Sometimes parenthood seems the longest exercise in learning how to do 180-degree turns, doesn’t it?
It started with the shift from summer travel mode to summer camp mode last week. The preparation was mostly mental: getting our son excited to go to camp after a summer free of morning drop offs. For me, it was about switching my brain from full-time mom/activity director to writer. I spent at least a week pirouetting through mental checklists of all the writerly activities I wanted to get done in that blessed summer camp week. My brain churned with neglected projects that represented well more than a week’s worth of work. So on Monday morning, we accomplished the logistical maneuvers to get us out of the house with all the summer camp necessities…only to hit a heart-wrenching plot twist.
Someone (and by ‘someone’, I mean me) hadn’t actually submitted the camp registration. The roster was full and my son’s name was not on the list. After an awkward conversation with two separate (and incredibly nice) members of the camp staff, we were back in the car headed home.
After a week of up-selling camp, I had to execute a hard right turn to keep my kid from feeling the sting of rejection. The reminder of what he was missing as fresh and uncomfortable as the shoes, wet with dew from the summer camp fields, we were both wearingMy brain went into overdrive trying to figure out how to keep the week from being a total disaster. The problem was, all the items on my writing to-do list were screaming like passengers going down in a plane crash, and it was hard to think (or breathe normally) for all their small tragedies.
I’m only a little embarrassed to admit that I held it together for approximately 30 seconds after my husband took our son to walk the dogs, giving me a few moments to “look at the calendar.” The words “summer camp,” scrawled across the week some months before, reduced me to a sniffling mess. It was partially embarrassment that I’d somehow managed to fail at a fairly basic parent task. It was partially concern that my failure would cause our son to feel sad and/or disappointed all week. And it was at least 50 percent despair at the sudden loss of precious writing time, sandwiched as it was between six weeks of travel and the start of a new part-time job.
I’m excited to share an interview with author Sarah Kapit. Her debut middle grade novel, GET A GRIP, VIVY COHEN!, releases February 25, 2020. From Sarah’s website:
Vivy Cohen yearns to throw her knuckleball in a real game. But her mother is convinced that an autistic girl won’t be able to handle the pressures of a full baseball season. When a Little League Coach spots Vivy practicing with her brother in the park, she gets her chance. She makes a deal with Mom: Vivy can give baseball a try.
But pitching for a real team isn’t exactly easy. During her first season, Vivy must deal with nerves and bullies. And after a line drive smacks Vivy straight in the forehead, keeping Mom on board with Vivy’s baseball dreams proves just as tough as keeping the ball in the strike zone.
Through all of her travails, Vivy writes letters to the one person she can be honest with: MLB pitcher VJ Capello. Then, VJ writes back.
Sounds amazing right?! (You can pre-order it here!) Read on to learn about her inspiration for the book and some of her thoughts on the craft of writing.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Sarah! Congratulations on your upcoming debut middle grade novel! Can you tell us where or how you got the idea for GET A GRIP, VIVY COHEN! ?
As a baseball fan, the idea of a woman pitcher in MLB is so exciting to me. When I first saw the previews for PITCH–an absolutely wonderful show that was tragically cancelled after one season–that was really the genesis of the story. I just had an intense emotional reaction to seeing a woman taking the pitcher’s mound.
So all of that was percolating around my brain. Plus, I’ve long believed it’s likely that the first woman to play in MLB will be a knuckleball pitcher because the pitch relies on finger movement. Knuckleballers don’t have to be capable of throwing the ball 95+ miles an hour. Since I write middle grade, a girl knuckleball pitcher with big dreams came to my mind. I’ve also long wanted to write an explicitly autistic character, in a book that explores themes of neurodiversity. When I realized that all of this could fit together, the book’s concept just fell into place.
You recently received a box of ARCs of your book. How did you feel finally seeing it in print?
Completely amazing! I keep one copy by my nightstand and it’s hard to stop liking it. Vivienne To did a great job with the cover art, and it looks even better in print. I also love the way the interior design team laid out the pages.
And here’s the awesome cover!
Your main character, Vivy, has autism and her mother is reluctant to let her pitch for the baseball team. Do you think this book will open up dialogue between kids who have autism and their parents?
I hope so! Mostly, I hope that autistic kids who read this book realize that their way of advocating for themselves is valid, and that what they say matters.
