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.
How old were you the first time you heard your own voice? Did you cringe?
I didn’t believe it was me. I thought that there was something wrong with the cassette tape (yup, I’m that old–and I recorded myself using a boombox. Children of the ’80s, rock on!). Then I briefly considered never talking again.
Problem is, I’m a born talker. I love talking with people, even strangers. I’ll also talk to my dogs, the cat, even the plants (scientists in the ’80s swore this was good for them–is that still true?). And now the universe is playing one of its karma games because it has given me a child who talks nonstop.
I love listening to what he has to say 99% of the time. The way his mind works is truly bizarre and fascinating, and I say that with all the love of a mother who has already received roses and sharing privileges on a Lego Wegman’s hauler for Mother’s Day. I want him to feel like he can talk to me about anything, and that I’m listening, and that what he has to say is valued. I really do.
But 1% of the time (okay, maybe 7.5% on certain days, like when I’m not feeling well, or have a deadline, or when all he wants to talk about is the relationships between Pokémon), I just need him to give me a few quiet minutes. That’s when I break out, “the Mom voice.” You know the one. It’s just slightly lower than Sigourney Weaver’s in the original Ghostbusters when she answers, “There is no Dana, only Zuul.” Except I’m saying, “Hey Bud, that’s interesting, but just give Mama a minute please.”
He’s a good kid (like I said, sharing rights on the Lego hauler he built himself), so the first 200 times I used that voice, he ran away, wide-eyed and o the brink of hyperventilation. Now, it’s like he doesn’t even hear “the Mom voice.” In fairness, he’s usually too busy talking to listen.
So I’ve had to up my game. Admittedly, the first couple of tries might have been a little over the top, judging by the tears. But I like to think I now have a solid repertoire of voices to inspire just the right reaction. There’s the cloyingly sweet Mom apology voice (“Sorry, kiddo, but I’m still in the video conference, so could you please stop talking”) to encourage quiet play in the home office while you’re working. The Zen-Mom countdown voice (“Make a good decision in three-two-one….”) to inspire the child to do what you want him/her to do. And the Kathy Bates Misery voice (“See what you made me do!”) to induce the child to leave your vicinity immediately.
As I was trying to determine which was the right voice to instill at least five minutes of silence after approximately 900 updates in 30 minutes on the status of the eggs in his Pocket Frogs nursery, I had an epiphany.
Hard question to help you stay sane during a virtual pandemic
Social media has redefined how the world manages life during a pandemic. For the vast majority of us, it isn’t that our worlds have stopped so much as they’ve taken a hard shift to the virtual. Many of us continue to work, shop, and even socialize at near our usual rates – just online. The explosion of social media into our lives has bloomed as fast as COVID-19 infection rates in NYC. And like the virus itself, it’s been hard to identify exactly where it would next spiral out of control.
Thanks to Google Classroom and Drive, Microsoft Teams, Blackboard, and Zoom (among numerous other platforms) our kids continue with their educations and can now even take tours of zoos, museums, and aquariums – not to mention do yoga, draw with Mo Willems, and engage in story hours or book groups.
We’re so grateful to teachers who are going above and beyond to teach our children from a distance, or at least keep them occupied for a half hour, especially while we’re burning out in our own multi-hour Zoom meetings and virtual seminars.
The silver lining of COVID-19 is the opportunity to reconnect with old friends, develop new facets of connection with members of our communities, and take advantage of this “slow” time to do a little online learning or personal improvement. As a result, my evenings are more scheduled now than at any other point in 2020.
I’m truly grateful for these unanticipated positives. Even as video chats cause me to closely consider which parts of my house make for a suitable background, not to mention blow my ability to covertly multitask (and force me to evaluate my quarantine fashion choices).
Our pre-pandemic social media consumption habits act like pre-existing conditions, making those of us previously plugged into Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (and others) more likely to succumb to pandemic click-bait: everything from how to make your own mask, school from home, keep your family’s morale up, and avoid weight gain while you’re quarantined. As the virus spread, so have recycled news stories on infection rates, fatality statistics, quarantine dates, “expert” analysis of medical trends, and heart-rending accounts and/or horror stories from the pandemic’s front lines. The urge to read just one more article at bedtime is a symptom I have to treat every night in order to fall asleep.
