Making time for creativity and your kids in the wake of COVID-19
Usually at this time of year, The Space Between would be focused on providing helpful articles on how to set up summer schedules to prevent the infamous “summer slide” without an over-reliance on screens. Or how to select summer camps to optimize enrichment opportunities and to get everyone out of the house so that writers can write.
Thanks to COVID-19, the jury’s still out on summer camp here in New York. We’re schooling from home for another few weeks, but with summer looming on this Memorial Day weekend, and most of the country in some phase between lock-down and “next normal,” what should we be doing as parents to prepare our kids for summer? As creatives, how in the midst of this uncertainty, do we provide for the time we need to work on our craft?
Furthermore, how are we supposed to manage any of it when the ability to set and stick to a schedule has changed week-by-week, and sometimes day-by-day, for the past two months?
There are two schools of thought on this. Those who love structure (hello, Plotters!) schedule your kids’ time and your writing time. It’s all on the calendar (virtual, plannered, or both), and the calendar rules! No excuses. The Muse comes when She comes, but she’ll know where to find you better if you make yourself regularly available. And your kids will thrive when there’s a set routine.
The other way of thinking, which I’ve advocated before, is that there are seasons to parenting and writing, and it’s best to go with the flow (Camp Pantser). If your family needs you more right now, or your mental and emotional exhaustion has your well running dry, then take the time that you need to take care of yourself. And to take care of your kids, who are dealing with all the changes keeping us all off balance, but with less life experience to help them find their center. Find ways to replenish. Give yourself some grace. Live to write another day and be gentle with yourself, and the small humans in your care, in the meantime.
Using positivity, compassion, and creativity to stay human during a pandemic
In the early days of the U.S. reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, when the concepts of teleworking and schooling from home were still novel, I was amazed by the creative ways in which I saw communities coming together despite the requirements to stay six feet apart. As I wrote about for Homeschooling on the Hudson, I’ve been truly impressed by random acts of kindness neighbors have been practicing. Thanks to social media, the impacts of those actions are magnified, rippling through virtual communities, encouraging others to actions of their own. The creativity and kindness that spilled from human wellsprings across my physical and virtual communities has been nothing short of motivational. I hope you’ve experienced this too!
Now we’re a couple of weeks in, the sheen of our still-new pandemic routines is tarnished, worn by the strain of managing kids and careers, or sheered off by pink slips and bankruptcies. Trying to figure out a way ahead when the only thing in abundant supply is information gaps has the nation treading water. More and more people we know are struggling to keep their heads up – and the fact that there is no clear view of the shore has left many of us deeply afraid.
Fear is a tricky emotion. We’re taught early that “there’s nothing to be afraid of.” Our kid fears are “only in our imaginations.” Fears are supposed to melt by the light of day and the opening of the closet. The strong among us are supposed to laugh in the face of fear, if they even perceive fear at all. But persistent fear can actually severely disrupt our health, as this 2017 article in the American Journal of Managed Care lays out. Fear and anxiety are also powerful wreckers of mental processing, according the University of Minnesota.
Looking at the 2018 Chapman study on the most prevalent fears in America, it’s not surprising that the COVID pandemic has triggered so many of us: half of the top 10 fears most Americans share are currently at play. Plus, this pandemic impacts all of America in a way little has since the days of mutual assured destruction of the good ‘ole Cold War. Then we had a common enemy to rally against, a tangible foe whom we sought to out-produce, out-patriotism, and out-spend. Today, by contrast, we’re being told to hunker in our homes and await further instruction, which feels more like the nation’s longest duck and cover drill rather than progress.
Given the circumstances, it’s understandable that people are starting to get snippy. Unfortunately, online forums are tempting outlets for many who feel empowered to type the sorts of comments they’d never make to another human face-to-face. Jesse Fox, Ph.D. explains in Psychology Today the variety of reasons underlying this behavior, including the spiral of silence theory, which essentially boils down to people who perceive themselves in the majority will bully those they perceive as in the minority.
