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Miranda: Psst…”creativity” does not contain the letters S, H, O, U, L, or D

So I have this other blog about my newbie Buddhist practice. In a recent post I wrote about motherhood and creativity, so I wanted to share that post here as well. Please share your thoughts.

Last month I attended “Mothers’ Plunge” in Boston, a one-day retreat for mothers led by Karen Maezen Miller, author of Momma Zen and Hand Wash Cold (two invaluable books about showing up for motherhood in your entirety — relevant for any mother, no Buddhist label required).

As the retreat was drawing to a close, Karen made time for a short Q&A session. My arm shot up. Yes, I did have a burning question. I explained that I understand the concept of paying attention to that which requires attention, of focusing on the matter at hand rather than fretting about stuff that isn’t within arm’s reach. I get that. But with so many people in my life and responsibilities to tend to, I could easily just turn from one urgent matter to the other and fill nearly every waking moment of every day without ever finding/making time for my own stuff, like finishing one of my manuscripts. Do I need to just make peace with that? Do I need to stop clinging to this idea (ideal?) of “being” a writer — for now?

Karen suggested that — despite my protests — it really does get easier, and that at some point the opportunity to write would present itself. Have faith. Write in bits and pieces. Make hay when the sun shines, even if it doesn’t seem like it shines very often. (My cheesy phrasing, not hers.) Let go. Trust. Everything in its own time.

I wanted Karen to have the answer, and I suspected that she did, if I could surrender to it. But I felt enormous resistance bubble up inside me. No. I will never be able to do what I really want to do without making a painful sacrifice somewhere else. My oldest child is nearly 20, my youngest child is only 2, and while the demands of motherhood change over time, the totality of five children and a freelance career is often overwhelming. I don’t want to wait until I’m 60 before I can count on a little “me” time — time to breathe, time to be creative, just time.

During the drive home, I started mulling all of this over — and over. I’ve devoted much of my life to the topic of motherhood and creativity, trying to figure out how to be a mother and an artist without completely messing up one or the other or both. I’m writing a book on the subject, for which have interviewed dozens of creative mothers, extracting commonly successful strategies. I have a blog — this blog — devoted to the community of creative mothers. I know firsthand how the need to be creative coupled with the seemingly inescapable roadblocks of motherhood can lead a woman to tears in the frozen food aisle. I get it. Is the answer really just letting it all go and accepting that the time for creativity will come when it’s time for creativity?

Under the tension of my growing resistance, somewhere along Route 3 a long-held knot popped open, untangling itself into clarity. I realized that when I decided to practice meditation on a regular basis, I started getting up every morning at 5:30 instead of 5:50 to sit for 20 minutes. It wasn’t a big deal. It was important to me, and I wanted to do it, so I made it happen. Sure, there are some mornings when I’m just too tired to get up or my youngest child wakes up exceptionally early and my sitting time is abandoned. But in general, it works. Why then, during all my years of complaining about not having time to write, didn’t I get up 20 minutes earlier to eke out a paragraph or two? There may have been a few early morning or late night attempts over the years, but the strategy never seemed sustainable. Admittedly, a “set” schedule isn’t feasible when you have a newborn or during some other major transition, but my littlest guy has been sleeping fairly predictably for at least a year now.

I realized that I’d fallen into the trap of my own “story.” I write for a living, but writing and editing for hire isn’t enough. I want very much to complete my own personal writing projects. But. (To borrow a Karen-ism.) Do I really want that? Was writing something that I wanted to do so desperately during all those years, or something that I thought I should want to do? Perhaps spending time on my personal writing projects was something I rarely made a regular commitment to because it’s hard, and not always gratifying, and maybe there were a lot of other things — like cleaning the kitchen grout with a Q-Tip — that seemed more important at the time.

It’s hard to make time for shoulds. The shoulds weigh us down and transform everyday life into a bone-wearying Sisyphus impersonation. Meanwhile, the things that we really want to do? We usually do them. A bit of compromise might be required, but if you are totally keyed up to write a haiku today, chances are, you will find 10 minutes to scribble down the draft floating around in your head. Conversely, if you think you should write a haiku today, you might discover that item #37 on your to-do list is so important that there’s simply no way that you can get to the notepad to pen a few lines. Just 10 minutes? Not a chance.

