The Collective Inkwell Interview: Joel Schwartzberg
Our interview today is with writer and TV producer, Joel Schwartzberg, the author of The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad. The book, a series of thought provoking and humorous essays on his journey of becoming a better dad following his divorce, also touches on a subject that is both controversial and not talked about much, male depression following the birth of a child. We talk with Joel about his book, his creative process, the dangers of public confession of personal thoughts and about the controversy surrounding an article he wrote in Newsweek about male depression.
How did you get started in writing?
I’ve always loved to write – I even get a thrill out of addressing envelopes. Having lovingly dabbled in essay writing in high school and college, I suddenly decided to see just how good I was (read: if I could make any money by merely writing). I sent a few sample pieces to my local paper who took me on as a weekly columnist. My pieces commingled with gardening tips and bat-mitzvah announcements, but I was proud and it gave me great confidence to aspire higher. After taking a Mediabistro course, I was ready to write and submit to larger magazines and newspapers. Getting published in The New York Times Magazine was a big deal, and gave me the boost I needed to keep both my ambition and my standards on a very high shelf. Since then I’ve been in Newsweek, The Star Ledger, The New York Post, The New York Daily News, Babble.com, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and lots of regional parenting magazines, where I’m still proud to rub shoulders with gardening tips and bat-mitzvah announcements.
What are some of the differences in writing for TV, magazines and newspapers compared to blogging?
As a function of both my busyness and laziness, I’m really a short-form writer. I do almost all of my writing on my daily commute from New Jersey to New York, and that 40 minutes is the perfect amount of time to bang out a good draft of a short piece. My style suits personal essays and blogs in particular.
Some bloggers see themselves as media middle-men, pushing found news and information from Point A to Point B, but I’m a writer at my core, so I can’t help but hold a higher editorial standard. I’m more of an essayist than a standard blogger, but blogs are a nice platform for my work, especially my humor, and everyone appreciates a well-told story or point, regardless of the media platform.
What prompted you to write The 40 Year Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad?
My divorce forced me to focus on the redefinition of my fatherhood. The things I learned and realized during that journey naturally opened a new door in my personal writing. The more I parented independently, the more I learned about myself. The more I learned about myself, the more raw material I could “unpack” on the page.
There hasn’t been much of a voice for divorced dads in the publishing marketplace — most books I found were somber “survival guides” and legal advice. So I saw an opportunity to create a novel collection of both previously published and original pieces that focus on this chapter of my life I call “The 40-Year-Old Version.”
Through my writing, I hope to entertain, but to also encourage good fathering insight among the dads who read my work. This is the book I needed in the early days of my own divorce, which put me in a great position to be the one to write it.
How much of this material was a collection of prior essays and how much was written specifically for this book?
Ten of the 40 essays were previously published. The rest I wrote specifically for the book. Even when I wrote with the specific purpose of filling more pages, the piece would ultimately morph into a story worth telling, or implode on its own shallow itself. So I’m proud of each and every piece. Some essays had to be carefully and slowly cultivated; other shot out of me almost fully formed, like a cannonball.
What is your writing process like? Do you have varying processes for the different sorts of writing you do?
I’m lucky that my writing brain is always on, the pilot light rarely go out. Once I get a half-baked idea in my head, I begin writing even if I’m unaware of my point. It really takes shape and tightens in the eventual rewrite, and I have a fulfilling “a ha!” moment when I realize my point.
Typically I look back at an early draft and chop the first paragraph entirely so it can hit the ground running. I recommend that technique. A good personal essay doesn’t need an opening. These are not Twilight Zone episodes. The best ones open as they are being consumed by the reader. I also love coming up with strong endings that satisfy.
I listen to music when I write, but usually I’m distracted by lyrics, so dramatic movie soundtracks really do the trick for me. It lubricates my writing process.
I love the rewriting and editing; it feels like my version of proudly polishing the Mustang in the driveway. Good writers know instinctively when they’ve created a perfect line, and when a line still needs refining. That said, I could be whittling and improving and tightening all these pieces to this very moment, but at some point you just have to stop.
How much do you censor what you write?
The only things I censor are jokes that seemed funny five minutes ago but lose their comic luster. If you’re going to write a joke, it’d better be good. I also leave out identifying information about my children.
I’m not an offensive person by nature and don’t have an offensive schtick, so there’s little offensive material in my writing. That said, my parents weren’t exactly thrilled with some of my portrayals of them.
How difficult is it to lay out so much raw emotion for the world to read?
I think being a personal essayist is like being an archaeologist of your own soul – the deeper you dig, the harder your mission, but the more valuable your finds. I can sense when I’m not unpacking a personal issue enough in my writing, and I dig harder. If it seems embarrassing or too revealing, I’ll often tell myself “I’m a writer; this is what I do.”
The nice thing about writing on raw emotions is that they’re often best served raw. Editorial seasoning and metaphoric marinades just get in the way. There’s no way to dress up a line like “divorce has made me a better father”. Best just to say it plainly and with confidence.
Your Newsweek article, in which you discussed your depression after the birth of your first child, earned you a bit of scorn and seemingly made you a poster child over at the conservative site, Townhall.com as a prime example of what’s wrong with liberal men. Did you anticipate this kind of reaction and how did you respond?
