6. Harish Kumar

    Hi Joe,
    Congratulations!
    I can totally relate to you since we have little ones too. There are many challenges and much drama but it is totally worth it! And watching children gives a boost to my own creativity because they have such an amazing beginners mind! I really like the writing advise courtesy of your newborn! I also like the part where you mentioned treating your characters like your babies and caring about your stories.
    All the best!
    Harish

    Reply
  7. Ann Hinds

    My children taught me emotions I never thought possible like extreme joy and complete rage. Had I not had children, I might have never known those experiences as deeply. It’s not enough to be just happy or mad and only children can drive you to both. Congratulations

    Reply
  8. Patrick Marchand

    Congratulations Joe! I do not have children of my own, but I experience there presence daily at my winter job and they truly are a wonderful thing (When they are not crying your ears off that is xD)
    Good luck!

    Reply
  9. Man O' Clay

    Congrats! No, it’s not just you. I stand over my sons nightly just to be sure they’re breathing. Pray, pray, pray. That’s the only way to stop worrying.

    I also tell my creative writing students constantly that they need to create characters I care about. If I don’t care about what happens to them, why should I keep reading?

    Good post.

    Reply
  10. eva rose

    Wonderful news, Joe! I bet your emotions were never so close to the surface! When I care for little ones I try not to think about “the worst that could happen”. Instead I pray constantly for a guiding hand over mine, for patience, for lots of ways to show love. It’s true that our story characters are as real as our babies. We need to give them “good parenting”!

    Reply
  11. LetiDelMar

    Congratulations!! Don’t worry… I took about 4 months off writing right after having a baby but since then have been ridiculously prolific 😉 Give yourself permission to slow down a bit and enjoy your new baby. I’m wishing you all the best!

    Reply
  12. Renee Naya Scattergood

    Great article! Congrats on your new baby. He’s gorgeous. I can relate… babies do take a lot of time. It gets easier, though. Mine is seven now. She still takes a lot of time, but she’s a lot more independent now. I have more time for myself.

    Reply
  13. Madeline Tasky Sharples

    Congratulations. What a beautiful boy. And I love this post. Being a parent teaches us so much. Believe me you’ll never stop asking those important questions as you raise your children and even after they’ve grown and left home. That you relate creating a character to parenting is brilliant. Thank you and I wish you and your family all the best.

    Reply
  14. Steph

    Hi Joe! My own kids have had me going in all directions these past months and as a result I haven’t written hardly a thing. But these phases come and go, a time for everything, and I still read my Write Practice updates whenever I get the chance. Anyway, I wanted to come out of Lurkville to send you and your wife a huge CONGRATULATIONS!!! What a beautiful baby, what happy news. And don’t forget…sleep when the baby sleeps! 🙂

    Reply
  15. Megan Rose Tennenbaum

    Congratulations Mr. Joe. Though I do not yet have a babe of my own, I have helped raise those around me, including my sisters, and know the joys they can bring (as well as the many sleepless nights). This practice is written in honor of your baby boy, to show the light that shines through with the birth of a child.

    We huddle around her emaciated frame, trying to muffle her screams of agony and murmuring soft words of encouragement. I am kneeling at the foot of the bed, a stolen garment waiting in my hands.

    The women’s once long, beautiful raven black hair now can only be seen in occasional tufts on her scruffy head. Her once sparkling brown eyes now stare back blankly at us. The black and white striped is hiked up to her waist to prevent it from becoming bloody (which would alert the guards for sure) and the two women at her sides squeeze her hands in an attempt to give comfort.

    “It’s coming!” One of the women whisper excitedly as the crown of the infant’s head appears. “Rivka! Quick, hand me the cloth!”

    Handing over the cloth I watch with wide eyes as the women swaddles the baby, whom is staring back up at us, not making even the smallest peep. Suddenly women begin to crowd around us, all yearning to catch a glimpse of the baby.

    The mother’s eyes come alive for the first time as she holds her baby close. “Her name,” she says in a soft, rasping voice, “will be Chayah…”

    Reply
  16. Invisablefrog

    It’s not done.