It has been two months since my family returned from our three year European adventure. I knew the hardest thing about returning to the United States was finding a job…in my field, at the level I left, and at the salary that I was making previously. As I wrote in January, the research data shows that it is almost impossible to return to the working world at the seniority, professional level, and salary you were getting before you stepped away to take care of kids, parents, or whatever. The data is against us.
In my experience, the data is at least partially right. But before I fill you in on my results, I want to share some tips that proved helpful in my search.
Network! Rule No. 1 of job hunting: reach out to your social circle, friends in your adult sports team, the postman, ANYONE. You never know who might know someone. I was emailing people left and right even before we returned to the States to set up meetings, coffee talks, or online chats to discuss the current status of my field, learn about potential professional opportunities, or just pick up the latest industry gossip.
Know What You Want and Who You Are! So you want to network, but what do you say? In less than 30 seconds, you need to clearly state who you are, your strengths, and the type of job you are looking for, preferably with minimal industry-specific jargon. Think of it as being your own public relations expert who is selling YOU, your skills, and goals. My “PR pitch” highlights my experience in international affairs while stressing my desire for a deputy project manager or chief of staff-type role. Check out Career Sidekick’s great article for specific tips.
Be Active! Spending all your time on the internet searching and applying for jobs is futile at best. I found that when you apply to a job online you are lucky to get an email rejection back. (And for my soapbox moment of the day: if you take the time to complete a job application, the least a company can do is respond saying yes we are interested, or no we aren’t. The lack of politeness on the part of companies to potential employees is beyond awful.) So when you find a job you want to apply to, avoid having it end up in the resume abyss by checking LinkedIn to see if you know anyone at that company—or even have a friend of a friend—who is willing to forward your resume to the hiring manager. Added bonuses for you both: your friend can potentially offer a word of support for your application, and some companies offer credit to employees who help identify talent. I employed this tactic a few times, but admittedly even then only heard back from a recruiter once.
If you follow these steps, you’ll hopefully end up with an offer or two. The big question then is, do you take any job or do you wait for the right one?
A long time ago, in a lifetime far away, before I was a
SAHHM (Stay at Home Hot Mess), I had the privilege of managing a very talented
writing staff. Part of my responsibility to that staff was providing “fill the
well” activities and opportunities. We wrote greeting cards and, as you can
imagine, we had to find exercises and activities to keep our brains fresh when charged
with finding new ways to say “Happy Birthday.” Today I thought I’d share a few
of the exercises we worked through.
I’ve adapted the first exercise a bit since you’re probably not working in a group environment.
Character Snapshots helps stretch your brain muscles for
character development. It’s intended to be like freewriting. You’ll write
quickly and without editing yourself.
With the writing staff, I gave them each a brown paper bag
and a photo of a person from a photography website. There were five random
objects in the bag. They had to write a character sketch explaining who the
character was and why those items were important to the character. Below is a
modification.Find a few photos of individual people on the internet. If you write middle grade or young adult, try finding photos of kids who might be characters in your book. Print those out. The bonus of printing out a photo is you won’t need to write about physical characteristics – which lets you get to the good stuff faster.
Print ten photos of random objects from online.
Do this quickly and don’t think too much about what you choose. You’re trying
to re-create the randomness of the paper bags here, so the less you think about
what you’re choosing, the better. You can paste the images into a Word
document, so you can shrink them and not use up all of your printer’s ink. Just
cut them into little squares once you’ve printed.
Turn the print-outs of the items upside down so
you can’t see the images. Pick five along with a people photo.
Now, clear your brain and do a character sketch.
Set a timer for 10 minutes. The point of this is to do some quick thinking and
not get too hung up on details. Think of it as a nice warm-up for your gray
Things you may include: character’s name, where they live, their job, if the items belong to them or if they were given to them, what they mean to the person. Here’s a quick example:
(Photo credits are at
the bottom of this post.)
Name: Penelope Tinker, age 30, lives in Nevada
Antique watch: was her grandmother’s, she gave it to Penelope in her will.
Ring: Penelope is married. Married very young. They seem to be drifting apart as they enter their 30’s.
Dice: Her gambling problem
Coffee mug: affair
Running shoes: She’s training for a marathon
After jotting down some quick ideas, I
started fleshing the sketch out below.
