The Pleasures of Constraint
When did you start writing short essays? I’m often asked. When I had children, I say.
This is a story about how form follows content. Or, this is a story about how constraint becomes creativity. Or, this is a story about why the novel-in-progress is still, well, in progress.
My wife and I moved to Athens, Ohio in the summer of 2002. She was three months pregnant, a full-time job in of itself; nausea was the new normal. We bought a house that was dirt cheap because it had been abused by decades of student renters, and we set out to make it livable. Those first few years were really hard. New jobs, new place to live, and six months into it our son was born, compressing our sleep cycles into desperate, forty-five minute increments. In one of my first essays in the new form I began to experiment with shortly after he was born, I wrote,
Let’s admit it: they do eat up the day and when they’re done with that they swallow up your night until you’re so tired, so tired, it’s all you can do to remember that there was this novel, the one you were going to write and all this sex you planned to have, preferably on the living room floor surrounded by boxes of Chinese…
His sister came along two-and-a-half years later, and the wondrous cycle of terror and elation started all over again.
The essays in Famous Drownings in Literary History grew out of this state of being. The book is my attempt to grapple with these new working conditions, so to speak, the way that being a father has forced me to change and accommodate, but also the way it has revealed where my interests and priorities are now. The essays are fragmented, adventurous, eager to find their place in the world. They are full of unexpected combinations, as surprising, I hope, as living with two new humans can be—the twirlings of your genetics are there, but emerge in ways that are impossible to predict.
Ten years have passed since the moment chronicled in the first essay in Famous Drownings, when my son is born and awaits a roomful of strangers as he is presented for his circumcision. He has grown, against a backdrop of tone-deaf parents, to be a remarkable young musician—a cellist, a singer, able to improvise a jig on the G-string or translate an Elvis tune to his cello after one listening. (He’s playing as I type this. It’s early in the morning. Listen and you’ll hear Bach and string crossings in the background.) For part of his music education he’s reading How Music Works, by Talking Heads front man David Byrne. In the first chapter, Byrne talks about playing at CBGB—how the acoustics of the space drove the writing of the music, the tight confines pushing him toward a sound far different than one might use in a concert hall. “In a sense,” Byrne writes, “we work backward, either consciously or unconsciously, creating work that fits the venue available to us.” These essays are my gig at CBGB. It’s crowded, noisy, full of life in here. Resonance and space. Form and content.
I did finish that first novel, by the way. The second one—well, you’ll have to wait a little while for that. Carnegie Hall isn’t available at the momen
About Kevin: Kevin Haworth’s first novel, The Discontinuity of Small Things, was awarded the Samuel Goldberg Prize for best Jewish fiction by a writer under 40. It was also recognized as runner-up for the 2006 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. His collection of non-fiction essays, Famous Drownings in Literary History, was released by CCLaP in 2012, and won Kevin a pre-publication grant from the Ohio Arts Council. A two-time resident of the Vermont Studio Center, he is also a winner of the David Dornstein Prize for Young Jewish Writers and the Permafrost Fiction Prize. His fiction and nonfiction appear in Sentence, ACM, Poetica, Permafrost, and others. He lives in Athens, Ohio with his wife, Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, and their two children, Zev and Ruthie. He teaches writing and literature at Ohio University.