“The spiral of silence theory suggests that when people think they are in the majority in a certain setting, they will more freely express their opinion than those who see themselves as in the minority, and may fear social ostracism if they express an unpopular opinion.”
Combine the deep-running fears and social distancing that are tied to COVID-19, and you’ve got a potentially toxic result for our online groups, which in some cases spill over into our geographic, communities. Those same forums where people were trying to support each other through these tough times are also now host to virtual finger-pointing and division. Unfortunately, as we all win from random acts of kindness, we all lose from virtual battles, which further people’s anxiety, fear, and sense of isolation.
“Us versus Them” silos are fearful, closed, hurting and hurtful, paralyzing, negative, and ultimately extremely dangerous to the health -and ultimate survival….”
While I’m no social scientist, I’ve had some practical training in human psychology, and I’ve lived through my share of high-stress situations. My observations from these experiences are that when our fear is high, some people instinctually revert to an ‘us versus them’ mentality in an effort to order their universe and attempt to gain some control. ‘Them’ becomes the antithesis of all the good that ‘us’ seeks to preserve. By reducing our worldview to two camps, we remove space for middle ground, or creative problem-solving. There is no room for compassion, or for understanding that while ‘us’ suffers, ‘them’ may also be suffering. As Duena Blomstrom put in a Forbes article from 2019, “”Us versus Them” silos are fearful, closed, hurting and hurtful, paralyzing, negative, and ultimately extremely dangerous to the health -and ultimate survival….”
As a writer, and a person whose drawing skills maxed out at stick figures (not the cool, funny kind), when someone mentions creativity I immediately start thinking of stories.
‘What would happen if a leprechaun moved to New York City? Or maybe if a shape shifter came to Earth and could only learn by experiencing what it’s like to be each item in a food chain? Or better yet, let’s combine the two…. NOW we’re getting out of the box!’
If I push myself, I might perhaps consider story structure, and how to creatively approach my leprechaun/shape shifter encounter in way that isn’t just omniscient retelling.
‘What if the narrator is a jellyfish that can only think in watery thought bubbles in the present tense because it has no temporal lobe? Only it turns out to be an unreliable narrator because it is actually another shape shifter who is dreaming about the future….’
And if I’m feeling very avant garde, I might noodle over poetry and the intersection between structure and prose and story.
‘…And that jellyfish only thinks in iambic pentameter….’
But then my brain short circuits and I revert to my usual thought patterns, which boil down to how do I get this story out of my brain and onto the virtual paper?
Did you catch that? My creative efforts fall into ‘usual thought patterns’. That’s just fancy speak for a rut.
How creative can you be if you’re in a mental rut????
(Especially if you don’t even realize that you’re in a rut in the first place.)
Enter Embrace Your Weird by Felicia Day – the perfect brain de-rutter. Day’s unique, quirky, upbeat approach to creation pushes you to reexamine various forms of creativity (in addition to yourself and why it is that you tend toward certain creative outlets). One second she’s challenging you to list all the creative endeavors you’ve ever tried –and then BAM! She demonstrates how being creative in one sphere can unlock creative bursts in other areas – like a giant creative snowball. By the time I was done with her book, I was ready to get back to glass blowing, knitting, and singing. And I could already feel the current of creativity flowing back toward story creation. (The stick figures, though, are still what they are.)
Another great way to challenge your brain tracks? Get out of your space, physically and mentally. In case you doubt my commitment to this method, I headed to Cleveland to volunteer at an outdoor performance arts festival in February. Yup. Because few thing demand creativity like trying to entice people out of their warm homes to attend a festival in the dead of a lakeside winter. Yet, Brite Winter has become hugely popular over the last decade. It’s gone from an all-volunteer effort cooked up by a couple of community-minded Case Western grad students (my awesome friend Emily Hornack and her awesome friend Jimmy Harris) to a registered charity with a full-time staff; from a three-band, 600-person event to a 40-musical artist, 20,000-person event. (So if you live in the greater Ohio area and haven’t been yet, yes, you ARE in fact missing out.)
