motherhood and creativity

breastfeeding

The daily struggle

This article by the Atlantic has been making the rounds recently, positing a lot of interesting questions about motherhood and creativity. Studies of rats (whose brain functions are very similar to humans) show that female rats become remarkably more creative, adaptable, and focused after giving birth, and that the benefits last long after their offspring grow up.

This, of course, raises the question about how humans’ brains are affected by giving birth and caring for children. And the article contrasts the potential benefits against the discouraging messages that women artists receive: namely, that having children is incompatible with maintaining a successful artistic career, that kids are a distraction, that you can’t pay attention to both. When in reality, for many women, the result is the opposite. The trouble, as with any second job, is time management.

Obviously there are plenty of creative people with and without children, and some mothers shift gears to childcare more than others, or find they hate childcare entirely, etc etc. But wow, yes, for me this is 100% true! I had a good number of ideas before, but after having my first baby I felt like I was suddenly exploding with them (plots, characters, structures, emotional story arcs, worldbuilding) in a way I wasn’t before. In particular, my best ideas now incorporate a better emotional climax into the plot/action climax. The frustrating part is not having nearly enough time in the world to write it all, so I have to pick and choose what to develop and then eke out chunks of time each week to plug away at whatever my current WIP is.

Part of it is life experience in general. I’m older. I’ve got a decade more reading and philosophizing and socializing and paying attention to current events under my belt than 21-year-old Sam did. I have more to say, so it’s easier to slip a theme or character arc into a story that previously was based entirely on explosions and banter (that said, you will pry my explosions and banter from my cold dead body).

But it’s also mommy brain, I’m convinced of it. I’ve had to learn how to multitask and focus like never before. If I want to write at all, I have to keep a story buzzing in my brain at all times so that when a 30-minute chunk of nap time becomes available I can jump right in and work like crazy till it’s over, and then immediately shift gears back to the baby. I wrote a book last year while I was massively sleep-deprived (my first kid took 13 months to sleep through the night!) and working a part-time day job. I wrote at 4 a.m. and 9 p.m. and during 1 hour naps on the weekend. The first draft was feverish but fast, and I actually liked my stream of conscious prose better than when I used to agonize over every sentence and take all day to write a scene. Editing, of course, was a nightmare! But man it felt good to be working on something.

Anyway, I think the article is worth a read! Here are some of the bits that struck a chord with me, regarding creativity itself and the unique guilt/shame that comes with carving out time to write.

Regarding rat moms:

Even as her offspring grow and learn to fend for themselves, the neurological changes of motherhood persist. She will experience less memory decline in old age, and have quicker navigation skills than non-mothers, outsmarting them in mazes. She is more efficient, making fewer errors. She finds new and unusual ways to get tasks done—problem-solving approaches she had not considered before giving birth.

From artist Hein Koh, in response to another artist who insisted there is not enough energy in one person to split between art and children:

“Becoming a #mom (of twins no less) has personally helped me become a better #artist—I learned to be extremely efficient with my time, prioritize what’s important and let go of the rest, and #multitask like a champ.”

Because yes, the multitasking is unreal, and the need to be efficient in all things at all times is all-encompassing. I gave up basically every other hobby and casual social events in order to make time for the things I wanted most: writing and spending enough time with the baby.

Regarding problem-solving:

Creativity requires making unusual connections. At its core, Jung said, creativity is original problem solving. This is an evolutionarily derived process that is important to survival. Humans who achieve high creativity usually have endurance and grit, Jung said. Creative people take risks, Jung said. They are bold, and adept at finding new and unusual ways to get tasks done.

There is enormous guilt in taking time away from your kids (I am sitting in my local library right now, during my once-a-week block of free time, and every week I feel the need to apologize 20 times while walking out the door). BUT, I am also so much better during the rest of the week when I take this break.

I am a better mother, a happier mother, when I am also able to carve out time to write. I am a better writer, a happier writer, when I am also an involved mom.

