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.
You might also like…
Want more writing essays like this one?
Sign up for our newsletter to receive FREE articles, publishing tips, writing advice, and more delivered to your inbox once a week.
Looking for an agent?
Download our free guide to finding a literary agent, with the contact information and submission preferences for more than 80 agencies.