• A Different Kind of Dad Book: Lucas Mann on Fatherhood, Writing, and the Essay as an Act of Care

    The Author of “Attachments: Essays on Fatherhood and Other Performances” in Talks to Brian Gresko

    Lucas Mann’s collection Attachments: Essays on Fatherhood and Other Performances is the book I wish I had fifteen years ago when I was in my early thirties, at home with a newborn. Those were days when I’d spend eight hours or more in near constant contact with my son, often with no adult interaction (I didn’t even have a smartphone at the time, so forget group chats or social media). By the time my spouse returned from work, I’d feel wrung out and exhausted, and yet, at the same time, hungry for intellectual stimulation, for news of something other than my small world.

    There was, too, the particular strangeness of going out in public as a masculine presenting body caring for a baby: the grace allotted to me by some, the eye-rolls and admonishments provided without provocation from others, the level of attention and yet invisibility I garnered in general. As Mann writes of being at home with his own daughter in those early years, “I’m so glad to no longer be in that place; sometimes I miss it in a way that makes my breath catch.”

    In the twelve essays that comprise Attachments, Mann grapples with how everything about parenting feels profound and yet utterly banal, original yet done a million times before by humans throughout history, such that talking about it, let alone writing about it, can feel maddening and pointless. He brings to this problem the particular conundrum of being a man writing about caregiving, which can feel performative in the worst way, like another form of male posturing on the page.

    Though the heart of these essays are personal, he ranges wide, from an analysis of how Brad Pitt eats in movies and what this says about male body image in our culture, to discussing the rise of “dad bloggers” (I was a daily blogger for Disney’s parenting site once upon a time) and the role of humor in writing about fatherhood, to a beautiful and moving homage to the documentary The Andy Warhol Diaries.

    There are few books where I think “this is just my kind of thing” the way I did with Mann’s, and so it was a pleasure to speak to him about it and how, paradoxically, he hopes that if he’s done his job right, the reader won’t walk away thinking about him at all.


    Brian Gresko: My son was born a week after I graduated from my MFA program, so I moved into the roles of writer and stay-at-home parent simultaneously. You, on the other hand, had a publishing history before becoming a dad. I’m curious to know what led you to start writing about this aspect of yourself. And who are some of the authors who inspired these essays?

    Lucas Mann: At first, parenthood and writing felt antithetical to me. As you said, I’d had this whole writing life pre-kid—I went to grad school young, published a book, got a job teaching writing, kept on hustling and publishing. Writing, dedication to it and the ambition to succeed at it (though I probably couldn’t articulate what I would’ve deemed “success”) was the organizing principle of my adult life.

    This might sound cheesy, but I really believe the essay form to be an act of care—locating, stalking, zooming in on what matters to you and why.

    But becoming parents was something my wife and I really wanted, and when we knew it was going to happen for us I think I set up parenthood in my mind as anti-writing in a way that might feel like a relief. I had the enormous privilege of a tenure track job that accrued enough unused sick days that I could cobble together parental leave for the semester, then extend through the summer. I’d finished a novel draft right before my wife gave birth, and I thought I’d just chip away at revisions whenever I wasn’t tired (obviously a fucking ridiculous plan).

    At one point, when my daughter was maybe four months, the Los Angeles Review of Books solicited me for an essay. I said yes on instinct, and then ended up freaking out and bailing. That was a holy shit moment for me. I got pretty substantial novel edits back from my agent and couldn’t get into those either. Long story short, I was totally submerged in early parenthood for eight months or so, then was back to teaching, trying to ease into that, then when my daughter was a little over a year, Covid hit, daycare shut down, my wife still had to go into work, and so it was just me and my daughter again for most of the day.

    At that point, I was like, I’m not going to try to write; there are people who wake up at five and juggle things and all that, and I’m not one of those people. Plus, my daughter was waking up at five anyway. After six or seven months, we held our breath and sent her back to daycare so I could teach. The LARB reached out yet again, for which I’m forever grateful, asking me if I’d take another shot at an essay. I wrote this essay that was ostensibly about rewatching The Office, but all of this parenthood stuff ended up threaded through. And the writing felt alive, the voice felt like mine, but evolved.

