Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
May 4, 2015

5 Things Becoming a Parent Has Taught Me About Writing

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.

Photo credit: Lindsay Hiatt, lindsayhiattphotography.com

Photo credit: Lindsay Hiatt, lindsayhiattphotography.com

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? 

Photo credit: Lindsay Hiatt, lindsayhiattphotography.com

Photo credit: Lindsay Hiatt, lindsayhiattphotography.com

About Jessica

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.


54 comments on “5 Things Becoming a Parent Has Taught Me About Writing”

  1. Jessica, your mother is so wise. I love, "Remember that you are the expert on this baby now.”.

    I've seen so many writers edit away their story, and their voice, by not knowing instinctively what advice not to listen to.

    Thanks for blogging with us!

    1. That's exactly it, Laura--trying to come to a place where we have enough confidence and faith in our work to protect its voice and heart, while still being receptive to feedback from other "experts." It's a constant struggle for all of us, but so important!

      1. And you have to take in on faith, and trust your gut in the beginning, because your work has no other champions! (yet)

  2. I love this. As new grandmother, I have to resist telling my daughter what I think she should do with her first child. And as the president of our local writers, I also have to resist using my writing experience as the example for the writers in our group. Each parent and writer has his own road to follow. The best I can do is offer my support along the way. Thanks Jessica.

    1. I love this ... "Each parent and writer has his own road to follow. The best I can do is offer my support along the way." Very true!

    2. Congrats on becoming a grandmother! It sounds as if both your daughter and your writing group are lucky to have your counsel. I'm so glad that aspect of the post resonated.

  3. Jessica ...loved this post. I believe that being a parent teaches us to listen ... to them and to ourselves.

    In writing, we listen to lots of people but in the end we need to listen to ourselves and trust what we hear. Thanks so much for this and continued happiness with your kids and your career 🙂

    1. So true, Florence!
      Kids teach us to listen and they remind us to focus on what's important, to be present in the moment.

  4. Wow--what a wonderful thing your mom did by telling you that. It was very empowering. Most new moms have to deal with their own mothers and in-laws telling them they're the experts and making the new mom feel inadequate or extremely defensive.

    1. I think you're right, and I appreciate you saying so, because I'm not sure I thought of it quite that way before--that advice obviously stayed with me, and I've found that it can apply to many things (as long as we're careful that it doesn't make us blind to the kind of feedback that can help us along the way). Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go drop a thank-you note to my mom… 🙂

  5. I love this post, Jessica. It's all so true--especially the lesson of learning to let go of things you can't control, and the idea of trusting your own instincts. Such lucky kids, having a mom like you!

  6. Excellent metaphor, Jessica. You hit the nail on the head with the comment early on that the writing life is our life. Writing applies to everything else we do. Everything else we do applies to writing.

  7. First of all, Jessica, I'm so excited to have you on WITS!! Thank you for a great post.

    As a mom of a young child, I loved everything about this post. But this line stuck its tongue out at me --> "give your muse a chance to calm itself" That's been harder to do with the muse than with the kid for some reason. 🙂

      1. Yes, Orly and Jessica, that's exactly the line that grabbed me, too! Such a charming parenting anecdote as well but I'm thinking, where's she going with this? Then BAM. Brilliant. Nice to see you here Jessica!

          1. I just got my copy in the mail today. Squealed. Scared the cats and the UPS guy. 🙂

  8. Wonderful post! My muse and I have been duelling quite a bit lately. We are taking the day off! Hopefully the time apart will bring us closer together 😉

    1. Take her out for a cup of coffee or tea. Maybe even buy her lunch. 🙂

  9. I'm not a parent, and I almost skipped this post. I'm so glad I didn't. Just wanted you to know that each and every point resonated for a non-parental writing unit. I particularly liked the story about the 30 seconds. It's such an applicable lesson, in so many ways and for so much in life. Thanks. I'm looking forward to the WD conference this summer!

    1. You are a parent, Vaughn, just yours happens to be a fur baby.
      Oh man ... WD conference! You may have tipped me over the decision fence on going.

