My boys are playing together just fine over in a corner of the dining room, on the glass table we never use for eating, (because it’s glass and kids have twelve thousand sticky hands). They’re occupied with the Contraptions, these really fun wooden planks they like to make into tracks, so it looks like the perfect opportunity to sneak into the kitchen and cram down another of those dark chocolate brownies I made last night, even though I just got done telling them, when they asked, that it’s too early in the morning to have one.
I should know better by now. I mean, I’ve been a parent for 8 years. I should know that in a household of kids, there is never, ever, ever a perfect opportunity. But sometimes I go a little wild and get my hopes up.
So I’m in the middle of cramming, hiding in the pantry just in case they come wandering into the kitchen, when the 8-year-old catches me, red-handed, with chocolate all over my fingers (the curse of gooey brownies).
He looks from my face to my hands and back again. And then he tosses out that bad word I just love to hate: “Aw, no f**r. You ate a brownie. You said it was too early for us to have one.”
I think fast. “Well,” I say. “I’m a grownup. When you’re a grownup you get to eat whatever you want in the morning.”
Real smooth, I know. Real good example of the way I DON’T want my children to eat. Well, parenting and paradoxes go hand in hand. We’re all hypocrites. The sooner we can face up to that, the happier we’ll be.
Hours later, when it’s time for lunch, I pile some strawberries and sliced cucumber on their plates beside their PB&J sandwiches. Off to the side, I put a handful of raisins on everyone’s plate except the 8-year-old, who doesn’t like raisins. I give him pecans.
His brothers notice, of course. “No f**r,” the 5-year-old says. “He gets pecans.”
“You have raisins,” I say. “He doesn’t like raisins. I’ll take your raisins and give you pecans, if you want.”
He shuts his mouth and shakes his head, because, of course, he prefers the sweet raisins to the pecans.
I get so tired of the phrase, “No f**r.” They have several variations. Those variations might sound like “It’s not f**r” or “That’s not f**r” or “You should be f**r” and so many more I can’t even remember right now, in my annoyed, flustered, I’m-so-sick-of-this state of mind. All I know is I hear them 15 billion times a day.
When someone goes out to play because he’s finished his after dinner chore: “That’s not f**r. He gets to go play already, and I’m still stuck here doing dishes.” When someone pours his own milk and it’s half a centimeter more than I gave the brother: “It’s not f**r. He got more milk than I did.” When someone comes down the stairs with a red shirt on: “No f**r. I never get to wear a red shirt.”
What I want to say every single time I hear these delightful words is, “Welp. Life’s not f**r. The sooner you can learn that and accept it, the better.”
What I usually do, instead, because I’m a good parent, is empathize with their feelings and then explain exactly why fair isn’t equal. Sometimes they understand. Most times they don’t.
But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take incredible strength of will to keep calm when they’re throwing out and kicking around the f-word. In fact, this is what it usually sounds like in my head:
When we’re eating dinner, and their daddy and I have a glass of wine:
3-year-old: “No f**r. You get wine.”
What I want to say: “If you only knew who I’d be without it…”
What I say instead: “Want to taste?”
He gets close enough to smell and picks up his cup of milk without a single complaint.
That’s right, son. This stuff is NASTY, because it’s cheap and it’s survival.
When we’re watching a movie and the boys get their cups of popcorn.
6-year-old: “Hey, no f**r! He got more than I did!”
What I want to say: “Wow. Aren’t you an efficient counter? You know fractions already? Because he has half a kernel more than you.”
What I say instead: “Here. Have another.”
Because, dang, I don’t want this fight. I know what it will look like. It will look like five cups of popcorn dumped onto the floor so they can count it, and the 3-year-olds can’t even count past 12, which means this will take ALL DAY.
When the older boys are sitting around during art time, and the 8-year-old decides he’s going to make the most epic paper airplane ever.
5-year-old: “No f**r. My brother knows how to make a paper airplane.”
What I want to say: “Stinks to be you.”
What I say instead: “Here. Let’s learn how to make one.”
Forty minutes later we have a paper airplane that won’t even fly, because making paper airplanes is much more complicated than it looks.
When it’s almost nap time, and I’m telling the 3-year-old twins what they need to do next.
3-year-old: “No f**r. My bruvers get to have Quiet Time and I have to take a nap.”
What I want to say: “Only boys who know how to say ‘brothers’ get to have Quiet Time. Besides, I don’t need a break from your brothers. You, on the other hand…I need a thousand year break from you.”