I have a plaque with a quote from Mark Twain that reads:
“Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.”
At some point, I should have crossed out “today,” and wrote
“in 2019” above it.
Sorry, but 2019 was full of so much suckiness, not just for me, but for a number of people I know. I heard “I can’t wait for this year to be over!” exclaimed a lot more this December, which means a lot of us must have been ready to toss that old calendar to the curb. Goodbye, good riddance, don’t let the door hit ya in the rear on your way out, 2019!
If I remember correctly, 1999 and 2009 were equal in suckage. I mean, if we’re going rate years by level of suckage. Now, I don’t have any background in numerology, but I’m going to propose that this is due to them all ending in the number 9. Obviously.
And I’m making a mental note to prepare for 2029 by hoarding
bottles of vodka and buying a helmet to shield my head from falling crap.
Because I’m a planner.
Unfortunately, 2019 has not left me in my usual place for goal setting. At the end of the year I’m normally buying a new planner, making new word lists, and greeting the new year with hopefulness and lots of fresh office supplies. Since that’s not the current situation, I decided to try the “setting intentions” approach for this year. It feels like a kinder, gentler version of goal setting. Goals feel more pass/fail to me at the moment, and the bad taste in my mouth from 2019 makes me assume I’ll fail. There’s no sense in setting myself up for that.
I’m so excited to share an interview with Erica Waters. Erica was a member of the Pitch Wars class of 2017 and I’ve been able to read a bit of her work – I love it! Erica’s debut Young Adult novel, GHOST WOOD SONG, will be released by HarperTeen/Harper Collins this summer. GHOST WOOD SONG is a spooky, contemporary fantasy – and good news – it’s available for pre-order! Follow any of these links:
Erica Waters grew up in the pine woods of rural Florida, though she now resides in Nashville, Tennessee. She has a Master’s degree in English and works as a university writing tutor. When she’s not writing books, you can find her hanging out with her two dogs, Nutmeg and Luna, and forgetting to practice her banjo.
Before we head into the interview, check out the awesome summary for GHOST WOOD SONG…
Shady Grove is her father’s daughter, through and through. She inherited his riotous, curly hair, his devotion to bluegrass, and his ability to call ghosts from the grave with his fiddle.
That cursed instrument drowned with him, though, when his car went off the road, taking with it the whispering ghosts, nightmares, and the grief and obsession that forced her daddy to play.
But Shady’s brother was just accused of murder, and so she has a choice to make: unearth the fiddle that sang her father to the grave and speak to the dead to clear her brother’s name, or watch the only family she has left splinter to pieces.
The ghosts have secrets to keep, but Shady will make those old bones sing.
So let’s find out a little about how GHOST WOOD SONG came to be!
Anyone else feeling overrun with decisions that need to be made lately? What’s the perfect holiday gift? Do we invite the family to stay with us, or travel to them? It’s not just the holidays, though they seem to make it all a bit more anxiety-inducing. Personally, I’ve been staring down my mental decision trees for so long now, all I see is brambles. For example, with five days of NaNoWriMo remaining, I was noodling through the following: tether myself to my computer, coming up only for life-sustaining necessities, in order to churn out approximately 5,0000 words per day to make the 50K finish line; OR be (relatively) normal, but fail to qualify as a “winner” this year.
For some of you, this isn’t much of a conundrum. For me at the time, the decision wasn’t straight forward. In retrospect, it felt like a microcosmic reflection of a number of decisions that have been tripping through my mind lately, and which, like the cosmos itself, are expanding ever outward in scope and importance. Should Julie and I continue feeding energy into this blog or use that time and effort for other writing goals? Should my family stay the course on limiting screen time for the kiddo, or use the electronic babysitter to create more time for my husband and I to get work done? Do we continue here in New York or once again go adventuring? Etc., etc. And I always wonder, even when the issues appear entirely disparate, how will any one of these decisions impact the others?