    It ended up feeling like a perfect storm, where I hadn’t written for the longest stretch of my adult life, and there was this incredible vividness of life with a baby, then quarantine with a toddler, which could feel so constricting but also so expansive in terms of just how much intimacy and intensity radiated from it, the act of looking at this one person with more depth and responsibility than I’d ever experienced. Once I made a gesture toward putting that into words, my writer self and this new self converged. That felt so wonderful.

    When I went back and looked at the old novel draft it was like, Oh wow, someone else wrote this novel, good for him. I knew that if I was going to commit to writing again, I had to explore the world through this new lens; that’s where my interest and curiosity was.

    As for what I was reading, you know, if you’re someone invested in literary nonfiction as a genre, the way we both are, you’re steeped in amazing literature about parenthood, just rarely ever from cishet men. Long before I ever thought about being a parent, I remember reading Maggie Nelson’s description of folding her kid’s tiny clothes, and the way care for her kid was this one beautiful, complex thread in a narrative about all forms of love and care—sex, art, politics, etc. This might sound cheesy, but I really believe the essay form to be an act of care—locating, stalking, zooming in on what matters to you and why, trying to depict love through the way your mind follows an idea. To write as a parent reinvigorated my passion for the form.

    When I was starting to chip away at essays, I just wanted to read work that felt alive with the intensity of a particular point of view. These were kind of all over the place in terms of genre and voice, but I loved Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen trilogy, Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch, Sasha Fletcher’s Be There to Love Me at the End of the World, got back into Knausgaard’s My Struggle.

    I love the actual experience of being with my daughter in the world, watching her move through it, looking back at me sometimes, but increasingly looking straight ahead at what she wants to try next.

    Some of these had to do with parenthood, some not at all, but each felt like a writer absolutely committed to articulating the particularities and the vivid, unique pitch of one voice, one point of view, one act of being in the world in a particular moment. And I said, okay, that’s my only job here.

    BG: It’s funny you mention Knausgaard. Volume one of My Struggle came out the year my son was born. I had friends who expected I’d be excited about it, but there was Knausgaard’s attitude in excerpts and interviews, his bone dry, weary wit, and then there was the physicality of the man himself—the brooding eyes, the perfectly unkempt hair, the omnipresent cigarette—like a Matthew McConaughey of white elephantine art. I envied that, was attracted to it, but also found those parts of myself icky, because he presented a kind of cool that had no space for me, it seemed so self-important and self-obsessed.

    Your essay “Dads Being Dudes Making Jokes” made me wonder if Knausgaard’s public presentation of himself isn’t just an extended bit, the literary equivalent of a dad joke, and perhaps I didn’t get it? My sense of humor is idiosyncratic, and most dad jokes rely on and reinforce gender roles and dichotomies I find restrictive and false. This made me wonder: How has your performance of fatherhood been affected by penning these essays?

    LM: I’ve got no beef with Knausgaard myself, beyond the beef I have with any, as you say, brooding, perfectly unkempt gorgeous men. Maybe if he was American I would, but I found something sort of anthropologically fascinating about reading My Struggle while parenting in the US in a pandemic—like damn, the social safety net has created the optimal space for this man to just brood and riff; what an impossible dream!

    I think that writing about fatherhood after more than a decade of operating within personal writing generally was helpful for me because if you engage in this particular art form seriously, for long enough, the challenge and pleasure becomes entirely wrapped up in the idea of performing the self, the balance between desired “authenticity” and then how much of perceived authenticity is a performance on the page.

    For me, it’s always this balance of wanting to seem… lovable, I guess, on the page, just like I want to be in life, but then working to reject that impulse or explore that impulse, and get at something more gross and complicated beneath it. That’s the work, to me; if a piece of writing doesn’t do that, I think it has failed. And I never, ever, ever want to be cool on the page. I hate that shit. I am by no means a cool person, but I like to think I’m at least slightly cooler in real life than I am in these essays, or any essay I write.