As a writer, I know about the power of revisions. I’d like to believe that every first draft is gold, or at least good, or good enough, but experience has taught me otherwise. A first draft is a starting point, an attempt to craft characters, scenarios, and worlds that create the story I want to tell.
When I’m done drafting, I read through what resulted from my efforts to translate what’s in my head and heart on to the page – and I’m almost always surprised by the gaps between my expectations and what actually is.
Enter the revisions.
Some writers approach revisions with a sense of despair or trepidation, but for me they’re a real world chance at redemption. That sentence that came out wrong? Strike it – it never existed. That horrible scene I made? Weave it into the narrative another way, so it becomes a transcendent moment. The protagonist whose actions completely contradict the statements s/he’s making? Rework that character until all aspects of their existence are in alignment.
Revisions, like the original writing, have a range of qualities directly proportional to the effort invested. A quick read-through lends itself to fixing typos, which may prevent some obvious misunderstandings. Meaningful revisions, however, require more. In fact, to make your story what you want it to be – what you imagined it already was – you need to do three things:
1 – Closely interrogate the script to identify internal inconsistences.
Stories, like life, are guided by values and rules. Sometimes these change as a result of specific events, or in response to gradual shifts in character or circumstance. Make sure that the rules and values of your story aren’t just tossed recklessly aside when they create an inconvenient result in your plotline. Trust is built on consistency, and is necessary to ensure your audience is along for the whole ride.
2 – Take a hard look at character to ensure it’s authentic.
Character is what people (readers) invest in, so you’d best make sure yours is unimpeachable. If, for example, your character claims to be one thing but is acting in a way that is inconsistent with the claim, it needs to be clear to the reader why that is. You can cook up the kookiest plot, and most folks will shrug and nod with a, “I’ve heard stranger. This one time….” But when your character acts in a way that doesn’t make sense, you can bet that everyone notices and they’re going to want an explanation. So if you’ve got character issues, fix them. Fix them now.
3 – A period of time away from the story.
When your brain is still caught up in the plot, you aren’t going to be able to do either of the previous steps effectively. Your mind will default to what it thinks is there instead of what actually is. Only through distance, and a little forgetting, can we clearly evaluate the story on its actual merits. Is the main character authentic and relatable? Does the plot follow its own internal logic and values? If not, why not? How can we fix it? Time gives your brain the distance it needs to see clearly, and then to begin to work on the solutions.
Here’s where life imitates art. This strange period of isolation and slow-down that we’re all experiencing – this is your time away from your story. It’s been long enough that we’re starting to forget the minutiae of our lives a month ago, which means we can begin to evaluate how we’ve been living our lives. Have our actions been consistent with our values? Have we been authentic in our relationships with those closest to us? Are we living the story we thought we were living? If not, why not? How do we fix it?
Not only does sheltering in place give us the opportunity to review our personal narratives, the fact that COVID-19 has stopped most of the world in its tracks at approximately the same time gives us an unprecedented chance to conduct evaluations at every level of human social function: personal, familial, communal, national, international, global. Do our practices and policies as a community or a country represent our values? Do our systems function according to logic and rules that are applied consistently, and are they achieving the goals we have created them to achieve? If not, why not? What changes can we make, as individuals, groups, and/or members of society, to correct the character flaws and internal inconsistencies?
There is no doubt that the hard pause this pandemic has caused our world will have long-standing, deleterious effects. However, the results don’t have to be only negative. We have the chance to use this time for reflection, to make sure the lives we’re living match the stories to which we aspire.
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.)
You’ve got an idea that you want to get on paper. Or you know that you always wanted to try writing, but you’re not quite sure where to begin. Maybe you’ve eeked out a draft of something and now you’re trying to figure out what to do with it, but you don’t have the time because your own personal army of small humans, and let’s be honest, probably at least one big human as well, demand so much time – not to mention pets, day jobs, side hustles, etc. What’s a busy mom/would-be writer to do?
First, take a breath.
You are not alone. There are so many of us out there, in fact, that social media is clogged with voices. But I don’t need to tell you that. In fact, it’s all a bit overwhelming, amiright? I hear you. I was a skeptic venturing into the virtual world of writerly things, but after a few years scoping it out, there are a few valuable and invaluable resources I return to time and again.