That is basically where I’m at right now. I’m trying not to feel guilty about splitting my time, but splitting my time is essential for my happiness. Sometimes I overdo it on both fronts and have a complete meltdown, but the weeks where I achieve a good balance are enormously rewarding.

Now let’s see how the dynamic changes as baby #2 gets bigger, and nap time ends. TWO TODDLERS COMPETING FOR ATTENTION? Get me the smelling salts, for I have collapsed.

“the little frog!! and the little girl!!”

Last week I sold my first short story to a professional SFF magazine! I’ll post more when it comes out in early 2018. For now, suffice to say: I’m super excited and want to get some momentum going! Since I’m in the baby dark zone and utterly failing to edit the novel I finished this spring, I’m churning out some short stories instead to join the other three I have on perpetual submission. The agent hunt is only temporarily on hold, till I’m getting just a BIT more sleep.

It’s time for another 7-year-old writer Sam flashback! I told you all about my first real narrative tale, “What Hapend March Ninth!!” Now let’s dip into the writing frenzy that followed as I became not just author, but illustrator as well. Here is one of my first staple-bound construction paper illustrated shorts. It’s pretty clear that I had only recently encountered commas and silent ‘e’s.  And, true to this day, nothing is worth saying if it isn’t worth saying with! an! exclamation mark!

Behold the adventures of a girl and her beloved pet frog, aptly titled:

frog1

The little frog!! and the little girl!!

frog2

There ones was a girle! the girle! ->

frog3

There ones was a girle frog!!! The frog!

frog4

The girl, met the frog. Hi! Hi!

frog5

The girl, took The frog home,

frog6

They played, and played, and played

frog7

The girle, got a pool for the frog! Yaa!

frog8

They swam together!

frog9

They did lots of fun things together, They were happy together, and They were happy They met, They were so, so, happy.

frog10

They were best friends, They told evry body that they noo, if they were not to far away. They went for trips together, They calked rocks together, big or little rocks.

frog11

One day it got cold so it was winter, togethe they made a snowman, withe the girles Mom!!!! Ice >

frog12

The End!

 

formative years

I was wandering around the house like a very helpful poltergeist in the wee hours of this morning, tucking a sick toddler back under his blanket, patting a baby, starting a pot of coffee. And I started thinking about those first five years of life before school creates a clearer timeline of memory and you just exist in a blur of Mom and Dad and Sibling(s) and Home, punctuated by the occasional birthday party or trip to the park.

Scan0008I’m the second of six kids, but until I was seven there were only three of us. I was pure, unadulterated Middle Child. Middle kids jonesing for attention have two options: act out, or become overachieving people-pleasers. Ding ding ding for option two! Though I’ll note that I largely grew out of the people-pleasing, and am now obnoxiously insistent on doing everything my own way. Except even that is a backlash against the early people-pleasing! See? There’s no escaping. And I’m definitely still a hopeless workaholic.

Those early years are SO FORMATIVE. And yet, you barely remember any of it. I have some faint, ghostly memories of jumping up whenever we were asked to do chores, or experiencing anxiety at doing something wrong, but it’s hard to tell if those are real memories or the secondhand memories you form when your mom repeatedly tells you what your childhood was like. Do I remember my fifth birthday party, or just the home video of my fifth birthday party?

So now I’m looking at my own kids and wondering what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong. You can’t escape a bit of both. Am I raising them to be assertive but not bullies? Self-confident but not egotistical? Sensitive but not fragile? Appreciative? NICE? How much depends on their predispositions and innate potential, and how much is trying to push a boulder uphill?

And how does the sibling dynamic change things? What is the dynamic of raising one boy and one girl, as opposed to one boy and a boatload of girls? I’ve always been surrounded by sisters. My childhood was exceedingly loud. We’re still constantly up in each others’ business, and talk basically every single day via instant messenger. Will my kids be this close to each other? I hope so.

I don’t have a conclusion here, so I’ll turn the subject to writing. Any time that I’m grappling with a facet of my own life, I’m mentally filing it away for future character-building consideration. Writer friends, consider the sibling dynamic when building your characters’ backstories, even if it will never be explicitly mentioned in the main plot. What was this person like at five years old? Did life reinforce those personality traits, or dampen them, or strip them away? Why?