    Fatherhood, as a subject, presents an almost cartoonish version of this central essayist’s dilemma—how much do you want to rest on easy charm, or the most placating joke, or this sense of superiority and expertise, versus the fraught, tangled, shameful, confusing lived experience that simmers right beneath the surface. I don’t see essay writing as an extension of life, per se, but I do see it as the genuine attempt to look closely at what you have lived and are living, to force yourself to see and to work to better understand. That’s never changed my behavior, or made me learn a lesson or anything, but it does make me more aware of my behavior.

    As for my daughter reading it, you know I’ve thought a lot about how so much of this book depicts her at such a young age that she realistically won’t remember it.

    As I say in the book, I often love being a dad in public, for obvious ego reasons—this is the closest I’ll ever come to how I imagine it feels to be very good looking and walk into a party. And I feel the temptation of leaning into all the gender shit you talk about; I get to be the big, sweet, sturdy jungle gym.

    But I also love the actual experience of being with my daughter in the world, watching her move through it, looking back at me sometimes, but increasingly looking straight ahead at what she wants to try next. It can feel like we’re alone in the world together; everything else is at a muted volume. So these are moments that feel both performed and deeply authentic, selfish and full of care at the same time. Writing about them has been an act of trying to investigate and reconcile that dichotomy, trying to find something that feels true.

    BG: These essays are so smart and exquisitely written but for me it’s the way you sit within that dichotomy that grabbed and moved me. That, and “performing the self,” brings me to Andy Warhol and his diaries, which you write about in the final essay in Attachments, “Summer Diary.” I love this piece in part because I loved The Andy Warhol Diaries documentary (the AI narrator really did work well), and found it so surprising to get a glimpse beneath Warhol’s more widely-known, dry, public self and find this sweet, insecure, tender queer man.

    You write, “The Diaries made me think about sappy not as something surfacy but something deep and ingrained,” and I thought yes, that’s exactly right, and that connects to camp for me, which is also two things at once, deep and surfacy, performed and authentic, in bad taste but absolutely fabulous. I believe there’s an element of camp to sappiness, and to parenthood, and particularly to writing about parenthood—asking readers to bear witness to moments equally embarrassing and important, profound and banal—that I think you bring to this book.

    Writing about my relationship with my son also highlights for me how all writing is time-based, just a snapshot of what the author is obsessed with at that particular moment. It’s more clear with writing about our children because our relationship with them is one written in time.

    I wonder: What do you hope a reader will walk away from your book thinking about you as you as a dad in this particular moment in time in your life? And what do you hope your daughter might think of this book when, years from now, she discovers it among the other works you’ve published?

    LM: This is maybe an absurd answer to your question, but I hope readers don’t think much of anything about me. I guess what I mean is that I don’t know that I matter that much in these essays. Or if you finish this book and you’re thinking about the specifics of me, I don’t know if I did my job. This is a weird catch-22 I’ve found in personal writing generally, where the process of writing doesn’t feel like putting myself out there, though of course it is. Instead, it’s offering up all these details, these intimacies that I’d never speak out loud to anyone but I feel much more comfortable dealing with on the page, until I almost start to blur, at least in my mind.

    I’m sure I’m kidding myself to some degree, but I think the goal of good personal writing should be to not leave people with the feeling of, Wow this one person’s life is interesting, painful, annoying, whatever; instead, maybe the goal is to come away reminded that there are so many people living, feeling these things that are intense but also recognizable, and how wild it is that something like parenting can be simultaneously the most monumental, exhausting, particular, intimate shit ever, but also… regular. Or that’s just how I delude myself into getting something on the page. Either way, I’m sticking to it.

    As for my daughter reading it, you know I’ve thought a lot about how so much of this book depicts her at such a young age that she realistically won’t remember it. Maybe it’ll just feel like reading fiction, or an account of some other random kid—who knows. If I want her to get anything from it someday… it’s probably too easy to say that I want her to feel loved, but that’s it. Whatever fraction of the real love I managed to get on the page.

    Brian Gresko
    Brian Gresko
    Brian Gresko is an essayist, critic, short story author, and editor of the anthology When I First Held You. He writes about culture, gender roles, and parenting from his home in Brooklyn.

    More Story
    5 Book Reviews You Need to Read This Week Our feast of fabulous reviews this week includes Sam Sacks on Colm Tóibín’s Long Island, Maggie Shipstead on Elizabeth...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.