Maybe I wrapped myself up in a coat of creative deprivation just so that I would have something to hide behind. Maybe it really was as uncomplicated as my husband’s response to my martyring complaints, which he offered with a shrug of the shoulders: “If you want to write, write.” This used to infuriate me, but now I see the truth there — as annoying as that is to admit. No, I am not able to run off for six hours of solitary writing time. But. Even 20 minutes of writing time yields 20 minutes’ worth of words that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I know this from personal experience; I have 200 viable pages in my nonfiction manuscript and nearly as many in my most recent novel. These words were amassed in fits and starts rather in predictable, extended writing stints. (Note to self: Try to avoid forgetting all the things that you worked so hard to figure out.)

On my drive home from the retreat, I couldn’t sort out how this construct of beleaguered, suffering writer-mother had sustained me, or why I had bought into it so hard, but I did know that many things I had accepted as inescapable truths were suddenly swathed in question marks. Time to start all over again, with beginner’s mind.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. hooray! you did it!

    i seem to remember telling you a kind of reverse truth in your kitchen a bit over a year ago that was similar. what’s important to you? how do you make it fit?

    for me, it was definitely that i could let go of even halfway decent house work in favor of using my time to write. sometimes i really would rather be writing in my novel, or editing as the case is now, but it’s just not feasible outside of my writing group meetings that occur out of my house of mayhem. so it’s once every 2 weeks. is it going to kill me if i don’t write that right now? no. maybe it’ll feel like it, if i resist the current of my home environment, but when i don’t, i find i can do quite a bit i didn’t see coming: blogging nearly daily, quilting, enjoying the kids, potty training, laundry can find its way into drawers! poems, photography – an old lost love – and decent meal planning instead of fries and tofu dogs every other night, and pasta on the opposites.

    yay, miranda! slowing down is working for you! how’s the running going?

    October 4, 2010
    • Thanks, Cathy! I appreciate your comments.

      Thanks for asking about the running…it’s been going well. For a while there I was getting in 3-4 runs a week of 3-5 miles each, but I’ve dropped down to 2-3 runs a week. This weekend I ran a 5K race in 25:12, which was a PB. That said, I’m still thinking about moving more toward yoga — starting at home until I can find a class that fits. How about you with your injury?

      October 4, 2010
  2. that sounds great! it’s getting cold out now, so reucing the running and moving toward yoga seems really good. i love yoga.

    Thanks, honey and i just joined a gym, unfortunately, we can’t get there at the same time and work out together, but we’re both making our physical wellbeing a better priority than we have in recent years.

    my ankle is starting to get better, like i can actually wear a closed shoe now, but i still struggle with pushing too far with it and reinjurying. my personal trainer is also a physical therapist who gave me some good exercises specific to the ankle and also is customizing a weight and cardio routine around that and my surgery recovery. it’s been a rough year, but i am loving finally bouncing back and to my new yoga classes! so yeah, i’m at the gym at least three times a week and shooting for 4-5. but it is tough getting up for the 530am yoga class! what a miracle 1 hour 3x a week has been for me.

    October 4, 2010
  3. Brittany Vandeputte #

    I’ve come to a similar conclusion myself–and the fact that I have 20,000+ words of a novel I wrote in fits and starts supports that you can write if you want to. The key is that you have to be content with whatever output you can manage.

    My major frustration is that I’m not content writing two paragraphs a day or outlining my book. It’s not the type of lose-myself-in-my-writing-inhabit-an-imaginary-world writing that I enjoy. The reason I don’t write every day now is not because I can’t, but because I don’t enjoy the type of writing that I have to do under these time constraints.

    Granted, it’s better than nothing, but it’s like doing yoga and never getting beyond downward dog. I have resigned myself to the idea that this is my new reality, but won’t embrace it.

    And I think you’re over-simplifying the struggle of writing mothers a bit. Going to back to your haiku comment, yes, you could write a haiku a day–and that’s fine advice for a poet (or a hobby writer), but those of us writing novels aren’t poets and don’t want to be hobby writers. All of us have dreams of being published, in a market saturated with good writers and cynical publishers. I know that at the rate I’m going it will be years before I have a completed first draft of this book I’m writing. And then still more years before it’s good enough for submission.

