REVIEW: Writing While Parenting by Ben Berman

Reviewed by Sandra Hager Eliason

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Two children playing with hula hoops are seen under the book title Writing While Parenting by Ben BermanBen Berman constantly thinks about writing, as evidenced in his book of short essays, Writing While Parenting (Able Muse Press; March 2023). Whether those thoughts occur while he is shoveling snow, driving the car, or having a child-free dinner with his wife, his mind ultimately turns to the making of poetry. At times, his essays read like snippets, or perhaps musings taken from a blog post, but when viewed as an entire piece, each represents a curated thought, put together with the efficiency of a poem. Each short essay is crafted and edited to present a vignette from his (generally parenting) life that serves as a metaphor for a poem or a discourse on the writing life. This book is tender and thoughtful, full of advice about writing and living woven with stories of the unexpected happenings of parenting.

Playing with his children, for example, he states:

“There’s something about [the game] Mother May I… that feels similar to writing with its balance of structure and freedom, its constraints that free the imagination, and its narrative framework that reminds us that stories are ultimately driven by the relationship between a character’s goals and the obstacles in the way.

“After all, my three-year-old’s aim is to get from one side of the room to the other, and when I tell her, No, you may not take six turtle steps forward; you must crabwalk sideways into the wall, it provides just enough conflict and tension, the perfect amount of falling action before her climactic dive for my feet.”

This is not a book you can devour in one sitting. It needs to be digested slowly and thoughtfully, much as you would a series of poems. While each essay presents itself as a brief life incident, a description of the event and reflection on it, on second reading, each is a meditation on the theme. As Berman tells us, “Poems can be hard to understand if we’re not used to reading them. They can be hard to understand even if we are used to reading them. They often require multiple readings and our undivided attention. Instead of compelling characters and dramatic story lines, they offer us interior landscapes and surprising associative leaps, words playing off one another in charged but subtle ways” which also describes his approach to the book and each individual essay.

The book contains thoughtful reflections about the importance of finding time to write. Any parent can relate to his sentiment, “Given how hectic parenting is, how impossible it is to balance a career and family, let alone fi­nd thirty seconds to pee without someone tugging on my leg, how do I suddenly ­find time to start a writing routine?” He continues, “[R]ecently, my three-year-old told me that she’s memorized how to drive to her school. First you go outside, she said. Then you get in the car. And then you are there. And in some ways, I think that starting a writing routine is no more complicated than that. First, you get some paper. Then you start writing. And then you are a writer.”

There are times when one of the essays turns from meditation to a hilarious description of the unpredictability of children, and I found myself laughing out loud, often until I cried, at the unexpected antics of his daughters, and how he relates those antics to writing. To reveal too many would be to spoil the joy of reading the book.

He also relates lessons learned from his children to the practice of writing. Walking in the woods with his children, he begins, “listing all the wonderful wildlife that we have already seen. Frogs, I say. Blackbirds, turtles, snakes, mosquitoes— Walruses, my three-year-old blurts out from behind us. Walruses? I say, turning around. Yes, my three-year-old says, nodding her head with great assurance. Very little walruses. I’ve been trying to teach my daughters to pay solemn attention to the world, when I should be celebrating the wonders of their imaginations, their unwavering belief in the absurd.”

Berman is at his best when examining the process of writing from new perspectives. For example, he offers important advice for writing in his essay about screenwriting, in which he talks about the start of the writing process being one in which “…we write with Screenwriter Mind, [when] we know that much of what we produce won’t end up in the ­final cut.” Pondering the roles of others involved with producing a film, he talks about the Director Mind and the Editor Mind — the latter a “control freak except without a sense of humor.”  The challenge in other kinds of writing, Berman tells us, that you must play all of those roles yourself.

The essence of his book is summarized in his words, “There’s nothing wrong, of course, with the old dictum write what you know, but I also want my poems to be as bewildering and unpredictable as my children.” The essays in Writing While Parenting are as unpredictable as children, in the leaps he makes between the inciting incident and how it brings him to the structure, and strictures, of writing.

Meet the Contributor

Sandra Eliason's headshot shows a Woman in a turquoise shirtSandra Eliason is a retired doctor who has turned to writing full time. In 2016, she won the Minnesota Medicine Magazine Arts Edition writing contest. Since then she has taken multiple writing classes, gone to conferences, joined writers’ groups and worked to hone her craft. She has been published in Bluestem magazine, the Brevity blog, been anthologized in the e-book Tales From Six Feet Apart, and has an upcoming piece in West Trade Review (April). She is querying her completed memoir, Heal Me—Becoming a Doctor for all the Wrong Reasons (and Finding Myself Anyway).You can find her in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband. She has a garden in the summer and a cat to warm her lap in the winter. Look for her on twitter @SandraHEliason1 or Instagram @sheliasonmd.

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