What I say instead: “Do you want to crawl like a dog to your bed or run like an ostrich?”
During dinner, the oldest is sitting beside his littlest brother, watching me feed him.
8-year-old: “No f**r. You get to feed him.”
What I want to say: “What the—?”
What I say instead: “You can do it if you want.”
Two minutes later, the baby sneezed sweet potatoes all over his face, and I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing hysterically. Not so fun now, is it?
Everybody in my house knows this bad word. Everyone uses it. We’re born knowing how to use it, I think.
Kids have such a messed up definition of what f**r really is. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make the feeling of unf**r any less real to them.
The other day, when we were playing a game and one of his brothers drew a yellow card he needed, my 6-year-old said, “That’s not f**r.”
“What does f**r mean?” I said.
No one answered, because none of them knows. All they know is they want life to work for them right now. They want it to be perfectly smooth and perfectly easy and perfectly their way.
And, honestly, so do I. But I’ve been alive longer than they have, and I know it’s just not. I know it’s not f**r that some lose babies while others get to keep them. I know it’s not f**r that some business deals fall through and we suddenly can’t make our mortgage payment this month while others have more than enough. I know it’s not f**r that the store was out of raw oats so now I have to think outside the box for Wednesday morning’s breakfast.
So much about life is not f**r. So many times I want to stomp and complain and throw out those same words my kids overuse. Because it’s not f**r that my air conditioner broke and we had to try to sleep through four days of 1,000-degree heat. It’s not f**r that my kids don’t listen to what I’m saying 99.7 percent of the time because they have better things on their minds. It’s not f**r that last night, when I had just slipped into dreamland, one of them came knocking on my door to say he couldn’t sleep, and then it took me three hours to get back to sleep so I’m more exhausted than normal today.
In a child’s life, f**r means get-what-I-want. Everything they want to be f**r—a game, the ability to make epic paper airplanes, a treatment—is strictly for their own benefit. They want a f**r game, because they want to win. They want a f**r ability, because it means they wouldn’t have to ask Mama’s help and their paper airplane would actually fly. They want f**r treatment, because they’re afraid they’re missing out on something special.
We’re born with this complex. We all know adults who still have trouble accepting its reality in their lives. That, to me, means it’s good for our kids to practice surviving “unf**r,” because they get to learn, in the process, that life doesn’t end because something doesn’t go exactly the way they planned or even hoped.
That’s what develops grit.
So, today, when the 8-year-old plops on the couch and says, “I want to watch a movie,” and I answer in the negative, and he says, “It’s not f**r. My friends get to watch TV all day,” and it’s the sixtieth time I’ve heard those blasted words in an hour, I send them all outside to jump out their frustration on the trampoline. And when the last one gets out the door, I turn the lock. No one’s coming back inside until dinner.
Life isn’t f**r, after all.
This is an excerpt from Parenthood: Has Anyone Seen My Sanity?, the first book in the Crash Test Parents humor series. It pre-releases Feb. 24. To be notified of its release, visit the Crash Test Parents Reader Library page, where you’ll also get access to some all-new, never-before-published humor essays in two hilarious Crash Test Parents guides.
Purposeful practice is a term I picked up from Anders Ericsson, who is a Swedish psychologist who has, for many years, studied expertise and human performance. He recently came out with a book called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, which detailed how anyone can become an expert at anything they want.
One of the most important things we can do to become an expert is to engage regularly in purposeful practice.
Whenever we start talking about expertise, there’s this one number that has become really popular in detailing how long it takes to become an expert. It’s the rule of 10,000 hours, in case you haven’t heard this. But that 10,000 hours varies greatly among experts. Some have to put in far more than 10,000 hours and some far less. It all depends on how you practice. If you put in purposeful practice (as opposed to just practice), you’ll be able to master something at a faster rate than someone else who only practices the same thing every day.
So what is purposeful practice, and how can we, as writers, make sure we’re doing it?
Here’s one of the best ways to become an expert writer: choose one aspect of writing that you consider a weakness—such as dialogue or the ability to craft a realistic setting or your ability to craft funny one-liners in your essays—and once you have only one thing, work on it over and over and over again, until you see a marked improvement.
Now, obviously, there’s more to this than just choosing something and working on it over and over. But before you begin a plan of action, you first have to know what you want to work on, which means you have to know your weaknesses.