Penelope Tinker has a gambling problem she’s trying to hide from her husband. She’s in dangerous debt, as in owes some scary people a lot of money. She’s trying to figure a way out of debt without hocking her grandmother’s antique watch. She’s training for a marathon with her best friend. Her husband has seemed more distant since she started traveling for work so much. Last time she left town for her job, she came back to a mug with lipstick marks on it. Unfortunately red isn’t her color.
You can go as long or as short as you want.
You might start some freewriting and not want to stop. You don’t have to write
about the current situation the character is in…maybe you write about something
that’s happened to them in the past, incorporating those items.
You may never get a main character for your next book out of this exercise, but if you save the snapshots, you can go back through them to mine ideas on days your brain isn’t cooperating. Remember – your fictional characters are more than likes and dislikes or the color of their hair!
I recently attended a writing workshop sponsored in New York City – my annual effort at professional development. It was a great day. I met other writers, many of whom are also seeking to land an agent, desperate as I am to find someone else to validate their dreams of authorship. It felt like group therapy, talking to all these other people who are walking the same path, encountering the same hurdles, worrying the same questions on the finer points of query letter etiquette.
The seminars were really useful too; I jotted down pages of notes on everything from social media management to revision techniques, and, of course, on finding the elusive agent. Speaking of whom, the workshop had several agents on-hand, spending their Saturday leading the seminars and fielding pitch after pitch from hopeful authors (like yours truly) willing to pay $30 for 10 minutes of the agent’s one-on-one time (instead of just querying them for free – more on this in a future post.)
Three weeks on, I’ve gotten a kind but entirely unhelpful rejection from one of the agents I spoke with, and I’m still waiting in the usual interminable purgatory for the other agent I met. But while I’ve been waiting, I’ve struck up a number of new online friendships with some of the authors I chatted with at the workshop. One of these new writer friends began venting about the fact she hadn’t heard back from the agents she queried after ONE WEEK.
Now, I’m not a fan of the way this whole find-an-agent system works. It seems overwhelming to the agents and unnecessarily anxiety- and depression-inducing on the author. But I get that this is the system that we have, a direct result of supply outstripping demand, and that agents are humans too. Having just surrendered a Saturday away from their friends and family to field the same questions they’ve probably heard 100,000 times before, they may need another couple (dozen) of weekends to get around to actually reading what we were all only too happy to send them within minutes of getting their nods. I mean, everyone deserves a weekend.
I tried my best to convey this to my new writer friend, but I could feel her resentment dripping off my screen, impervious to my attempts at humanism. That’s the problem with resentment, though. It’s a cumulative condition, built a hair’s width at a time, until you’ve got a wretched, snarling beast on your hands.
I was text-fishing for ideas for this week’s blog post, and one
friend texted back: “the pressure some parents put on kids to overachieve at
EVERYTHING”. I put that on the list of possible topics. Then, I had a parking
lot experience with another mom I’d never met, which I have found, can be some
of the most honest, desperate, thirty second conversations.
I was leaving swimming lessons with my youngest. He’s a little
overconfident in the water and I thought the lessons may keep us from drowning
this summer. Anyway, I’m about to get in my car, but there’s a mom with her car
door open next to mine. She’s telling a little person, “Please stop throwing
this.” She hands something back and shuts the door, noticing me.
“Sorry, we finished class half an hour ago and I’m just now getting into my car!” I can’t help but laugh. I say, “I’m laughing because I remember.”
From there, she starts to ask me questions about swim lessons.
My son is going every day for one week. She laments that they only have
once-a-week classes for her son. I ask, “How old is he?” as I finally peek into
“He’s almost one.”
Okay, so then I understood why she was freaking out. He’s her
first. She doesn’t want to screw up. She doesn’t want to miss out or have him
She went on to tell me that grandma was going to pay for extra
lessons if she wanted them. At this point I really just wanted to drive this
frantic woman home and bake her a giant batch of brownies. She was so stressed
about swimming lessons. For her one-year-old. And I get it. I remember.
I say, “Does he like the water?”
“Then you’re all set.”
And she was so relieved.
She seemed like a super-competent, smart lady, but she needed to
hear from me, a perfect stranger who could be an ax murderer and the worst mom
ever, that she wasn’t messing up. And who knows how long she was relieved. She
might have gone right back to worrying as she drove away.
