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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Emotional Garbage Truck


Okay, so here's what last week's crazy parenting moment reminded me of: 

I was writing a novel while I worked (at my fancypants corporate job I was required to look busy but there was often no work to be done) and one day found myself in an all-out war with a secretary over the office supply products that kept vanishing from my desk. It wasn't exactly a "stapler" moment (have you seen Office Space?) but very very close. I resolved to leave as soon as I got into an MFA program. And luckily it was the right time of year and I was able to schedule and take a GRE within a week and the applications sent by the end of the month and I was in by the end of the year. Never looked back. 

That's how I tend to deal with situations in which the emotional weight is preposterous compared to the actual reality of the situation. I assess, I change things, I fix it or I go away from it.

But last week, I got caught up in a stupid emotional undertow that was all about parenting. A riptide of useless anger at things that I have no business being irritated by. Normally, I would tell myself to asses, change, fix, or go away. How can you do that as a parent? I find myself in emotionally overwrought situations daily, if not hourly. I discover I am yelling over the fact that a kid wants to wear a summer dress when it is obviously a fall day outside. I find the last, uneaten bite of scrambled egg can give me hives. Pajamas on the floor? Look out.

It's not like I can give up parenting and go to grad school. I haven't even paid off the last one.

This is what a time-out is supposed to be about: this stepping away from it to asses and destress. But we don't usually. We have too much to do. If we manage to extract one kid (by giving them a time out for yelling back at us) we usually still have another kid or spouse or bills to pay or someone texting us or a dog to feed or garbage to take out or god knows what to deal with - we can't just duck into our laptops and try to write about it. 

And yet, writing your situation into words helps a lot - write it down, get it out of your head. Use the back of a receipt or email it to a close friend. This is why Facebook posts are good, or Tweeting. Because it forces you to take your emotions and turn them rationally into words. In order to do that, you have to assess. 

On the other hand, be sane about it - FB, Twitter, even emails - you're sending out this stuff into the universe. People are going to respond. Think before you publish! 

And that's hard as a writer. We love to publish.

Here's a tip: write and then assess. Was I writing this down in order to clear my head? If yes, then it's emotional garbage. Don't try to publish every piece of emotional garbage that was cluttering your head. You're writing to get it out of your head, not to put it into the world. Put it away. Post in on FB if you have set up appropriate privacy standards. Or better still save it in a file. Don't look at it again. Head cleared, get back to your real work.

Obviously if your real work is a memoir, well, it's interesting isn't it? Memoirs and creative nonfiction are such a delicate balance of the author needing to process his own feelings (listen to our podcast of Darin Strauss discussing why he wrote his memoir) and wanting to advise others on how to deal with the issues you faced (Abby Shur, our very first Pen Parentis Fellow, wrote a memoir about obsessive praying. The podcast of the panel discussion that night is available to logged-in members of Pen Parentis.) And the noise of the garbage in our head can be so damned loud sometimes that it's hard to find the creative space to actually write fiction. So maybe that memoir is important. But take some real time assessing whether it's important because it cleared out the creative space in your head, or if it's important because it will actually help other people get through what you went through.

We as writers forget that writing does not necessarily equal readers reading. So many writers publish too quickly and are appalled at the horrific feedback they get in comments (too easy for response, no one writes you a letter flaming your book, they just post it to the whole world after they give you one star on GoodReads.) So think twice before you publish your personal junk. Be sure. And then treat it like any writing - get an editor, make every word count, and like I said last week, make sure your main character (that would be you) is clear on what they want. In a positive way.

Remarkably? this helps with parenting too. If you are clear on what you want "I want you to wear shoes that will not get damaged in the rain today." Then your kid can assert what they want "I want to wear my diamond studded felt-and-cork flip flops" and you can discuss without fighting. "Will your diamond-studded shoes be damaged by the rain?" "Yes, and I don't care." "I'm sorry you don't care. However, you must find shoes that won't get damaged by the rain." "I hate you, you are a horrible mother."

Well, it's dramatic, anyway. Write it down on the back of that receipt for those shoes (what possessed you to buy those in the first place??) In the novel you're writing, that girl would have put on her rhinestone-studded rubber flip flops and gotten to school on time. When you drop off Princess at third grade, come home and change the scene to reflect the much-more-entertaining reality of conflict. Or have your character wear the shoes to school and they'll dissolve into a puddle of actual money that slips down into the sewer...

One day you'll be stuck in your writing and you can go to your file of angry moments and you can harvest it to get your characters in a scene again: all scenes have drama and as a writer said at our salon, Kids are drama all the time. For them the stakes are life-and-death over everything: which shoes to wear to school, who took their chair at the table, the fact that they erased something they meant to keep. Use these moments. Be inspired by them. It doesn't have to be a memoir or a blog - it can be inspiration to get your paper characters acting like flesh and blood. 

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