Before I give up all the goods on the resources I’d like you to know I am not being endorsed by, or receiving any benefit from, any of these sites or organizations. I may be a member, and I’m recommending them because they have provided me with tools that have helped me grow as a writer. With that out of the way, you should also consider that I tend toward sites that help develop my:
Skills as a novelist or blogger
Publishing industry knowledge
Take a moment to articulate in your mind what your writing goals are, both longer term and next steps. If our interests tend to align, then read on and consider if these resources can help you in your writer’s journey.
NaNoWriMo. This is the one that got me to knuckle down and prove I could write a novel. November is their big month, but they have events all year round these days, and lots of good support for writers of all levels. It’s great for skills and community, and for anyone who’s ever wondered if they have what it takes to vomit up 50,000 words (or more) in a semi-coherent format.
Writer’s Digest is another resource that’s helpful to writers at any stage of development, and regardless of whether you’re working on a non-fiction proposal, poetry, or flash fiction. It’s the one magazine subscription I actually make time to read, plus the organization offers contests, conferences, and online trainings.
SavvyAuthors is where I go for skill-building training programs. Last year they offered a fantastic mentoring program. They also have a blog, which will accept articles from guest authors, and periodic pitchfests that have helped me identify, and connect with, new agents.
Pitch Wars is another amazing blend of skill- and community building, with the opportunity to win mentorship and then get noticed by top industry agents. Even if you’re not yet ready to enter into the fray, it’s worth checking their website periodically to see what you can learn from others novelist hopefuls. You can also follow #pitchwars on Twitter to further enhance your community.
Speaking of Twitter, if you’re a writer, ignore this social media platform at your own peril! Not only are there vibrant and supportive writing communities out there (#writingcommunity, #writers, #writerslife, #amwriting, #writing) there are agents, tweeting about what they want and don’t want, and when they’re going to be ready for something fresh. There are editors, eager to help you develop your idea, style, or help you fine tune your MS. #Pitchwars is just one of a number of pitch contests – where you tweet 280 characters about your book and agents or editors might request your submission – instantly moving your work out of the slush pile and into an inbox. Even if you aren’t ready to pitch yet, watching #pitmad (or any of several genre specific pitchfests) is a way to see what is out there in your genre, what gets agent attention, and what doesn’t. You can track agents you’re interested in to see what they like during these events, which may help you down the road.
For those of you more interested in blogging, or building a base of published articles or short stories, check out the Medium Partnership program. Not only does Medium publish a number of articles on writing designed to help you hone your craft, it also offers the opportunity to get published and potentially make some money. Publications for writers include The Writing Cooperative, Writer Mom, and Epilogue. @EpilogueMedium and #writingcooperative are both also active on Twitter, and both Writer Mom and Writing Cooperative have amazingly supportive Facebook groups.
There are, of course, dozens of other websites and other online resources dedicated to helping you achieve your writerly dreams. So if the few I’ve highlighted here aren’t working for you, just hit the internet search engine of your choice and you’ll likely be amazed at all that pops up. The important thing is to know that you aren’t in this alone. There are so many of us out there, the majority of whom are eager to help you on your journey and to cheer you along the way. The other thing to keep in mind: this is a journey, not a sprint. So take your time. Explore a little bit, get comfortable, and then explore a little bit more. Take it at your pace, and enjoy finding your tribe.
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.
Holy crapamoley – it’s the year 2020! Is anyone else having Jetson-like fantasies about this year? I feel like it’s officially future-land, and yet, not a single flying car has soared past my window. Maybe they’re just slow to make it to New York’s Hudson Valley?
What has for sure happened, though, is that a new year has begun, and with it the chatter about intention-setting versus resolution-forming. I still love Julie’s guidance from last year about setting a word, or words, around which to structure the next 360 days. I have done, however, exactly none of any of this goodness, though the year is already escaping through my fingers.
So, putting myself on the spot here to come up with a word for 2020, I think mine is going to be “vision.” Because what could be clearer than 20/20, right? (dull cymbal roll). But if life has hammered any lesson home to me, it’s that in order to see into the future, we have to first look at our past.
Putting that into writerly terms, before we can envision (I’m full of ‘em today, watch out!) what we’re going to rock this year, we need to look at what we rolled last year. This, by the way, is an exercise best done without champagne goggles (or the subsequent hangover). For me, in order for this to be meaningful, I need to do it a couple of times, and each time needs to be a little quieter, for a little longer.
(This exercise is vastly easier if you actually set goals last year. If you didn’t, keep reading, since I’m going to show you how setting goals is helpful on both the micro and macro levels.)
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.