I was honestly surprised by the harsh, vitriolic reaction, especially on the Newsweek message boards. I was called everything from a coward to a “terrible excuse for a father.” I was on the popular Michael Medved radio show twice, and heard it loud and clear from his audience. Medved himself thought I had abdicated a lot of personal responsibility.
Fortunately, I have a thick skin (especially after the Medved training), but I also know that what I’m telling is true and honest for me, and that’s the goal of personal writing. Also, many men have approached me privately to say that they too felt a strong sense of personal loss upon sudden fatherhood and struggled to get through. They felt they had no avenues in which to talk about it, so their depression was compounded by guilt. This made me feel less isolated and scorned.
Fathers are told all the time to just “man up” in the face of conflict, but this is a very invalidating and antiquated perspective. We are still humans, still individuals, and our worlds are no less rocked by parenthood than mothers’ are.
I also try hard to make clear I did not “cut and run” from responsibility, and that my divorce was primarily the result of a fatal mismatch between my wife’s and my approach to the marriage, not to my issues with sudden fatherhood.
How have women, or mothers in particular, responded to the piece?
Amidst the criticism, I received tremendous and consistent support from women and mothers. Women who suffered from post-partum depression could so easily say, “Who are YOU to talk about PPD?!”, but they largely responded with sympathy and understanding. I’ve also received tremendous support from divorced mom and stepmom bloggers.
I have great respect for moms, so getting support from them is very gratifying – and relieving. I’m mom-approved. Some pro-fatherhood groups I’ve encountered target and challenge traditional motherhood, but that’s not what I’m about.
How do you respond to the criticisms that you’ve put your emotions above your duty as a parent?
I respond first by asking why those have to be competing values. Can you not be open with your emotions but also dutiful to your responsibilities?
Also, a father or mother struggling with personal issues of sudden parenthood must tend to them immediately, because it will otherwise infect his parenting judgment. You can’t wish away depression or put it on hold. I consider dealing with my emotional reactions a crucial part of my parental responsibility. Once my depression lifted, I was better able to settle into the role of dad and shift priorities.
Finally, a parent shouldn’t sacrifice their duties to self – or to marriage for that matter – for the responsibilities of parenthood.
Parents are still human beings, and humans constantly strive to improve themselves as much on the inside as on the outside. Having emotions requires no apology, but burying and denying them is not a healthy way to live, much less a good way to parent.
I parent firmly and hold high expectations of my kids, but I don’t mind my children knowing that I consider myself a parent-in-progress and imperfect. As they grow as children, I grow as a parent.
Has such a negative reaction caused you to share a bit less of yourself in writing since?
It hasn’t intimidated me, but I have few deep personal conflicts like that – at least that are worth sharing. Parenting is funny, difficult, challenging, ludicrous, joyous, and exasperating – like life itself. So I go wherever the writing takes me.
How has divorce helped you be a better father?
When I was married to my ex-wife, I identified my dadhood by others’ expectations of me — hers, my parents’, even Dr. Phil’s. But once I was forced to come up with my own rules, my own standards, I began to sense my own personal parenting style emerging, and my sense of being a dad growing along with it. I felt like a genuine dad for the first time. That allowed me to feel both calm and confident in my parenting, and enjoy it more. These are qualities that make me a better father than I’ve ever been. My children even remarked how I “get them” differently than their mother does, and how I’m less angry than I’d been. I love hearing that because there’s no greater affirmation for a parent than that which comes from his own children.
How is your relationship with your ex-wife now? How has she responded to your writing about the subject?
We have what can best be described as a civil relationship, but work out any and all conflicts outside our kids’ attention. She knows I write about family as part of the process of writing about myself, but we don’t dialogue about it. We have completely independent and separate lives – I have a new wife and she has a steady boyfriend, and we respect each others’ privacy and sovereignty.
Have your children read the essays/book, and if so, what are their responses?
At 10, 7, and 7, they’re a bit too young to comprehend the subtext of my pieces, so I’ve chosen not to share them at this time. But they know I’m a writer, and I’m very proud they see me that way. I look forward to sharing my work with them when they’re older. I hope it motivates them artistically, but even more so spiritually. We should all be on journeys of self-understanding and self-improvement, and sometimes it helps to have that modeled for you.
What has been the best experience following the publication of your book?
By far, having someone come up to me personally or write me an email saying he was moved or entertained – or both – by the book. Especially if that person is not in my immediate family. I’ll take personal appreciation over a professional review any day. One fellow came to me at a book signing and said it read like the story of his own life. That felt really good, knowing I wrote it before he did.
If you could give one piece of advice to fathers-to-be and new dads, what would it be?
Be the dad you are, not the dad you or someone else thinks you should be.
Joel Schwartzberg is an award-winning essayist and screenwriter, national champion public speaker and speech coach, law school drop-out, horror fan, divorced father, and former Wheel of Fortune contestant. He was a Head Writer for Nickelodeon in 1998 and later an editorial director for Time Inc. Interactive. Currently, he is the Director of New Media for a PBS broadcast news magazine. Joel’s essays on parenting and other spontaneous phenomena have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, The Star Ledger, New Jersey Monthly, Babble.com, Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Huffington Post, and regional parenting magazines throughout the U.S. and Canada. Joel is also a featured blogger for iVillage and teaches courses in book publicity and public speaking for Mediabistro.com. In his free time, Joel eats and occasionally sleeps.