One the eve of my daughter’s first birthday, I thought it apropos to recount the lessons she’s taught me during her year on earth, specifically with regard to writing. Though absolutely welcome, Molly was a surprise, and her sudden arrival meant the end to many plans, particularly for me. Before finding out I was pregnant, I had been planning to attend graduate school for creative writing, but with Molly on the way, it didn’t pan out. So, instead, I decided to start a novel — for real this time — and began my trek somewhere around five months pregnant.
I write all of this to demonstrate how instrumental Molly was in spurring my writing endeavors, and while she can’t take all of the credit, her placement in my and my husband’s lives at such an unexpected time opened my eyes to the real possibility of making writing my profession. But her relevance to my writing journey doesn’t stop there; every day she teaches me a new lesson I find significant to writing, and I’d like to share a few of the most important things I’ve learned.
Every day, Molly wakes up in her bed not knowing who is coming to get her, what she will be doing that day, or where she will be going. When I strap her into her carseat, she has no idea where she is going and what awaits her there, and has to hope everything works out for her. She has no plans or expectations, and can only trust that someone else does.
Writing is a lot like being strapped into a rear-facing carseat along for a ride. You have no idea what lies ahead of you, where you will end up, or how you will get there. All you can do is pray something larger is at work putting the pieces together and making sure your words eventually form a coherent story, much like Molly has to trust we’ll get her out of bed or feed her lunch every day (which we do — whether she eats it is another story!). Trusting that your writing will eventually come together is scary and often frustrating, but if you put in the proper work every day, learn you characters, and allow yourself to write without limitations, eventually trusting becomes quite fun.
Molly is a tough cookie, and now more than ever, as she’s learning to walk and talk and find her place in the world, I’m seeing how incredibly persistent she is in her learning. She doesn’t mope or complain when she falls down; she doesn’t throw a fit when we can’t understand her. She always jumps back to her feet and carries on, or finds a new way to communicate. Babies are wired like this, I understand. They don’t comprehend shame this early in their lives and therefore don’t have any motive to dwell on their mistakes like adults. But learning babies are great examples for writers, as, like discovering how to walk, so much of writing is flailing and falling and failing before you get it right.
When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth. // Kurt Vonnegut
No one enjoys failure, but it is inevitable, and when we learn to pick ourselves up and get back to the grindstone after a massive face-plant, magic happens. Some of my best work has come out of rejection, failure, or unexpected criticism, because after the initial disappointment, I’m more motivated to prove myself, to meet a new standard in the hopes of succeeding. I see the same in Molly when she loses her balance or can’t explain what she wants. Without missing a beat and with uninhibited determination, she gets back up and walks (and talks) on, as she wants to show us and herself that she can do what she puts her mind to.
Babies are messy; life with babies is messy. They like to play with their food and pull clothes out of the dresser’s bottom drawers; they eat dirt and grass and put their hands in toilet water; and since I am an obsessively neat person, this has been a difficult lesson for me to learn, both in life and in my writing. It has, however, been one of the most important for my success.
Every time I sit to write anything for the first time, even this blog post, I want it to flow right out of me as neat and perfect as it will be at publishing. I want all of the proper words in their places, the structure and pacing to work, the characters to grow and transform naturally. But when this becomes the main goal of my writing time, I find myself plagued self-doubt and criticism, and my productivity and enjoyment inevitably suffer.
The fact of the matter is that my writing mostly starts like a second-grader’s, full of grammatical errors, brackets for future edits, lots of ??????? where I don’t know what to say or how to say it. But messiness is a part of the search in writing. I used to pursue neatness and perfection while drafting and, predictably, never made it very far in my writing, as I spent my work hours returning to previous paragraphs for edits or to fix plot holes and forcing my mind to stay the course. Messiness, on the other hand, has freed my mind from these restrictions, allowing me to explore and be silly, to say those things I tuck in the corners of my brain and plan never to voice in the presence of another person. All of those things need to be brought to the page in order to figure out what I’m trying to say or what my story is telling me, and without the permission to be messy, I may never find those little truths stowed away in all that mayhem.
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. // Anne Lamott
My writing, like my house, usually stays in disarray for a long time, but a year with Molly has taught me to ignore the imperfections, to press forward knowing I can always go back to edit my manuscript (or clean my house) later, to use the time available in a day to just get the words down, no matter if they make sense or not. It’s hard for me to look at the messes and believe they will ever be scrubbed to neatness, but I’ve seen it happen, done the work to make it happen, persisted through the chaos to make it happen. Mostly, it all goes back trusting, doesn’t it? And trust is something you earn over time, especially the ability to trust yourself. But every day of effort, of baby steps, of falling and getting back up, eventually culminates in learning to run.
NOW TELL ME // What are the most important lessons others have taught you about writing and life? Comment below to join the conversation!