Robert Rummel-Hudson has been writing online since 1995. During that time, his work has been recognized by the Diarist Awards at diarist.net, including citations for Best Writing (1999 Q4), Best Overall Journal (2000 Q1), Best Account of a Public or News Event (2001 Q2, on the execution of Timothy McVeigh), Best Dramatic Entry (2002 Q3), and the Legacy Hall of Fame Award (2004 Q4). He has served as a featured panelist at JournalCon, an annual conference for online writers, in 2001, 2003 and 2004. His online writing has been featured in articles in the Austin Chronicle (August 2000), the Irish Times (summer 2003) and the New Haven Register (April 2003).
His first book, Schuyler’s Monster: A Father’s Journey With His Wordless Daughter, will be published by St. Martin’s Press this month. You can read an excerpt in Wondertime, or visit Rob’s blog, Fighting Monsters With Rubber Swords. He’s taken the time to answer a few questions about blogging, writing, and his life as a father.
You are one of the early bloggers, what inspired you to blog, and how did you begin?
RRH: I originally started off way back in 1995 with a site of general observations. I was working at the university I attended, in the computer support division, and when the web first hit the scene, I was told to figure out how it worked and learn some basic html, just in case it took off. I got bored with boring university material pretty quickly and started doing my own thing. But it wasn’t until Schuyler was born in 1999 that I think I really began to find a consistent voice.
I kept an online journal for about ten years, and actually only gave in and started blogging about two years ago. I can’t believe I waited that long. But the journal was essentially the same thing, just with a ridiculous amount of hand-coding involved.
How did you go from blogger to author? What were the steps?
RRH: Well, when I began working on the book in 2005, I had originally intended to make it sort of a hybrid, with parts of the journal interspersed in the text. When I got a literary agent, that was the first thing she killed. She convinced me to write the book as a straight narrative and to trust in myself to tell that story without the crutch of the blog, and in the end, she was 100% correct. So early on, she had very little interest in the blog and approached it as a purely literary project. When she sold the proposal to St. Martin’s Press in August of 2006, their initial interest was also strictly as a narrative, but once we got started, they became more aware of the blog and quickly saw the potential for having an internet presence that accompanied the material in the book.
In December of 2006, I travelled to New York to participate in a panel called “From Blogger to Author: How Bloggers Get Book Deals, and What This Means for Publishing”. The panel included Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, author of Apartment Therapy; Michael Malice, founding editor and co-author of Overheard in New York; and Julie Powell, author of the very successful Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, which I believe is being made into a movie starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child. And the funny thing that we discovered as the discussion moved on was that despite the fact that we all had blogs that became popular before our books were published, it turned out that every one of us had pursued publication in a very straightforward and traditional way. In some cases, like Overheard in New York, the blog was actually created as a sort of accompaniment to the book, but since a book usually takes over a year to reach publication, their blogs had taken on lives of their own during the interim.
Having an internet presence is definitely crucial, especially in the buildup to a book’s release, but when it comes to actually getting a book deal and preparing a manuscript, the process is almost always shockingly old school.
How is writing a blog post different from writing a book?
RRH: The most striking difference is the instant feedback I get from the blog. I know if I’ve gotten it right within hours, or even minutes, and that instant gratification can be very addictive. With the book, there are things that I wrote two years ago that are only now being read by reviewers and early editors, and STILL haven’t been seen by anyone else. In some ways, I’m still unsure if the book material really works.
Which do you prefer? Writing blog posts, or writing a book?
RRH: Well, I think I prefer the process of blogging more, it feels much more dynamic and alive. But I think the material I write for publication makes me much happier, I think the quality of that work is much higher and benefits from a little more introspection on my part.
Your background and training is in music. What influence did your knowledge of music have on your writing?
RRH: I think I get a sense of timing and structure from having been a musician for so long. If I look at the chapters of my book, I can see some of the same architecture that I would expect in music, the statement of thematic material, the exposition and development, and certainly the coda structure at the end. It’s not something that I’m conscious of at the time, so when I go back and actually see how those elements present themselves, I’m pleasantly surprised.