    It’s not about just writing something. If I wanted to write just to say I’d produced something, I could fit in time to write crap all day long. But I want to write beautifully, something I’m really proud of, that gives me a lift and an ego boost, something that I can have hope in, that represents my very best.

    I am proud of my blog, for this reason. I’m happy with my output there and write a newblog nearly every day. The feedback I get from my regular readers fulfills my need for positive feedback. I am not a wannabe there-the blog is a complete body of work as it is, but it can always be added to. Writing it makes me feel like I’m actually accomplishing something worth working toward.

    October 5, 2010
  4. i hear that, brittany but…i also recognize the stage of parenting you are in with your boys’ ages. trust me, it will end. they will go to school. i just got toots into preschool and i am looking forward to splitting that time between editing my manuscript and exercise. 2 mornings a week, three hours. woo-hoo! it took a lot more to transition my boys into school age and i had other things going on like being a single parent working three pt jobs to support them, blah, blah, i’ve said it before, but i’m trying to say there is light at the other end of when they are school age for you brittany.

    you also have a lot on your plate right now, as expressed in your blog recently. it’s hard to focus intently on fiction in the midst of so much life stuff. and you made a major move recent;y, too, and while stuff is settlling into places in the house, and you are settling into what seems like a wonderful place for your family, your brain may need a little bit more time to be able to refocus succinctly on your book.

    October 5, 2010
  5. Brittany Vandeputte #

    True. And if my above post comes across as a bit snarky, it was not intentional–just the product of trying to write something meaningful when yor omputer keybrd is dong thi to you–you ca’t type speedand have to go ackand doubl check everythng and t’s ttaly addenng nd maki e ant to pick i up and toss it across the rom.

    October 5, 2010
  6. didn’t seem snarky to me, you have legit concerns!

    sorry about your keyboard!

    October 5, 2010
  7. so funny that i was pulled to wander by here today 😉 seems i never have time to read blogs these days… and here, of course i was meant to find this post. when karen first wrote for my site, she sent me her post way before her deadline. she told me she had some time while waiting in the car for her daughter at gymnastics. and so there is was – time to write. it just didn’t look like time that we would “want” or expect (my life has recently been all about letting go of expectations). that writing not only fulfilled a beautiful post for the wishstudio, but it also created the pathway that would eventually lead us to the same space on the same afternoon under the same roof. i wanted to tell you this story that afternoon, but it flew out of my head before i could relay it. anyway, i am so glad to have connected with You and i hope we can sit down sometime and have a glass of wine and laugh and dream and weep about this crazy creative mama life. (i am also working on a book due to be published next fall, so i know exactly where you are coming from!). big hugs and deep breaths. yes, it’s all in the letting go.

    October 6, 2010
  8. I keep coming back to this again and again. Why am I not doing this “thing” I think I should-to the point where I will have regret if at the end of my life I haven’t at least given it a REAL GO. that said, I have the sitter in place this evening and I will again “JUST BEGIN!”

    October 7, 2010
  9. “Maybe I wrapped myself up in a coat of creative deprivation just so that I would have something to hide behind.”

    This sentence is like a laser beam.

    Oh, I am so glad I met you.

    And the p.s. to the story? Kate and I have already met several times! We finally put 2+2 together. No surprise in a way – kindred spirits find each other.

    October 7, 2010
  10. @Jena: You know, I kind of figured that you and Kate would recognize each other. LOVE it. Gonna have to get myself up your way for a visit, anon…..

    October 18, 2010
  11. Miranda, thanks for this and for having the courage to look carefully at your own reasons for not doing your writing work.

    There’s a psychological name for this: self-handicapping. It’s very common! In a nutshell, it’s a protective instinct. If you stay away from your work you’ll never have to face the pain of writing poorly, OR you can fool yourself into thinking you’ll be a great writer if and when you DO get down to work.

    There’s an interesting article about this here:
    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dont-delay/200805/delay-self-handicapping-strategy-i-can-protect-my-self-image-procrastinating/

    I’ve written about how to deal with this in an e-book (free) called “The Power of Deliberate Thinking: 5 Strategies for Staying at the Writing Desk (Despite Your Self-Doubts)” that you can get at http://www.literaryliving.com.

    Would love to hear if you find it useful in your “beginner’s mind” state. Enjoy!

    And happy writing, everyone! 🙂

    November 15, 2010

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