    I always hated the thought of the future. I always asked myself ‘what is the
    worst thing that can go wrong?’, never anything positive and if I did it usually
    ended in disaster. So I tried hard not to think of the future at all costs,
    maybe that explains my life right now. Why it isn’t that great, and why I’m not
    happy. Since I never once thought of what I would do in a bad situation and
    tried my hardest to believe everything was going well. Even when it
    wasn’t.

    Looking around at the dirty dishes, the pile of laundry, the babies making a bigger mess of everything and the pigsty that seemed so natural to me now, I felt as if I was being suffocated. This mess would never get cleaned up, not with Joey and the kids just following me and making a bigger mess. It was all so meaningless, it would just get filthy again and I would have to clean it up, by myself, only to repeat the process the next day. I wanted to lie down and sleep, just forget my problems but I had to see the social worker lady today.

    I don’t even know why I had too, I don’t abuse my kids. I do
    everything for them, I cook, clean, listen to them and do everything that a
    mother needs to do for them. So what if I sometimes don’t wash their clothes,
    you try washing two adults and five children’s clothing, once a couple weeks is
    enough and once in a while I just flat out refuse to cook for them. Junior’s old
    enough now, he can cook for his younger siblings.

    Okay maybe I don’t cook and clean but what’s the point? I do however listen to their problems. I know Andrew isn’t doing to well in his P.E. class, Missy likes half the boys in her class, yet she has cooties so they all stay away (which I am extremely thankful for, she’s far too young for that stuff), Andrea loves music, wanting one day to become a famous musician, Junior loves mechanical stuff, and Keith likes fire, which is why is has a stash of matches in his underwear toy box.

    I’m a little worried about Keith, he doesn’t seem to care about the risk
    of getting burned and that scares me so much but he doesn’t listen to me about how he might get very badly burned.

    I trudge up the stairs, ignoring the fight that’s going on between Missy and Andrew. That poor boy is getting the stuffing beaten out of him, though I can’t help but feel slightly proud of Missy, she’s a survivor that little one, fought her way through being born prematurely and being a fat happy baby. Still I’ll have to
    deal with that if it’s still going on when I get back down, the last thing I
    need right now is for Andrew to go to school with another black eye. He’s the
    runt in the family and at school. I should get his father, Joey to teach him how
    to defend himself but Joey’s to drunk all the time and I don’t think Andrew
    would actually use it to defend himself. He’d probably just get back at Missy,
    which I think would be even worse, since she’s only 7 and he’s 11, plus he’s
    like his father, who has a bully complex. So it’s probably better he’s the runt,
    he can’t bully other people and maybe by the time he’s older he’ll know what
    it’s like to be bullied and won’t bully other people, hopefully.

    I make my way to my room, passing by the three rooms that the kids share. I wish there could have their own rooms, I know how much privacy matters but we can’t afford it.

    Going into my room I notice some singe marks on the wall. I feel
    faintly sick, thinking of the ways Keith could be badly burned and what happens
    if he dies. I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to banish the thought from my head.
    I’d hate to admit and I would never admit but Keith is my favorite. He’s my
    angel with his reddish brown curls that remind me so much of my own mother. He’s the reason I’m still here, I would be gone if it weren’t for him. He’s the
    reason I get out of bed and still function just so I can here his laugh that
    comes from his belly and see his dimpled smiles.

    I shut the door, making
    my way over to the closet. I don’t have many nice clothes and the ones I do have
    are out of fashion or stained but it’ll have to do.

    Reply
  17. Denise Berry

    Congratulations Joe! What a beautiful baby. No, it isn’t just you worrying about the worst that could happen! Even though my daughter is now 30 years don’t old (!) I still worry and I try to prevent myself from visualizing scary scenarios. She knows I will be there for her no matter what happens-and actually, that’s all that matters. The only advice I have is: don’t race around doing things when he sleeps-you need to sleep then too. It’s the only way to stave off serious exhaustion. Congrats again!!!

    Reply
  18. Rebecca

    Dear Madeline,

    Danny talked to me last night… told me what he thought about kids. He knows that I want kids… and he always says that he’s “cool with it.” We talked about it seriously last night and he told me that he feels like we are in the right place to have kids – we make enough money, we have stable jobs, a decent house – we basically have all the right things set up for us. I find it funny that Danny has the ability to objectify everything – to rattle statistics in the conversations where you would expect it the least. I guess he can’t help it… he spends a lot of his time buried in books, journal articles, studies, etc. Med school kind of brainwashed him, and then lab work kind of took his personality to a whole new level. He loves to make the subjective objective. I used to find it annoying… but now it’s become one of his quirks.