And don’t shy away from siblings. Fiction is chock-full of only children. I’m guilty of it, too. It simplifies the backstory and the choreography of plots that do involve family members, and let’s be honest, it’s hard to maintain the brooding allure of your anti-hero if his sister calls up and says, “Remember that time you pooped your pants at Jenny’s birthday party?” But he did. He totally did.

Big families lend themselves to comedy and sprawling epics, but they don’t have to be confined there. Maybe your brooding anti-hero was the oldest of eight and co-parented them through poverty. Or maybe he was the youngest and is trying to earn his way out of the shadow of many older siblings. Or maybe he was right in the middle and they all think he’s an asshole because he never calls home. Whether you mention the reason or not, he’s rooted in those core personality traits.

So. Who were you when you were five?

change in the house of books

In exactly four weeks, I’m leaving my day job.

Gahhhh, it’s official! Well, blog-official. It’s been work-official for a month and a half because I always give excessive notice, and it’s been life-official for more months than that because I am the queen of agonizing over change. In the end, if you’re lucky enough for life to present you with options, you’ve got to pick something and stick to it. Time to move forward… the samtastic way!

This decision came with a lot more agonizing than usual. I love being an archivist. I love organizing old documents, learning useless local history trivia, and helping researchers find answers. Every day is full of little mysteries! I’ve made people cry with joy! I’ve been spontaneously hugged! (Sidenote: don’t spontaneously hug your archivist.) And I only ever made it into one book acknowledgement page, dangit.

But, barring financial emergency, the archivist career is going on hold for a few years and I’ll be focusing on the home front. The hubby’s been working the night shift for about eighteen months and will now be moving to a day shift, so hey, I might even see him once in a while! And though childcare is far more intensive than my day job ever was, I’m going to eagerly embrace the chunks of free time I do get to focus on the writing career. And, you know, enjoy my babies.

Since I’m a hopeless workaholic, you know I’ve got a battle plan, not least of all the recently mentioned Plan of Agent Attack. (Note to agents: not really an attack.)

To Do List:

  • Finalize the Grand Agent Submission Spreadsheet
  • Finish polishing Book Submission #1, a.k.a. my western/fantasy mashup full of cowboys and mermaids and a living earth that chucks people loose if it doesn’t like them, generously peppered with observations about cultural identity and commitment.
  • Put it on submission!
  • While that’s on submission, polish up Book Submission #2, a.k.a. my more conventional fantasy full of winged warriors, a working class rebellion, and the difficult process of overcoming a long-term manipulative relationship.
  • If Submission #1 fizzles out, go back to the top of that spreadsheet with Submission #2.
  • Start working on the next book!

The next book has been on my backburner for two years. It had a pretty solid outline from the get-go, but it was narrowly edged out by the winged warrior tome last year and now I’m impatient to get back to it. This one is a weird portal fantasy about the forest where lost things go, full of bow women and taxidermy and all the different ways that people process grief. But don’t worry, it still has some laughs!

I’ve got a couple other projects bubbling in the pre-outline stage, i.e. loads of unorganized notes that are rapidly taking on the shape of plot. One is an epic fantasy involving an army of golems versus an army of the dead, and mothers who will do whatever it takes to make sure their kids are the ones who survive. The other one is a Mad Max-ish dystopia taking place on an Earth that’s been partially terraformed by aliens, following an unlikely duo who’ve been cast into the wild and are trying to break into a human colony to obtain desperately needed healthcare. (That second one has suddenly become…too real.)

Even less well-developed, but no less niggling at my brain, is a knight-in-shining armor fantasy based on medieval French romances, which lemme tell you, were full of cross-dressing and social commentary and magicians being dicks, all of which is sadly left out of the average Arthurian screen adaptation.

And that’s not all!!

Gah, why can’t I just abandon sleep entirely and work an additional eight hours per day? I WANT TO WRITE ALL THE THINGS. SPECIFICALLY, ALL THE VARIOUS SORTS OF FANTASY THINGS.