Back to NaNo and my pie-in-the-sky goals, the last five days of November this year included Thanksgiving, complete with family commitments (and actual pie), not to mention a host of other seasonal temptations. Perhaps these facts are enough to drive you firmly in a certain direction. For me, though, the pull between “winning” and “family” is stronger than I should probably admit. Even though I do really believe that every word written is in itself a win, the decision to give up going for the gold was still tough.
What pushed me over the tipping point, however, wasn’t family, nor missing out on Black Friday (which turned out to be one of my higher word count days), but the needs of my story. Sure, I could have rushed it. It wouldn’t have been the first time (hello, NaNo manuscripts from 2014-2017). While I still believe there is a certain dark logic in the adage, ‘don’t get it right, get it written,’ admittedly, it can make the revision process not just longer, but hairier . It’s one thing to realize you have a plot hole or two, or a character that isn’t fully developed, or an internal inconsistency – it’s another thing all together to realize you’re staring down all this AND MORE as you start your revisions. So, in the end, I decided discretion was the better part of valor this time and I’d let my story continue to spin out at its own pace. Which is to say, I’m hoping to be done with the draft before Christmas, but I’m willing to give it the time that it needs, even if that means I’m still plugging away at the first draft into 2020.
November is National Novel
Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. If you’ve never heard of NaNo, as it’s commonly
referred to, check it out here. The goal
is to get 50,000 words down on paper in the month of November. It’s November 20th
as I write this, and, well, let’s just say I’m not on track to hit that number.
At the rate I’m going, I’ll hit my NaNo word count maybe 12 days this month. Are you in the same sinking boat? Take heart! I’ve written a little parody to cheer up all of us NaNo-not-quites. I combined my NaNo failure with the excitement of the upcoming holidays. I present to you…
The 12 Days of NaNo (Note: In writer world, MS = manuscript.)
Welcome to November! Just as Julie returns to sporting themes periodically, I seem destined to return to NaNoWriMo around this time every year (see Ready, Steady, NaNo or Eeking out time to write). If you’re not participating in NaNo 2019, don’t x this article out! While NaNo was what got my gears turning, this article is aimed at anyone who’s been wanting to do something creative and new, but hasn’t…yet. To those of you who find yourself thinking, “I’d love to try, but…”, keep reading.
First, a brief aside; I promise it will all come together by the end. I LOVE NaNoWriMo (in case you hadn’t already figured that out). This is my 7th year participating, though, if I’m being honest, two of those years were total flops. Maybe this year will be a flop too – it’s too early to tell. So, the question is why do I love NaNo so much, especially if I can never be certain if I’m going to be a “winner”?
It’s because NaNoWriMo is one of those opportunities in life that is ALL win.
Let me explain.
Outcome A: You work really hard and you find out that your story only has 40,000 words to it (not the 50K required to ‘win’). YOU WROTE A STORY! A WHOLE STORY! (Ok, at least two-thirds of a story.) That’s amazing! You’ve just birthed art into the world and you’ve exposed a part of your deep dark consciousness to the light. How can that be anything but a win?
Outcome B: You have the best of intentions, but life is overwhelming and you only manage to write 5,000 words of a story that you know is going to be a blockbuster one day, if only you had the time to write it. FANTASTIC! You’ve tapped into that inner muse, the genius of the universe, and as a result you WILL come back to this addictive idea another time. November is a weird month, sandwiched between back to school frenzy and holiday insanity. My kid doesn’t have a single full week of school this entire month. It is NOT the ideal writing month, from my perspective. So give yourself credit for unearthing an award winning idea and allow yourself to be excited about getting back to it in January, February, July, or whenever it is that YOU can make time for it.