I must say, however, that some of my favorite writing takes place when I actually talk about music, and yet I think that’s probably the least popular of my online material. There’s a music-related book that I want to write more than any other future project, and I have to keep talking myself out of it, at least for now, until my current book is done.
You’ve written before about the importance of fathers in the communal parenting voice. What do you want to say about this topic?
RRH: I think it’s an exciting time for fathers. Since World War II, I think fathers in our society have been defined more by their absence than by their actual presence in the family, whether it was the father lost in war or the working dad, or even the deadbeat dad. In the last twenty years or so, we’ve seen this huge shift in the family dynamic, where fathers are now excited about their role in the family and not only welcome involvement, but really insist on it. And yet, there aren’t really any ground rules. For better or for worse (and I know that in a lot of cases, it’s worse), the societal role of mothers has been pretty firmly defined. You either have mothers who conform to that societal narrative, or more and more you have them rebelling against it, but that “mother model” looms in the background just the same. With fathers, it really is something of an open book.
That’s a blessing and a curse, really. We are setting new standards and writing our own script, but we’re also still fighting the expectations of the parenting paradigm. For special needs parenting, I feel like it’s even worse. There are special needs moms groups all over the internet and in every community, but for fathers, there’s often a feeling of “oh, and me too, don’t forget about me” in a great many discussions. And the worst part for me is that I see how that affects the level of participation of fathers. I’ve talked to the dads of the kids in Schuyler’s class about it when I see them, which is rarely, and they often say the same thing. They feel conspicuous in those settings, and so they let their wives handle those duties. I do sometimes feel like an aberration as an outspoken and involved father, but how much of that is because of the “women’s work” attitude that much of society seems to have towards parenting, and special needs parenting in particular? I think it hurts the cause of men and women both, and I’d like to see it go away.
The good news is that there are a LOT of parenting memoirs being written by fathers. The genre has become sort of hot in the last year or so, and since I began writingSchuyler’s Monster slightly before then, I think my book is coming out at just the right time. I hope to see more books by fathers, and more active participation as well.
Your wife and partner, Julie, has an abiding interest in music an books as well. What would you like to say about her influence in your writing, and your life?
RRH: Well, I’m not sure how much she’s affected my writing directly, but she is both a funny person and a calming presence in my life, so her indirect influence has been to help me see the big picture and to not take myself so seriously. I’ve grown up a lot since I met Julie.
What do you wish parents of children without any additional challenges, neurotypical or otherwise, knew?
RRH: The thing I wish they could do is see our broken children the way other kids seem to most of the time. I can tell you without hesitation that the very vast majority of times Schuyler has gotten strange looks or rude comments from someone else, it has come from an adult. Until they reach a certain age, I think children are more accepting and accommodating of special needs kids. I watch Schuyler play with news kids at public playgrounds, and it’s almost always the same. They meet her, they ask her why she doesn’t talk, she shows them the device and they exchange the important facts about each other, and then that’s it. She becomes the girl who doesn’t talk. Okay, then, we play something that doesn’t necessitate speaking. Which is really most games at that age. They adjust their expectations and they move on.
I think a lot of parents approach broken children with fear because they don’t want to face the possibility of their own kids having to face those odds or live in that world. They see the differences, but kids tend to see past that. I’m not sure when they lose that ability, but it’s a sad day when it happens, and it’s one of the reasons that I’m so adamant in my advocacy of mainstream inclusion when it’s appropriate. It doesn’t just benefit special needs students. In fact, I’d suggest that it’s the neurotypical kids who have the most to gain, in terms of personal growth and understanding. For adults, that’s undoubtedly a harder process.
What was the best advice you’ve received as a writer? What advice do you have for new writers?
RRH: I think the best advice I got was from my agent, when she told me simply to trust my voice. I think it’s important to find that voice, and when you identify the writers whose writing resonates to you the most clearly, that’s a start. For a long time, I really identified with the writing of Bill Bryson and Anne Lamott, and I think that’s probably reflected in my writing style. And the thing is, there was someone once upon a time that influenced THEIR writing voices, too. Don’t be afraid to emulate those writers for a time, and be ready to step out of that pool when the time feels right.