When my delightful older son was an infant, he was sort of a colicky hot mess. He was big and beautiful and loud and sweaty and hungry and tired and spitting up and screaming about 80% of the time. As new parents with no infant experience, my husband and I found this ever so slightly unnerving. My husband dealt with it by doing whatever he could to soothe the baby, which usually involved coming home from work, taking off his shirt, and walking endless loops around the apartment with our boy sucking contentedly on his forearm, sometimes for hours at a time. But I, who was home alone with the baby most of the time, often found myself at my wits end, undone by the baby’s distress and about to cry myself.
Here’s the thing. He only had a few simple needs. For the most part, he was unhappy because he was tired, hungry, in need of a diaper change, or just straight up colicky. And also for the most part, these needs could be simply met. But when I was in the midst of it, when he’d worked himself into a lather (sometimes literally: we were working with a lot of drool), the wiser part of me who could step outside of the situation and see it for what it was got blocked by the part of me who couldn’t bear another hour of crying and just froze.
And because I have such a gift for adding insult to injury, I started to wonder if I just wasn’t cut out for this motherhood thing. After all, the viper inside me reasoned, if I couldn’t remember to do a basic check of my baby’s needs when he was suffering, how could I expect to get him through middle school? It was a real party inside my head, let me tell you.
So I had to work with myself where I was – in the place where there seems to be no discernible learning curve, where you just care too much about what you’re doing to ever fully distance yourself enough from it to come up with some kind of foolproof game plan for managing it – and I made myself a list. It was a very simple list, so I could check it even when my brain was threatening a total systems shutdown, and it went something like this: diaper, food, nap, fever, colicky despair. And I put it right out in the open on my favorite appliance: the refrigerator.
I’ve since learned two important things: one, that there are lots of similarities between how to take good care of someone you love and how to take good care of yourself; and two, it’s oftentimes the situations that you do throw yourself into wholeheartedly that are most susceptible to a total freeze. Think about it: When your heart goes all in, it’s not so easy to pull up and pull back.
Take writing, for instance. Despite all I know and all I’ve learned after two decades studying the art from the inside out, it’s more essential to me than ever, which means I still find myself in situations where I need a note on the refrigerator, particularly when I’m working on a new project. It’s not even that different from the one I put up when I was a new parent: Have you eaten? Have you exhausted yourself? Are your standards too high? Are you working at your writing? Are you, in effect, a hot colicky mess, and do you need to take a time out? They’re deceptively simple questions, and may not look like much here. But oftentimes, I’m stuck because I’m in my own way, and doing even the most basic things to get myself back on track can work wonders. Because when you bring your wholehearted self into a new task, you can both forget the most fundamental rules of self-care — as a person and as an artist — and you have never needed to rely on them more.
So don’t expect a steep learning curve as you continue to pursue your writing. In fact, it’s much more useful to expect that if you’re doing things right, if you’re reaching out with everything that you have, willing to fall flat on your face, you’re not necessarily going to be cool-headed enough all the time to remember what it is you need to move forward. But you will. Even if you need a note on the refrigerator. Because just as it’s useful to drop your expectations when you’re writing, it’s also useful to drop your expectations of yourself as a writer. So do whatever it takes to get yourself fed, watered, and optimized for work. The writing will always follow. Maybe not according to your greatest plans or most diligent designs, but what great writing ever does?