My mind kept coming back to her and my friend’s text. What is it
that is driving so many parents to have this intense FOMU – Fear of Messing Up.
I know parents of all generations had fears and desires for their children’s
future, but I feel like it’s at a new level thanks to social media, stacks of
parenting books (I have them all), and the myriad of athletic and academic
opportunities our kids have.
I think the FOMU feeds the focus parents have on their kids
achieving in everything. For example:
If Joey don’t
make this team, he won’t be on the right path to make the next level club team
and he’ll miss out on skills, and he’ll never be able to make the high school
team, so there’s no way he’ll ever get a scholarship, and…and…and…he has to
make this team! We have to get Joey a few private lessons! We won’t be good
parents if we don’t do this for him.
Parents: the clock is running out on the school year and whatever schedule you’ve been able to cobble together to support your creative goals. Hopefully, you’ve got lots of camps lined up for the kiddos that will keep them busy without breaking the bank, but if not (like me), don’t worry! We’ll get through this together! And here’s how…
1 – Create while they sleep. Before they wake, after they go to bed, while they nap – that’s your sacred creative time. You’d be surprised how much you can get accomplished with even an hour a day set aside, if you commit to that hour at least five days a week. Pro tip: my kid is an early riser. So we bought him one of those alarm clocks that change color when it’s ok for him to be up, and set it for 7 a.m. He’s almost always up before the clock turns green, but now knows not to put a pinkie outside his room until the “green light says go.” I, meanwhile, set my alarm for 6 a.m. daily and voila! There’s my hour a day.
2 – Establish a routine for your family that includes your creative time. If you’ve got little littles, you’ll need help from a partner or older child on this one, but by the time your kiddo is four, s/he should be able to self-entertain for at least an hour. I get that this can be challenging to figure out, but once it’s part of the routine, you’ll marvel at what you can get done – and it’ll feel good to have your family acknowledge that this is something YOU need, especially after tending to their needs the rest of the day. Pro tip: I tack this hour on to my early morning creative time, to get almost two solid hours of work time every day. When my child first emerges, I make sure he’s got something to eat and something to do, and then go back to working until 8 a.m. Cheater tip: Use screen time. I know this is controversial but here’s how I have made my peace with it – it’s usually the only screen time he gets all day. On weekdays, he’s restricted to educational games and shows. Do I feel better about the world on days when he ignores his screen in favor of coloring or some other project? Yup, sure do – but I’m over feeling guilty about using technology to create space in our house. After all, technology is supposed to work for us, and believe you me, this technology is being employed in service of a greater good!
Publishing and the writing industry can wear you down. Make you want to rock in the fetal position. It’s a constant test of patience and perseverance. So, whenever I can find a source of encouragement – anything that keeps me from setting my current manuscript on fire – I know I have to share it!
I stumbled upon Brené Brown’s Netflix special while folding some
never-ending piles of laundry and I loved it! (The special, not the laundry folding.) The
special is titled Brené Brown: The Call
to Courage and you can see some of the trailer here. A bit from her online bio…
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of
Houston where she holds the Huffington –Brown Endowed Chair. She’s spent the
past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She is
the author of five #1 New York Timesbestsellers:
The Gifts of
Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, and Dare to Lead.
If you have not seen her
Netflix special or her TedTalk, please go
watch them now. We’ll wait…
Okay, maybe you don’t have time to watch now. I’ll fill you in a little. In her Netflix special, Brené explains where she got the inspiration and title for her book Daring Greatly. To her horror, her 2010 TedTalk had gone viral and, against her better judgement, she read the comments online, which, of course, were a dumpster fire of cruelty and criticism. She tells the story – and she’s hilarious – of how she was numbing her feelings with screen time and peanut butter when she stumbled upon this quote from a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910:T
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” -Theodore Roosevelt, 1910
Brené Brown goes on to
encourage us to choose courage over comfort, knowing that criticism and failure
are inevitable. I thought about how that idea and this quote could be applied
to our creative pursuits, specifically writing.
For those of you who know me, or who have been following this blog for a while, you know I tend toward Type A-ness. I’m generally upbeat, high-energy (obnoxiously so when over-sugared/caffeinated), and goal-oriented. I don’t suffer from low esteem, nor do I tend toward mood swings (hold on, had to check with my hubby on that…he confirms that I’m generally low volatility). So why, in the wake of finally finishing 18 months’ worth of work (that I thought would take 12), having achieved my goal of wrestling my latest manuscript into sufficient shape to begin the submissions process, do I feel so…adrift?