    Danny said to me “you haven’t hit 30 yet and so you are at a good age to bear children. Your chances of birth defects are quite low. Besides this, my sperm count is quite high. This should work.”

    Madeline… I’m scared… I told Danny about this, but he rattled off more statistics. Sometimes I wonder if this habit of his is really just a shield… I don’t know. I told him that I’m scared of getting post-natal depression. I have had this disease for years, I have fought every episode with drugs – good effective drugs – Antidepressants… but antidepressants and breastfeeding don’t go together. I worry too… maybe I will be a monster if I become a mother. I have a family history of Bipolar Disorder, I have never had a manic episode myself but what if this triggers it – what if I get bipolar disorder – so severe that I’ll be like my mother… the lady who lived in a psychiatric hospital for half of her life. When she was home… she was either high and broke, or depressed – planning or attempting yet another suicide. I don’t know if I feel sorry for her. I still haven’t come to terms with the fact that she’s dead … to be honest, it feels like she’s been in hospital for years. Her past haunts my future.

    Molly

    Reply
  19. Yvette Carol

    First of all, congratulations, Joe and to your wife! It’s hard for me to know if having children changes your writing, because I had my first son at 17 and I started writing fiction for children at the same time. They’ve always been inextricably linked in my world. But, it’s real interesting to hear your perspective…

    Reply
  20. Eyrline Morgan

    When I had my first baby, I felt that the worse thing that could happen was if something was wrong with her, or she didn’t live. When it was time to nurse her, the nurse came in and told me there was something wrong with the baby and the doctor would explain. I was livid. I made a call to my doctor and left a message of what the nurse had said. He immediately came to my room to reassure me that she would be all right. She had some cysts on her gums and they had to be removed surgically. Her legs were also very crooked and she was “pigeon-toed. He said she was a large baby and I didn’t have room for her and her legs were twisted around each other. He said splints would cure that, but not to expect her to walk until she was two or three. She was put in the splints, and learned to walk at the age of 8 months, with or without the splints. Her legs did straighten out, and she successfully nursed, even after the surgery in her mouth. As she was a 10 month baby, she rolled over in the hospital and did everything early. She loved to climb, and my fear then was that she would get somewhere that she couldn’t return. Once we found her on top of the old piano, sound asleep. My fears were unfounded, until she was a teenager. Butthat’s

    nfonded,untilthenaadultadadult,aththat’sththat’s another story

    Reply
  21. Li

    Congratulations Joe. You’ve now crossed over to the dark side. No chage can plunge you deeper or more quickly into adult thinking than having a child, especially while they are very young. Self preservation kicks in and you’re overwhelmed by the delicacy of new life. Wait till he starts looking into your eyes and sees the entire world. I couldn’t help but feel humbled by these frequent engagements, so intense.

    Reply
  22. Jeff Goins

    Congrats, Joe. It’ll change your life.

    Reply
  23. AliceFleury

    I’m kind of late at reading this. Congratulations on your new son. I have 4 grown children and you just brought back a bunch of dramatic questions I have forgotten. Thanks for this post.

    Reply
  24. Alana Terry

    congratulations on such a beautiful baby. I really enjoyed how you compared it to suspense writing – you care about the character yet have doubts about their future. Many blessings to you and joy in your parenting journey!

    Reply
  25. jim calocci

    What’s the worst that could happen
    what really comes to mind
    maybe you have nothing to say
    or what it is ain’t so kind
    you have something on your mind
    what if you say it poorly
    hey,maybe it ain’t all that WORST
    but,it is kinda SQUIRRELY
    What’s the worst thing that can happen
    you might not have something to say
    or when you are done with your WORST
    youze won’t be hearing horray
    you’re lost for an answer
    to really express yourself
    the issue may not be all that clear
    at least not the way it’s coming out
    so bubba,time is of the essence
    say what you need to say
    when it’s all said and done
    WHAT’S THE WORST THAT CAN HAPPEN, just happened ,hey !!!

    Reply

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