This post is for moms, writers, and writing moms. (And writer dads, too, if you’re out there.)
From time to time friends or blog readers ask for advice on writing (that is, getting paid to write). I have a generic response in which I share some of my favorite resources and tips for writing a quality pitch or query letter. Then I tell the aspiring writer that nothing can teach you how to write or how to become a writer better than simply writing. I know, I know. That’s not very original advice, but it’s absolutely true. Sure, pursuing a journalism degree in college taught me a thing or two as did my job history working on-staff at a regional publication and my past medical writing and corporate/PR gigs (those actually taught me the kinds of things I don’t enjoy writing). However, I learned and continue to learn the most from just putting myself out there. It’s similar to mothering, actually. You can read every book on the shelf about child development and rearing, but the best way to learn how to be a mom is to become one. (More on how mothering and writing are alike in a moment.)
So that’s what I always encourage aspiring writers to do: Put yourself out there. Write. Send out queries. If you’re writing fiction, try to find an agent. Network with other writers and publishers. Blog if you find it helps your craft, or journal the old-fashioned way. Just keep writing, and reading, too. What we learn as readers – from what captivates us to what rivals Ambien in sleep-inducing potency – we use as writers.
After I deliver my freelance writing pep talk, I bring up something every writer fears: Rejection. If you want to be a published writer, you will face rejection. Count on it.
In the beginning, you’ll likely see more rejections than “yes, we’d love to publish your article/book.” It takes time to build relationships with editors as well as to build a clip file (AKA samples of your published work). Even after you’ve had a flurry of success, you’ll still face rejection from time to time.
A few months ago I received a very nice email from an editor letting me know he was going to pass on a submission I’d passed along to him. In an obsessive moment (
writers I can be a self-absorbed, over-analyzing bunch person), I reread my submission. No wonder he’d said, “No thanks.” It was stale. That’s been happening a lot lately. I’ll blame it on a one-year-old who has slept through the night twice in her entire existence on this earth (if your baby’s been sleeping through the night since six weeks, do not share your dreamy bliss with me. Have mercy on a poor, sleep-deprived soul).
Yet, as I’ve told fellow writers before, words, like babies, should not be forced out before they’re ready.
In retrospect, the essay wasn’t atrocious, but it was missing something critical: My voice. Lately, I’ve found myself in a bit of a writing rut. Forget the little mouse and cookies and milk bit. If you give a writer a deadline (and I have a big one coming up), they will forget how to write anything worth reading. Oh, she’ll Twitter. She’ll scrub toilets. She’ll shoot off witty emails, but sit down and write something cerebral and/or meaningful? Forget about it.
Anyway, as I sit staring at a glaring, white screen, wondering why I can’t think of anything – anything – to write, I start to think that maybe I should reinvent myself. I pick up a book from a favorite author, or I mosey on over to a blog that I love reading. That’s it! I need to sound more like so-and-so. I write something I think is just great, but it’s not me. It’s precisely when I start trying to be something I’m not that my words begin to sound empty or forced or purple.
So I get rejected, and it stinks. It always does. I hated it when I was the nerd in sixth grade with the horrible perm, braces, and hairy legs (Mom wouldn’t let me shave until I was 14; I have girls now and understand, Mom. Why was I in such a hurry to grow up?). You’d think after years of nerdiness and sending out queries and accumulating a pile of rejection letters, I’d get used to it. But I haven’t. I hate it.
I know I’m not supposed to take it personally. Just like you’re supposed to know your teenager doesn’t really mean it when she shrieks, “I hate you!” (Not that my lovely, little ladies will ever, ever do that, although my five-year-old has started telling me, “You’ve ruined my day!” when I do something as horrible as insisting she has to have quiet time or has to stop jumping, lest she break her other arm). The audacity!). You know your children really do love you (the editor might not, but she may very well like you), but it still stings.
Now while I’m not suggesting bringing new words forth is half as miraculous as bringing new life into the world, my writing is a part of me, sometimes a prosaic part of me, but a part of me nonetheless. I don’t just write a story (fiction is my first love) or piece together an essay, I give birth to it.
So imagine the angst, when, after hours of exhausting labor, the doctor (editor) slowly shakes her head and says, “Your baby is ugly.”
You’re shocked. “No, it can’t be ugly,” you insist. “This is a part of me; that’s my bloody heart and soul in your arms.”
To you, that baby is nothing short of perfection. It doesn’t matter that she has three eyes. You don’t see that extra eyeball even when it’s staring right at you.
