For the first thirty years of my life, I didn’t really write. Even though I knew I was a writer from the time I learned how to read, my ideas about being a writer were so woefully misguided that I never really got anything off the ground. Sure, I was turning out tortured, plotless pages about people being lost at sea in elementary school, and tortured, abstract poetry about trees in high school (I wish I were joking), but these pages only emerged when the urge to write became so desperate that even my worst inhibitions couldn’t get in the way.
Fortunately, life handed me my ass several times over when I was in my early thirties, and my need to write became so acute I had to figure out a way to do it more regularly. The problem was, I had two small children on my hands and was finishing up a doctorate, and even five minutes to myself felt like a miracle. Or at least that’s what I thought the problem was. I also thought the problem was that I might not be as talented as I hoped I was, or that I didn’t have as many fantastic ideas as I thought I did, and, were I to ever actually find some time to write, I’d be bitterly disappointed by what emerged. And then, just as I was finishing up my postdoc and working up the courage to quite the academic rat race, I got pregnant again. At the time, I didn’t think I could have clinically engineered a more perfectly placed nail in the coffin of my creative aspirations. But nothing could be further from the truth. In actuality, life had finally gotten through to me with the message I so desperately needed to hear and was so desperately resisting: Surrender, Dorothy!
I had been so good at following the conventional wisdom. In life and in work, I had always fought the good fight, reached for the stars, brought my A game. Yet I couldn’t understand why I had such high goals for my writing and so little to show for it. What I’d failed to realize is that conventional wisdom and creativity do not flourish in the same fields, nor do they thrive on the same nourishment. But when the possibility of bringing my A game decreased at the same rate my need to write increased, I finally managed to stumble, defeated, into the magic of the B game.
When most people hear that I’m a mother of three as well as a novelist and manuscript editor, they assume I’m crackers or have a drug problem. The truth is, though, that all three of these endeavors blossom when you lead with your humanity, your humility, and your willingness to constantly go to bat for what matters to you, even if you rarely hit it out of the park and sometimes have to walk between bases. They respond, in other words, to knowing that if you can’t bring your A game, bringing your B game for all you’re worth is just as powerful, if not more so.
And as far as my writing is concerned, this doesn’t look like what you might expect. It certainly doesn’t look like what most people think the B game is: resigning yourself to a lack of regular inspiration and forcing your butt into a chair to meet word count goals on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. I’ve decided that for those of us who are raising children and/or working outside jobs, this “practical advice” is both impossible and unreasonable, and has become yet another subtle way to disempower 99.9% of writers. What’s more, the true, irregular nature of the writing practice most humans can achieve might just be the best thing for our writing. Creativity thrives when you don’t beat it into a false rhythm, when you pay attention to its ebbs and flows, most of which are likely to be in lockstep with what you’re allowing to ebb and flow in your life.
What my writing practice does look like, then, is regularly checking in to see what my mental, emotional, and logistical realities are telling me about what I have to offer that month, week, or hour, and softening into working with whatever they tell me, even if it’s not what I want to hear. So, for example, instead of getting mad and frustrated because I have only five minutes on a particular Tuesday when I feel like I need 500, I do something with those five minutes. And doing something with those 5 minutes wakes up my wiser self, who oftentimes points out that just because I can’t wake up at 5:00 AM every morning and summon the muse on schedule doesn’t mean that I can’t sit in the car while waiting to pick someone up and jot down some notes, or read by the nightlight, or redirect the time I might have devoted to buying stuff we don’t really need at Target to taking a walk outside to see what a new perspective might bring. And because this B game is so much more liveable, it’s also become that much more fruitful, which means I’ve developed a depth of relationship to my writing that I never even approached when I was letting my Hungry Hungry Hippo brain do most of the talking.
So if you’re frustrated by the disconnect between what you want to do with your writing and what you are doing with your writing, it might help to redefine the former. Instead of focusing so much on what and how much you want to produce, focus instead on what you can produce, and let that production be as free from judgement as possible (you can save all your judgement for the editing that comes later). After all, we’re never less productive than when we’re laboring under our own high standards or bitter disappointments. So let yourself be surprised by what your writing wants to be, by how OK it actually is, and by how letting it become a regular, far less glamourous part of your life enables it to actually become as weirdly fantastic as you’ve always suspected it is.
Art: Pablo Picasso, La Reve
Cynthia C Burke says
Hear hear! Knocked that one right outta the park!
Cynthia C Burke says
Hear hear! Super advice!
Thanks! I needed that.