Believe it or not, I’m 100% sure this malaise has nothing to do with fear of the impending rejections. In fact, the receipt of my first rejection this week actually sort of made me feel better. It was the crossing of a threshold that at least indicates progress, like passing a mile marker on the highway. Only I still feel like I cruised past it doing 30 mph on the highway I normally zoom down. After two weeks of what can best be described as achievement apathy (goals are still being set and met, but without any of the zing), I hit the internet to find out if this experience is a thing or if it’s just me.
Good news! It’s not just me! Or even just my generation. A 1987 article from the New York Times on “post-writum depression” describes all my symptoms and let me know I’m in good company with the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Judith Krantz, and Danielle Steele. Psychology Today calls it the post-adrenaline blues and posits my present low could be chemically-based – a drop in the adrenaline that fueled me through those final revisions and frantic synopsis drafts. My body could actually be in withdrawal, like an addict, but craving the stuff I was creating through my own internal pressure – which means that given enough time, I will naturally rebalance.
I suspect a part of what is going on is good old-fashioned grief. Huffpost calls it the post-book blues – that horrible aching loneliness when you hit the end of the book where you fell in love with a character, or characters, or sometimes even a whole world (here’s looking at you, Hogwarts). Popular Science published a great article validating the mourning of the loss of a fictional character just last month. Which I have to admit, made me feel better about my tendency to take a day or two off from reading anything more than a magazine article in the wake of a powerful book. It stands to reason that grief is stronger for characters you’ve created and gotten to know on a very personal level. If I needed a few days to get over “A Gentleman in Moscow,” I’m going to need to cut myself some slack on getting past thinking about what my main characters would be doing right now, if I hadn’t just closed the book on them.
So how much time do you give yourself when you’re grieving the end of the intense relationship you’ve had with the characters you created? Stephen Pressfield advocates jumping straight into the next project to keep your momentum going. I’m sure there’s good sense in that, and clearly it works for him. For me, though, to move from the relationship I’ve developed with these characters over the last year and a half into the next relationship feels like serial dating, and I’m not yet ready for the rebound.
The research shows I’m not alone in this either. I was thrilled to find this article by writer / writing coach Lauren Sapala, and this one on Writer Unboxed by Jeane Kisacky. Still, I was left wondering what to do about it. Not writing feels wasteful. But I can’t seem to bend my will to starting another project yet. Even doing the small projects, the ones that I’ve been saying I’d get to for a while (as Kisacky mentions doing) doesn’t seem to help me feel much better. So I took to social media to see what others writers do. Some of you likely saw my questions there, and if you took the time to answer, then thank you! It means a lot to have community I can reach out to at times like this.
According to my highly unofficial poll, very few other women writers jump straight into the next project (sorry guys, I polled an all female writers’ group). Most respondents said they take Kisacky’s route and work on some smaller projects for a while. A few indicated they take a week or so to catch up on the life they missed while they were writing, a la author Amy Wallace. All of which is good news for me, since I’m combining a bit of both approaches: trying to reacquaint myself with regular exercise while also trying my hand at some shorter stories and article submissions I kept saying I’d get to once the pressure of the novel was off my shoulders.
Discovering that this experience is so common that it has names has helped me feel at peace with where I’m at. But the amazing part of this has been the re-discovery that I’m not alone. Even though I sit here by myself on this side of the screen, so many of you out there are with me. And knowing that we’re here for each other has helped more than anything else. Thank you, All!
Thank you, Thea, for all of your awesome research – as usual. I now have a bunch more articles to go read! I think it makes sense that we need some time before jumping into an entirely new world, especially after the blood, sweat, and tears we poured into the previous world! I remember being very impatient when I finished my first manuscript. I was tapping my toes waiting for the next story to show up. (Preferably outlined and with fully-developed characters.) I remember writing snippets of inner dialogue for different characters in a spiral notebook, waiting for one of them to hand me a story! In the meantime, I guess I did many of the things Thea mentioned above, like catching up on life stuff and working on smaller projects that had been set aside. I imagine a lot of writers are nodding their heads while reading this and saying “Yes!” Thanks, Thea, for reminding us we are all in this together and experiencing so many of the same reactions!