Outcome C: You write 10,000 words of something that feels totally frivolous. You’re writing in a genre you never thought you’d write in, that maybe you don’t even read in, and you have no idea what you’re doing or where you’re going with it. It has no place to occupy on your short-list of professional goals. WHAT A GIFT!! You just learned something new about yourself. Or maybe you knew, but you’d forgotten and allowing this part to have a little time in the sun feels like a reconnection with yourself. Maybe your brain needed to do something different in order to be able to knuckle back down to the hard tasks you demand of it all the other hours in the day. Whatever the reason, take a moment to honor how it felt, and to reflect that perhaps not every minute of your day needs to be task oriented.
“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” – Henry Ford
I’ve got a note on the wall in the shower (if you haven’t discovered Aqua Notes, you’re missing out – they will change your life) that reads:
If you’ve been reading our blog for a while, you’ll know that September was not my month for writerly achievements. It was, in fact, the month I wanted to take a sledgehammer to my laptop, delete all my files from the cloud, and otherwise burn it all down. Which isn’t really my style, generally speaking. Luckily, the phase passed after a few days of self-pity. Then it was time to begin again. To start over. To redefine the way I approached the things that were draining me.
But where? What should I do differently to ensure I didn’t end up back at the nuclear option?
The act of writing the note was my start.
It was an exhortation to myself to get moving. It was a new set of goals, and maybe most importantly, it was a reminder to break my goals down into small, achievable pieces.
The idea of setting achievable goals in order to create a cycle of successes isn’t a new one. In fact, it might be THE lesson life has been attempting to teach me in 2019. As usual, though, I’m a slow learner. Despite having encountered this notion in several formats this year, I keep setting goals that lead to frustration. I couldn’t figure out how to reconceptualize the goal-setting process.
Then I had one of those fortuitous visits with a couple I love dearly who have recently achieved dramatic, healthy weight loss. I’m not exaggerating when I say that they’ve, together, lost as much as I weigh. It’s amazing. And so inspiring. Especially for someone who has stubbornly hung on to the last 10 pounds of baby weight accumulated over six years ago. I asked my friends how they did it, expecting guidance on apps used, food systems implemented, etc. My mind was blown by the simplicity of my friend’s response. She said that she had never had much success trying to lose 10 pounds or 20 pounds, so she decided to lose ONE pound. And then she did it again. And again. And again. It was a success she repeated so often that it became habit.
THIS is the lesson the universe has been trying to teach me! One pound. I can lose one pound. Even if it is one pound of die-hard, stick to your hips baby weight. I can totally do one.
If you love to write, it’s natural that you want (and maybe
expect) your kids to love writing. Totally misguided, but natural. I think I’ve
raised all three of my boys the same way when it comes to reading and writing,
but there have been drastically different results. Because they are their own
persons with their own interests and gifts. The nerve, right? Anyway, I still
stand by some of the techniques below because they’ve helped each of the boys,
albeit in different ways. So, if you’re looking for some help with your
reluctant writer or you want to encourage your budding Stephen King, check
Yes, the same advice that was given to you
when you first expressed an interest in becoming a writer. Read. Everything. For
kids, that translates into reading aloud often and exploring different genres
with them. One of my kiddos didn’t read independently until age seven. As we
encouraged him to learn his stinking sight words, we continued reading aloud
every night. We took books on CD in the car and made sure he had a little CD
player so he could listen to them on his own, too. By fostering the love of
story, you can expose them to the parts of a story, dialogue, and characters.
All things that are good foundation for when they are writing themselves.
We recently started picking up PlayAways at our library and they love them! Check to see if your library carries them!
2. Take Dictation
I let all three kids dictate stories to me when they were too young to write. You can fold some paper in half and – to everyone’s delight – get out the stapler. The most exotic of all office supplies. Or you can buy some of these. Whatever works. As they told me their story, I would stop them now and then to ask a question with great interest. What happened next? Was anyone with the mechanical robot bunny? How did that make the monster feel? It becomes a bit of a conversation. You’re getting more details and helping to build their story. In our case, it helped if I didn’t censor much. They felt free to be as imaginative as they wanted. So, there were lots of farting, mechanical robot bunny defeating the three-headed monster stories.