It’s hard to write about resilience from COVID lockdown because I feel far from resilient in this place. I feel wound tight like the thread on a sewing machine bobbin, and it only takes a few dirty dishes left in the sink or a request for more screen time to snap me. How can I write at home with two surly adolescents attempting online learning? What will teaching this coming semester even look like? I’m flicking between websites of news and Twitter and NSW Health, charting the latest hotspots.
Writing is often my escape from these worries, but it feels punishing right now, too. A middle-grade manuscript that I worked with an editor on has been turned down by acquisitions. I am constantly second-guessing myself, despite the three novels I have published and another one I’m completing. I still have stultifying bouts of impostor syndrome. Too many nights I lie awake at two or three am, going over the mistakes I have made, the stories I have sent too early, the emails I ought to have worded differently, the student papers I might have graded more gently.
This lockdown I want to hide beneath my doona with Netflix, pouring a drink at the earliest feasible hour (five-on-the-dot, my grandmother taught me) and dulling that sensitive new skin that as a writer I am constantly exposing to the world. Feeling too much is a skill that writers need, because those feelings are fodder for our words. But feeling too much is also fraught, and makes it hard to keep going when disappointments collect like dust bunnies under the sofa. So, who am I to write about resilience when I struggle so often with its opposite: vulnerability?
I grew up about as far as you could get from the prairie, but everywhere I went my Little House on the Prairie books came with me. Laura Ingalls Wilder brought me along on the wagon trail westward with locusts, fires, blizzards, disease and starvation just a few of the obstacles. I was a child of the 1980s, not the 1800s, and instead of long plaits tied with yellow ribbons I had a bowl haircut, Farrah Fawcett glasses and metal braces on my teeth. Instead of Wisconsin, South Dakota, Minnesota and Missouri I lived in Washington DC, Germany, and Pakistan as a child, the daughter of a US Foreign Service Officer.
I grew up nostalgic for a place I had never known, an America which was wagon trails and panthers, maple syrup candy in snow and houses dug into the earth to retain warmth. A Pa with sparkling eyes who played the fiddle and called me Half-Pint. In my imagination I survived blizzards which howled and made the door shake and sucked peppermint penny candy saved from a grown man’s coat pockets. Laura’s Pa let her help him by working outdoors, under the wide prairie sky. My father hardly had time for us, though his favourite saying came right out of Laura’s century, ‘Children are meant to be seen and not heard.’
Little House was my comfort over these years, moving to new schools and sitting in classrooms filled with strangers, leaving pets and homes, best friends; Laura had always survived worse. The moments of joy in her books: the dances and penny candy, the haymaking and maple syrup snow, were always sweeter because of the struggle that preceded. In her words: ‘There is no great loss without some small gain.’
My mother said as much about COVID lockdown, as someone emerging, after a year and a half of isolation, to the world. She lives outside of Washington DC, where the masks are coming off and vaccinated people are out again, at concerts, gyms and restaurants. ‘I’ve been swimming at the pool and we went out to dinner the other night,’ she said. ‘Tomorrow we’re going to a play. I no longer take any of it for granted.’
So, as a writer, how do I cultivate resilience? How do I weather the long winter, so I can have a summer like my mother? I’ve come up with a few tips – not rules – just suggestions. Here they are, in no particular order.
- Writing is never the only thing. It might be your best thing, your favourite thing, but there must be other sources of delight in your life. Because when, inevitably, there are times when writing lets you down, you still have your salsa dancing. Or your crochet. Your children, your alpacas, or your miniature dachshunds. Your cookie decorating or cheese-making. Your bodybuilding, your Zumba, your makeup tutorials on YouTube. My other passions are my family (when they’re not driving me batshit crazy), trail running, reading and travel (one day). All of this feeds my writing, in some way or another.
- Don’t rely on your art for your income. A wise teacher, Bret Anthony Johnston, told me this. By all means be a writer, but also be a waiter, or a teacher, or a bookkeeper or a dog walker. Putting the commercial pressure on your art will crush it. Forcing your writing to fit into marketable forms is like forcing your child to study law. It’s not going to work out, and if it does, your child (and your writing) will resent you.