Later you probably do. (That’s why writers are supposed to let their work marinate on the paper or screen before sending it off, but that’s becoming tougher with the growth of Internet markets since there’s a push to deliver timely content.)
Yes, after the euphoria of labor and clicking “save” on your computer wanes, like when I reread my most recent essay, you see that your “baby” isn’t perfect. But it’s not a complete lost cause either. And neither are you. (Besides, perfect is overrated. Perfect can be a bit boring, especially when it applies to children. I prefer children with personalities and wills – even if the battle of my will against theirs can be fierce at times.)
A few weeks ago I had an ugly mom moment, and I’m still having a hard time forgiving myself even though my daughters haven’t given the incident any further thought. We were running late for a dentist appointment. The girls were dawdling and not listening. I was exasperated and tired from a rough night with the baby. I started barking orders. We all ended up on the verge of tears. It was not a pretty sight. Although I don’t condone my kids’ failure to listen to me, part of our problem is that I wasn’t organized. I should have been more prepared for the rushed morning.
Maybe I’ve glamorized the past, but I don’t remember having too many (any?) of these moments in my inaugural year of motherhood. Maybe because I was in denial; I was still in the “My newborn is beautiful” phase. But now I see that I’m the imperfect mom of imperfect children. These days, it’s only when I expect my kiddos or myself to be perfect when we get in to trouble. (The aforementioned episode happened when Mommy and kids all revealed their humanness.)
So what am I getting at?
Bear with me: Remember I’m in a writing rut! :-)
I’ve just been thinking (way too much, obviously) about how both mothering and writing involve putting yourself out there, making yourself vulnerable as well as realizing you’re not in control and you’re definitely not perfect. You can be a great, nurturing mother, and your child still is going to let you down.
You can write your magnum opus, and it’s still probably going to get rejected a few times before you land a book contract.
You can write a shoddy first-draft that somehow gets published any way.
You can goof big time and wound your child; yet, she wraps her arms around you and says, “I love you,” or better yet, “I forgive you.”
There’s a certain risk involved in writing – and parenting. You will, at times, be rejected. Sometimes you’ll be rewarded when you don’t deserve it (my mom and dad often told me they learned early on to not take credit for the good their children did so they wouldn’t have to take credit for the bad either). Your ego will be bruised. It will always hurt a little bit when someone shuns you (whether it’s an editor or an angry teenager or in my case a melodramatic little girl). Sometimes it will make you wince. Sometimes you might shrug it off or even keep a good sense of humor and laugh at your writing and/or parental blunders.
What it always should do is force you to work on being better: A better person, a better writer. Not perfect, but an improved version of YOU. You are fearfully, wonderfully made. Your children are, too. And so are your words, but let them be your words, your voice and not anyone else’s. Let your parenting style be your style and not Dr. Cry-It-Out or Dr. Kumbaya’s.
As a writer, I used to keep my rejections as a reminder to be tenacious and to keep on pitching new ideas. As a mom, I used to think way too much about every single parenting choice I made – from what I fed my child to what books I read to them at bedtime – and how it would impact my child for better or worse. When my child misbehaved, I took it as a reflection of my parenting skills. When an editor rejected a pitch, it was absolutely because I was a lousy writer. I never considered that #1 it was just one lousy piece of writing or #2 it wasn’t lousy at all, but the timing or topic just wasn’t right for the publication.
These days I no longer keep a stash of rejections. I no longer obsess (constantly) over every parental move I make. I’ve learned to not dwell on my failures and stumbles and rejections. Nor do I see them as a sweeping declaration that my writing stinks or that I’m a mommy in need of remedial action.
But I don’t completely forget them either. It’s those rejections, those maternal mishaps that keep me humble. It’s those unplanned moments when my kids surprise me with goodness (or completely bizarro behavior complete with flailing arms and pterodactyl screeching) that remind me that my children have wills of their own – wills that I cannot bend or break, but that I can, with the grace of God and a whole lot of prayers, help shape.
One of my big goals for this year is to stop comparing myself to others – other writers, other moms – and to just work on improving myself. I want to keep my voice in my writing. I want to be the kind of mom I feel called to be.
I’ve always loved the conclusion of Charlotte’s Web when E.B. White (I’m on E.B. White kick lately) writes, “It is not often that someone comes along who is both a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
I’d like to hope that someday I might be considered both – a true friend to my husband, my children, all those I love and maybe, if I work hard and I’m lucky, a good writer, too.
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