    2. Hi, Vaughn, I look forward to meeting you there! I'm glad the post applied as broadly as I intended to--I certainly was hoping to reach non-parents, too. I still need to remind myself of that 30 seconds sometimes when I catch myself forcing the issue with my writing, trying to push my daily word count or make myself finish a scene that on some level I already know isn't working… And, as you said, knowing when to give something a rest can be helpful in so many other areas of life too. We all learn through trial and error, don't we?

      1. Orly, I have to admit, I was thinking about the pup a few times (the phases, not comparing, etc.) And yes, yes - come to the conference! Looking forward to meeting you, too, Jessica! Thanks again!

  10. I am a first time mother trying to finish my manuscript by the end of the year and I have read so many things on time management for writing, but nothing for newer mothers or that was even remotely do-able for my chaotic schedule! This is a god-send!

  11. Having the kids at home is the best thing in the world. Writing time is only two hours in the morning anyway, the rest of the day is spent on inspiration (and kids are perfect for that).

    1. I recently overheard someone comment that he didn't have any interesting stories to tell because he had kids at home, and that baffled me. They're like little walking, quotable goldmines of inspiration!

  12. #3 just cracked me up! Thanks for the encouraging blog post. I stumble comparing my writing journey to others which puts needless pressure on me. Thanks, Jessica!

    1. It cracked me up too, once I got done smacking myself in the forehead! 🙂 We all stumble with comparing journeys, I think. It's one of those things that's easier said than done! I'm glad you can relate, and wish you the best on your own writing path.

  13. A phase...as my children were very young I often would tell myself that "This too shall pass." If I think of this with regards to my writing, I can tell myself that this time in the desert of non-publication, no agents, no wonderful title of author...this too shall pass. I will come through this time, like I came through the tough phases of my children developing and growing. I will arrive one day!

  14. A wonderful blog Jessica.
    I have just one comment (or rather, question); would someone please tell me when the 'phase' my son is going through will end? He is 28 and despite having two much younger sisters, is STILL the baby of the family!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  15. Great advice that really hit home for me. This morning I was contemplating whether to totally rewrite my novel after receiving feedback from an agent that boy books for teens don't and won't sell in the current marketplace. I think I'll take my chances.

    1. Nancy, I know firsthand how disheartening that kind of feedback can be. I'll be sending lots of positive confidence vibes your way. (And it's so nice to see you here! Thanks for commenting.)

  16. My personal writing storm involves staying at home with a two year-old and a four year-old. I am amazed at your success while raising young kids! Kudos!

    The biggest lesson I am learning lately is that all the content floating around in my mind will be there when I'm ready to start publishing (other than on my blog, that is). I try to journal and document story ideas everyday, and I have a desktop full of drafts that I may or may not come back to when my kids reach school age. The point is, my passion remains strong, and so far, my ideas are endless.

    For me, it's a matter of organizing my life in a way that will allow me to bring those ideas to fruition in the coming months (years?). Defining goals and "arming myself with info" is where I am currently at as I strive to be a successful writer. Goal-setting and researching opportunities is a good place for anyone else who wants to take their writing to the next level.

    Thanks for the read.

    1. I love the idea of practicing patience and operating on the schedule that works best for us and our families, Britta--such an important reminder. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and wishing you the best of luck with all of your writing (and eventually, publishing).

  17. And then one day, that you can't probably even imagine yet, your "baby" will become a teenager, and so will your writing career. 😉 Great work, Jessica! Best of luck with your novels, you certainly should have enough good karma from working with writers to see them published and on the best seller lists! Thanks for bringing this piece to my attention. And now I'm off to read your Modern Love piece!

    1. I am SO not ready to think about teenagers yet, in either respect! 😉 Thanks for the visit, Christina, and for the well wishes--very much appreciated.

  18. Hi, Laurie. A book with a blurb that I really liked is "A Place of Greater Safety," Hilary Mantel's first historical novel about three leading characters during the French Revolution. The blurb is concise and drew me in immediately.

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