Anyway. That’s what I’m going to be up to for the next few years. What’s on your docket?

returned from the pit: spreadsheet madness

Whoops, I didn’t realize quite how long I’d ignored the blog. I’ve been busy, busy, busy in work and life and writing aspirations, though a great big scheduling toss-up is coming soon that’ll change the equation.

You guys. I’ve entered a new phase of Sam’s Grand Writing Plan. I’ve entered… agent research hell! Next comes query hell. Then comes the great unknown (probably still closely related to hell). I’m excited, but also a little nervous. 16-year-old Sam is aghast that it’s taken me this long to reach this step. 31-year-old Sam is older and slightly wiser and knows this step could take anywhere from a couple months to ETERNITY OF FAILURE.

(Before any helpful suggestions are made: I do not, at this point in my life, have the skills, knowledge, or money necessary for effective self-publishing. I’m going to exhaust the traditional route first before reconsidering.)

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been scouring reputable agent listings and cross-referencing them against industry sites to generate a list of legitimate professionals with recent sales in my genre. I’ve also been doing scavenger hunts for names in books I like, and next I’ll take a broader look at recent and upcoming releases by publishers I like.

Woooo spreadsheets.

No, really, spreadsheets are my jam! My years of cataloging and organizing information have come to personal fruition. I’m going to scour the print and web worlds until I have a list of 75-100 suitable agents. Then I’m going to agonize over my query package. And then it’s go time! AKA hours and hours of prioritizing lists and tailoring the query to a bunch of different specifications and updating my spreadsheets with the results.

I figure if I get rejected 75-100 times, then that project is simply not meant to be (yet), and I’ll start back at the top of the list with the next book. I’ve got two books I think are suitable for shopping around, and I’ll be working on the next one during the long months of waiting for rejection. (Or, dare I say it… not rejection!?) My hopes and dreams aren’t ever pinned on just one thing.

I’ve already spent many hours at work on the Great Agent Spreadsheet. It’s been a royal pain in the ass to compile, but it will save me a lot of headache later.

And… that’s what I’ve been up to lately. Thank you for joining me on this self-pep-talk of a post. This is my way of marking the writing timeline on my blog and also telling myself: oh wow, I’m not just reading endless industry blogs for fun anymore, I’m honest-to-goodness ready to embark on this ride.

!!!!

“what hapend march ninth!!”

Have I told you this story before? I probably have. Even if you’ve never met me, I probably found some way to bend time and space and relate this anecdote about how I wrote my first short story. Because everybody wants a cool origin story, and this one doesn’t involve dead parents or women in fridges.

In an infamous incident that my older sister (likely to her regret) will never be allowed to forget, a head injury was caused which would symbolically shape my life.

It was a fine March day when I was 7 years old. At the time there were only 3 children in what would become my brood of siblings, and all three of us were playing outside in a small kiddie pool full of water. Also it was Southern California, which means March is plenty warm enough to start playing in pools again (sorry, places who have “seasons”!).

Do you remember Squeeze-Its? I think they’re called Kool-Aid Bursts now, but I don’t know a single child who drinks them anymore. They were liquid sugar crack for kids, available in thin plastic bottles with small holes at the top. You know. So you could squeeze them when you drank.

Well, my brother and I were allegedly filling old Squeeze-It bottles with water and then squirting them at our older sister, and allegedly laughing and refusing to stop despite her repeated and increasingly angry demands that we desist. And then maybe, it’s possible, we took our torment too far and in a fit of pique she decided to scare us off by threatening to throw a rock. And then maybe we still wouldn’t stop, and she threw it, but she didn’t know her own strength and instead of landing menacingly at my feet the rock hit me in the head.

Blood! Everywhere! Mom running out to screams! Paramedics summoned! Horrified sister hiding in the house, fearing maternal murder! 4 year old brother washing blood off the bricks with a Squeeze-It bottle!