- Stop and look around. I’ve written before about how running is like writing, but I realised the other day on a trail run that even though I am running through some of the most beautiful scenery, I have to keep my eyes on the trail so that I don’t trip and fall. So I’ve learned to stop at the breathtaking outlooks, to pause and look around and take it all in. This is true with my books as well. When they come out, I’m so busy running to keep up: doing publicity, replying to the emails from readers, liking the people who tag me on social media, that I don’t stop and look up. I don’t appreciate where I am. Next time, I am going to take this time to pause. When you climb a mountain, stop to enjoy the view.
- Don’t base your self-worth on external markers of success. I learned this from Charlotte Wood and Alison Manning in a wonderful course they taught – A Mind of One’s Own. If I base success on winning prizes or sales, then I can’t control my own success. If I base it on internal markers, like writing a book I am happy with, or completing a manuscript I’ve struggled with, or giving up on a project which I’m not passionate about, then success is determined by my actions, rather than reactions. Make your goals within your reach, make them things you can control. Instead of saying: I’m going to get published, you might say, I’m going to finish this manuscript and send it to five agents and five publishers. I’m going to go to a speed-pitching event and ask my friend to introduce me to her agent. I’m going to enter this contest for unpublished manuscripts and read the winning entry.
- Not every story is for every editor. We all have vastly different tastes, and sometimes it will take 30, 40, or 100 submissions to find an agent or editor who loves your work. Don’t take rejection to mean: I’m a failure. Take it to mean, this wasn’t the right work for this publisher, right now. Did they give you feedback? Give yourself a few weeks and then go over it with a fine-toothed comb. Did they say they would like to see more of your work? Wonderful. Send it, when it’s ready. Not the same thing (unless they asked you to resubmit) but more of your work.
- The published authors are the ones who don’t give up. The published authors (myself included) are the rat terrier writers, not the most talented writers. In writing classes, I have seen incredibly talented writers, writers who make me cry with the beauty of their prose, whose names I expected to see on the cover of a book within a year, whose names I’ve never seen again. When I’ve followed up, I have heard similar stories: they were rejected by an agent, or a publisher, and it was all too soul-destroying and they stopped. What a shame, try again, I say, but it might not be for them. It takes talent and perseverance and the willingness to handle criticism. It takes resilience.
How to cultivate this? It’s the opposite of what you might expect.
I strengthen my resilience by protecting my vulnerability. Keeping it wrapped in soft blankets, delivering it cups of ginger lemongrass tea. Let vulnerability soak in a fragrant bath, give it drams of whiskey and a deliciously frivolous novel. My resilience marches around in the rain and mud, knocking on doors and delivering manuscripts, opening emails, scrolling through social media, while my vulnerability likes to stay indoors by the fire, or in a hammock in a patch of sun, scribbling in her notebook and daydreaming.
My resilience is a fierce mother. She tells the teacher about the bully at recess. She fixes vulnerability a lunch and makes sure the bath isn’t too hot and draws the curtains, locking the doors.
Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way taught me to look after my vulnerability: to nurture and treat her gently. Allow her to decorate her writing space, take her on Artist Dates to delightful places which spark her creativity. Above all, let her be alone. I have gone to galleries, kayaked, hiked headlands and collected shells at the beach. I’ve gone to films and gardens, libraries and bookstores. I’ve left resilience at home with my husband and children, because she’s too protective. She’s checking the shelves for my most recent book, or scrolling her phone for Twitter updates. ‘There might be emails I need to reply to,’ she says.
‘Shhh, this is the part where they kiss,’ I whisper in the darkened cinema, waiting for the shiver to travel up my unprotected spine.
Beauty is hard to see when we harden our eyes to the world, and sadness is hard to feel. So harden a part of yourself, and keep her separate. Even my resilience knows her limits. Even my resilience doesn’t go on Goodreads and read reviews.
The resilience is the container, really, for my vulnerability – the egg carton holding the fragile shells. Inside the shell of my skin, my brain is the white, the yolk my yellow heart, quivering in gooey jelly.
I want to be courageous, compassionate, and curious in my writing – I want to be that way in life as well. So by all means, let’s cherish resilience, but please, don’t ignore the importance of its opposite: vulnerability. Without it, how would we make art?