When I was in college, one of my sorority sisters paid me by the page to edit her term papers. And by “edit,” I mean “rewrite.” It was a pretty good deal for both of us. I’d make a few extra bucks and she could hand in her work knowing that every there, they’re and their was in the right place.
One day, as she handed me a stack of papers and a check, she mused, “You make it look so easy.”
By “easy,” she meant “fast.”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a fast writer. And fast has served me well.
Fast got me through college, where I majored in journalism while writing and editing for the school paper until the wee hours. Fast made all the difference when I started out as a copy editor at a daily newspaper. Fast saved me when I made the transition to feature writer and columnist. In my 20s, fast was a godsend, especially when I stayed out too late the night before a looming 10 a.m. deadline. In my early 30s, fast let me supplement a low-paying day job with several steady freelance gigs. Fast furnished my home. Fast bought me designer jeans. Fast meant better wine and nicer vacations.
When I moved into PR and marketing, my speed astonished my bosses. I could give taglines on command. I could write press releases in minutes.
Fast was my friend.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a factory. I write because I can’t imagine doing anything else, because I love words. I just happened to be, well, fast. In other words, I made it look easy.
Notice the past tense.
There I was, cruising along, blogging my little heart out each morning before breakfast, going into work and jamming out articles and press releases, then coming home and writing front-of-book columns for one of my magazine clients, when it happened. Everything came to a screeching – make that screaming – halt.
I should’ve seen it coming. I had nine months to prepare for it, after all. But for some reason, I thought motherhood would be like another assignment – a challenging one, but definitely something I could work into the mix without a huge adjustment.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
For my first post-partum freelance assignment – a total of about 2,500 words – I left myself a generous two days to do the writing. This would’ve been great if I didn’t have a tiny (and, I should mention, devastatingly handsome) boy attached to my body for about 36 of those 48 hours.
I was exhausted. I hadn’t showered for days. And for the first time ever, I was at a complete loss for words.
Somehow, I managed to throw something together. I don’t remember what I wrote. I’m quite sure it wasn’t any good. But nearly three years later, I can still recall the sheer terror I felt as I stared at that blank computer screen, bleary-eyed, retyping the same three sentences over and over and over.
It was late at night. Worst-case scenarios kept running through my mind: Maybe I can’t do this anymore. Maybe I can’t be a mother and a writer. Maybe I’ve lost my edge.
It took me months to figure out that I hadn’t lost my edge. I had lost my ritual – without even realizing I had one. As it turns out, all that deadline-stacking, all those impossible last-minute assignments, all of the adrenaline were an important part of the process for me. The constraints helped me avoid the angst that comes with being a writer.
When “fast” is the only option, you can’t fail. You can’t navel-gaze. You can’t second-guess. You don’t have time to.
So when I chose – quite deliberately – to slow down so that I could relish my time with my son, I also – quite unintentionally – surfaced every long-repressed insecurity I have as a writer. For months, I was paralyzed with fear. I started turning down freelance jobs. I doubted my value at work. I became obsessive about planning and details and deadlines.
I’d like to say I was able to get out of my own head after a month or two. But the truth is, my son just turned 3, and I still have a moment – albeit fleeting – of dread every time I call up a blank Word doc on my screen. But I can say this: I am a better, more disciplined writer for it.
Becoming a mother forced me to grow up in all the ways I had hoped and expected – I no longer stay out partying until 2 a.m. or skimp on the groceries so I can buy a new handbag. But it also helped me mature professionally.
I’ve developed new rituals, which involve maximizing what little free time I have. I free write for five minutes whenever inspiration strikes, knowing that I may forget a good idea in the swirl of tantrums and tickle fights of my new reality. I no longer take it for granted that I’ll be able to write more than 250 words in a sitting, which means I write when I can – not always when I want to or when the conditions are ideal. When I’m faced with an important deadline, I take a day off from my day job and my husband takes our boy out of the house. I use down time, in-between times, any time I have to tackle the work at hand.
In other words, I’m finally using all of the lessons I learned in J-school. I’m actually following the advice I wrote down and promptly forgot at all those writing retreats and workshops I attended.
Do I make it look easy? Hell, no. Those days are behind me. Is it fast? At times, it’s painfully slow. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Every rewritten sentence. Every five-minute brain dump. Every interrupted paragraph.
Kristen Andresen is director of marketing at Providence College in Rhode Island.
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