After being declared non-life-threatening by the paramedics, I was driven off to an emergency room to await stitches. I don’t know how long we actually waited, but in child time it was definitely months. Months of sitting in a hard chair with my mom pressing some cloth to my head. X-rays that had to be conducted twice because the first time I hwas wearing a hair tie with a metal piece and it looked like metal was embedded in my head. And then! I finally went in! And the doctor gave me six bright blue stitches along my hairline while I was staring right at him!

It was the most exciting and traumatizing adventure of my young life. On the one hand, it was the beginning of a lifelong fear of needles. And on the other hand, it was an Interesting Story. The average 7 year old has nothing interesting to say. Trust me, I’m a former babysitter! It’s not their fault. They’ve got no stories yet. But now I had an exciting tale to babble to anyone who would listen. And on top of that…I was a first grader! I knew how to write! I COULD PRESERVE IT FOR ALL TIME.

And thus I wrote my first autobiographical short. And it was so exhilarating, I wrote more stories. And more. I still have a stack of construction paper stories Written and Illustrated by Sammy that I will share with the blog some time because they are works of art. I’ll even heartily acknowledge: it’s possible this wasn’t the first story and childhood memory fails me. But it’s the first in my mind, and in my mind I was hit in the head with a rock and that knocked something creative loose, so I’m a writer because of a childhood head injury.

I didn’t even mention the final injustice. That rock was my special rock with one big flat side, upon which I had crappily painted a hideous landscape scene! AND MOM TOOK THE ROCK AWAY!

Without further ado, since this is the version I know you’d all really prefer to read, I present: WHAT HAPEND MARCH NINTH!!

Translation of first grade spelling errors posted below.

what-hapend-march-ninth-1

 

what-hapend-march-ninth-2

 

what-hapend-march-ninth-3

I was playing in the pool, and when my sister came out I wetted her, and after I wetted her she got mad at me, and then threw a rock at me and then, I had a one and a half [inch] hole in my head, and I went to the Emergency Room and I had to wait a lot and then, they made sure that it was not too too bad, and it was not too too bad. I went to the place that I got the x-rays. I got two x-rays and then when they were ready to take the last one they noticed that I had something in my hair that had a metal piece on it so they had to do it all over again, and then I went back to the place where the bed was and then we had to wait some more then when the doctor was back I got six stitches. I went home and I got undressed then I watched Cheers and Married With Children!!!!!! I went to sleep! The End!

 

Truly, the beginning of a legend.

2016 in review: writing edition

All right, writing process nerds! You and I are the only ones who care about this post but let’s get it down for posterity.

In 2015 I started to track my daily word counts in a spreadsheet (like you do!), so this is the first time I’ve had concrete data for comparison. My general goal is to write a book a year (achieved), but what about the fine print?

2015:
Number of days on which I wrote anything: 94
Total word count: 114,537
Average word count per writing day: 1,218
Projects: 3.5 short stories, one book completed and edited, one book begun and temporarily set aside, and two weeks spent frenziedly rewriting an old book before realizing I was zonked out of my mind and it was fine the way it was.

2016:
Number of days on which I wrote anything: 197
Total word count: 180,544
Average word count per writing day: 916
Projects: 2 short stories, one book completed and edited, one book halfway done and continuing into new year, no wild diversions.

Okay, okay, a couple things going on here! In March 2015 I had a baby. The vast majority of my writing days took place between January and June–aka, the final pre-baby months plus my maternity leave. After being cracked out on sleep deprivation during the first baby month I was actually able to get a good routine going. Newborns nap every few hours, so I’d get a bit done then, and once a week I’d leave the house for 4-5 hours and write in a coffee shop, just to get some fresh air and 4-5 hours alone.(4-5 hours was the max time I could leave without my breasts exploding, if you were wondering.)

Once I went back to work, writing took a nose dive and I only managed sporadic attention to those short stories. It didn’t help that in those months I was: packing up all our belongings and moving to our first house; promptly unpacking everything in order to host holidays at said house; and working part-time and breastfeeding, which meant being up half the night 7 nights a week and rising early 7 mornings a week (either to work my job or handle baby so husband could work his). I stopped my weekly coffee shop trip out of guilt: the baby was stressed enough with me being at work 4 mornings a week, I couldn’t leave on the weekend, too. Anyway it was a madhouse 6 months!

