by Jessica Strawser
I’ve had a lot of babies in the past few years. Two of them are novels (one out on submission with my agent, the other in late revision stages). Dozens of them are magazines I’ve put my heart into at my day job as editor of Writer’s Digest. And two of them are actual children.
Suffice it to say that—with a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old at home on top of a full-time editorial career and a nightly writing regimen—I’ve had some experience with writing in the storm, as the creators of this blog so aptly put it.
We writers are fond of metaphors, and I’ve often heard comparisons drawn between the process of writing and publishing a book and that of giving birth to a child. We often talk about our “writing life” as if it’s something that exists apart from “regular life,” but let’s face it: Any parent can attest that once you have children, they’re a part of everything you do. And while we are focused on teaching them the ways of the world, sometimes they have a way of turning the tables and teaching us a thing or two instead.
Here are five of my favorite lessons from my parenting life that I’ve discovered apply equally well in my writing life—and perhaps yours, too.
1. Arm yourself with as much info as you can, while recognizing that you’re going to have to learn as you go.
When you have a baby on the way, you do your homework. You read What to Expect When You’re Expecting and Happiest Baby on the Block and every blog you can find. You closely observe other parents in action, admiring how they know exactly what needs to be stocked in that diaper bag. You arm yourself with knowledge and as much confidence as you can muster. But on the day you leave the hospital with a newborn in your arms, all that studying will only get you so far. It’s trial by fire; learn as you go.
When you want to write a novel (or essays, or poems, or whatever your goal is), you begin the same way. You read books and magazines and blogs on the craft (might I insert a shameless plug for Writer’s Digest here?). You read works by authors you admire. This is a necessary and important step, and one (this is key!) that you can return to any time you need to, as new challenges arise. But all the reading in the world isn’t going to fill up the blank pages for you. Get the information you can, stock your bookshelf with resources you can turn to when you need them, and then get to practicing your craft.
2. Trust yourself, even when you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing.
My parents live out of state. They came to help out for a few days after my first child was born, and as they were leaving to head home, my mom turned to me. “I’m going to tell you what my mom told me,” she said. “Remember that you are the expert on this baby now.” I laughed. I’d been a mom for only a few days, most of which I’d spent on my back recovering from an unexpected C-section. My baby was a miraculous, tiny stranger to me. I was hardly an expert on what to do with him.
But I came to learn exactly what she meant. Pediatricians and daycare personnel might be experts on babies in general, but nobody knows your baby like you do. You are the one spending 24 hours a day observing this creature; you are the one who soon knows her mannerisms and quirks as well as your own. You’ll be the first to recognize when something is not quite right, or when a new milestone has been reached. And since your baby can’t speak for herself, that job falls to you.
So it is with your manuscript. You can get feedback from skilled critique partners, agents and editors, all of them experts on the craft of writing—but only you know the heart of your story, where it’s been, what low points and high points it’s struggled through and celebrated, and where you want it to go. You have to distill all the well-meaning advice and feedback you receive into what’s best for your particular characters, plot, themes. And if you don’t speak up for your story, no one will.
3. Allow your muse the opportunity to calm itself.
For the first few months of a baby’s life, he needs to know you’re there, to develop a trust and a bond. He cries and you come running. But after several months of this, my son and I entered an exhausting cycle. I would rock him, he would fall asleep, I would lay him in the crib, he would wake the second his head hit the mattress, he would cry, I would pick him back up, I would rock him, he would fall asleep, I would lay him in the crib, he would wake the second his head hit the mattress. … Finally, our pediatrician said it was time to let him “cry it out” and learn to soothe himself, or neither of us would get any sleep.
An elaborate plan was established that involved me laying him in the crib, leaving the room, letting him cry for 3 minutes, going back in to comfort him, leaving and letting him cry for 5 minutes, going back in to comfort him, leaving and letting him cry for 7 minutes, going back in to comfort him—extending the waiting period each time until he had finally exhausted himself and fallen asleep. I was nervous. But I was ready. I had the stopwatch set on my cell phone. I had baskets of laundry lined up for folding, to keep my hands busy instead of wringing in anxiety. I created a music playlist to keep my spirits up so the crying wouldn’t drive me mad. My husband was on standby to take shifts.
We put the plan into action. My son cried for 30 seconds and fell asleep. We stood in the silent hallway outside his room, flabbergasted.
I had never even let him cry for 30 seconds.
I felt a bit foolish.
If you get to a place where you are struggling mightily with something in your story, sometimes you need to give your muse a chance to calm itself. What might happen if you exit the cycle of whatever is frustrating you and simply step away?
4. Resist the urge to compare yourself to others.
Some babies walk at 10 months. Some at a year. Some at 18 months. New parents are constantly cautioned that there is a wide range of “normal” and that comparing your child to others only puts more pressure on everyone involved.
Some authors publish their first novel and hit The New York Times bestsellers list. Others get an agent but never get published. Some break in but spend their entire careers on the mid-list. Some decide to self-publish and laugh all the way to the bank. Some decide to self-publish and go broke.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time at the helm of WD, it’s that no two writing careers are alike. Comparison can breed envy and smugness, equally dangerous. Resist the urge. No good will come of it.
5. What your writing is today is not necessarily what it will be tomorrow.
One day, your baby stays exactly where you put her. Then suddenly, she can crawl, even cruise behind a push toy. Then you’re chasing her up the stairs, around the yard, following her tricycle down the driveway. You look back with wonder at how far you’ve both come. The days seemed so long, at the time—has it really been a year? You learn that when your child starts getting clingy or whiny or experimenting with how loud she can scream, that doesn’t mean it’s a new personality trait—it’s just a phase.
What your writing is today is not necessarily what it will be a month from now, or six months, or a year. It will grow and change. You will reach milestones, both in your craft and your career. So on the rough days, tell yourself that it’s just a phase. And even when it gets rough, don’t wish it away. One day you’ll look back at these sleepless nights and tentative first steps and marvel at how far you’ve come.
So what about you: What does your personal storm that you're writing in look like? And what lessons has it taught you that apply to your own writing—and might help others, too?
Jessica Strawser is the editor of Writer's Digest magazine. She has contributed to a smattering of blogs and publications, most recently The New York Times' Modern Love column. She blogs weekly at WD’s There Are No Rules and tweets about writing @jessicastrawser.