By January 2016 I was a complete sleep deprived mess with a baby who still wouldn’t sleep through the night. BUT. I decided no time like the present, get writing again or give up on life! (My pep talks are very harsh, I swear I don’t really mean it.) I wrote any time I could: at 4 a.m. after the baby woke me up and I couldn’t fall back asleep; at 8 p.m. after baby fell asleep and I had half an hour before my eyes slammed shut; those precious naps on non-work-days; and finally meal times, as baby learned to eat by hand. Around April, the miracle combo: baby finally slept through the night, breastfeeding wrapped up, and desperate mama could drink coffee again.

Day count comparison: I wrote for twice as many days in 2016, about 2 in 3 instead of 1 in 3. I’ve found that the more days I write, the easier it is to hop in and out of story without wasting time reviewing where I’ve left off. Since I might get anywhere from 15 minutes free to 1.5 hours at a time, I need to be able to jump in without looking back. This has definitely affected my process. I am much more reliant on a detailed outline to keep me moving forward, and on the prose level I write with more abandon, waiting to clean up during edits rather than agonizing over each sentence as I go. I actually think it’s an improvement.

Word count comparison: I’m happy but also slightly disappointed because I’m a hopeless goal-setter! In 2015 I cracked 100K. At some point in 2016 I realized it was possible to crack 200K and immediately this became my goal. I was absolutely on track all year–and then November depression + December holiday madness completely derailed me. I staggered down to a couple days a week, a couple hundred words a day. Ultimately I hit 180K, which is still respectable. Anyway, it gives me a goal for next year, right?!

Word count averages: I wrote more often, but averaged less per day, courtesy of the aforementioned fractured times available to me. I’m actually surprised I averaged over 900 words a writing day in 2016. I had a lot of super productive weekends making up for a lot of painful 300-word weekdays. I think this is bound to be my new norm. I can’t have mega-marathon Saturdays like I did in the good old days of working 3 jobs during the week and doing all my writing on the weekend. If I want to get things done now I have to glean bits and pieces in between baby responsibilities. The kid is happily playing with his blocks for 20 minutes? DON’T DICK AROUND ON TWITTER, GRAB THAT LAPTOP AND GO GO GO.

Projects: Again, I successfully completed my book for the year…but had a slim chance at writing TWO books in a year and was therefore disappointed not to make it. Since I’m entering 2017 with a half-finished book underway, however, there’s good odds at writing THE END a second time this go-around. The factor holding me back: I write monster 120K fantasy tomes which I then have to laboriously strip 10-20K off during edits. I’d look so much more prolific if I was writing novellas.

The final lesson: None of this was possible without giving up basically every other hobby I ever had. At some point, you have to decide what your priorities are, and I made writing one of mine. Baby, work, writing. That’s about it. I kept my book club, basic holiday/birthday parties, a monthly movie night/dinner club with friends, a weekly-ish blog, and the most minimal errands necessary to keep my household alive. Sometimes I even see my husband, in between our alternate work schedules. But bye bye Etsy shop, bye bye arts and crafts, bye bye sewing lessons, bye bye majority of television programming, bye bye Tumblr, bye bye physical fitness (I hardly knew ye), bye bye spontaneous outings with friends or coworkers. I’ll see you all again one day. Proooobably when I’m done having kids and they’re all in school.

Anyway, I think that’s plenty of naval-gazing word count for the day (especially because blog posts don’t count for the spreadsheet! fiction words only!) My kiddo is napping and I am off work for Observed New Year’s Day, so back to the WIP! POSSIBLY FOR AN ENTIRE HOUR!! GO GO GOOOOOOOOOO–

Happy New Year, all. Next time on The Adventures of Mr. and Mrs. Cat: the slightly more disappointing Reading Roundup!