I know that one of my writing weaknesses is crafting good descriptions. So this year, I’m working on descriptions. I’m carrying around a description journal so I can make sure that I’m paying close attention to the world around me, which is only the beginning of becoming a great describer of the world. I also set aside fifteen minutes every day where I can work on this specific writing process. I copy down great descriptions from books and try my hand at recreating them. I evaluate all of my progress. This is all purposeful practice.
Writing is hard to quantify, so this might seem a little abstract to you. But we also intuitively know when something feels hard and when it feels easy during the writing process. So the first step in purposeful practice is to evaluate what our strengths and weaknesses are. If we never explore our weaknesses, they become limits instead of potential.
I’ll talk more about this next week, but that’s all you need to know for now.
Once you have explored your weaknesses, it’s time to make a plan for turning them into strengths. Here’s how you do that:
1. Make a goal.
State how, specifically, you would like to improve. Something like “Write a description of a mountain range so effectively that someone who has never seen it can envision it in his mind” is a good, specific goal to have for a practice session. You can use your kids to test whether or not you’ve succeeded.
You’ll want to have larger goals, of course, but purposeful practice works best if you take those larger goals (one like “Write descriptions like Jonathan Stroud”) and break it down into smaller, more doable goals.
Ericsson says, “The key is to take a general goal—get better—and turn it into something specific that you can work on with a realistic expectation for improvement.”
I know a writer who is crippled by the backspace key. So I made him commit to writing with touching the backspace key for a whole six weeks. He’s in his third week now and has already seen improvement.
In order to improve anything, you have to focus on it. Eliminate distractions, and give the practice session your full attention. Take just fifteen minutes a day and practice on your specific goal. If you do it for the entire fifteen minutes, you’ll find that not only will your focus improve, but your skill will improve exponentially.
3. Solicit feedback.
You can assess your own practice writing, or you can get someone else to do it—whether a group or a teacher or even your children, if you write children’s books.
To assess it yourself, pay attention to what parts of your purposeful practice cause you problems. Make notes on it. Some of my notes include things like, “This one felt hard” and “My word count here was atrocious, because I couldn’t get it going.” Those notes tell me how I can further improve—continue working on what feels hard.
I have set up a feedback loop for myself, because it’s often difficult to get out of the house or talk with another person, because kids. Here’s what the feedback loop looks like:
At the end of every week, I ask myself questions like:
What is working in these practice sessions?
What is not working?
What has been effective when I’ve tried it?
What did I do well in my writing?
What can I still improve?
What is one specific thing I will do next week to make sure that I continue improving?
These are usually questions that I answer for the business side of things, but they would also work wonders with the writing side. When we take a step back from our writing, we can look at it with impartial eyes. Don’t be afraid to admit it’s really bad. We all start somewhere.
You can also set up a feedback loop by identifying the experts in your field (I usually study the award winners), marking down passages that strike you as particularly good, and trying to rewrite them in the same way they do—not so you plagiarize or absorb the voice of another writer but so you understand where your weaknesses lie.
4. Challenge yourself.
Ericsson says this is probably the most important part of purposeful practice.
In order to see improvement in any part of our lives, we have to first be willing to step out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves. Our goals can’t be simple things that we’ll reach in a week or two. Make your goals big, something that will take a year, at least, preferably longer. One of my lifetime goals is to win a Newbery Award. In order to do that, I have to learn how to write like a Newbery Award winner, which means I have to practice the skills that are weak, and, as I talked about in the last several weeks, I have to study and read and constantly learn.
I have to step outside boxes and try new things and fail at them, too, because it’s all a road to improvement. We think of failure like it says something about us, but all failure can be used to improve. It’s always a learning experience.
I hope you have a wonderful week and some majorly productive writing sessions.
“Violence is a calm that disturbs you.”
Write about something that was violent and disturbing, either in your life or in the life of someone you know (or one of your characters).
It takes only a look from those evening sky eyes, so much like your daddy’s, before I’m lost in time, lost in space, lost in a world where only you and I exist. It takes only one sweet, joyful smile to send me reeling, end over end, in a twister of tears, for the growing up and the getting older and the never again. It takes only one slobbery kiss to crawl all the way down to my depths and remind me, This is it.
This is it. You are it. You are the last born son.
We knew it from the first moment we knew of you. You grew and you kicked and you formed so perfectly, so beautifully, so wonderfully, and I tried to enjoy every minute of your growing, before I’d even met you, because this was the last time.
It’s funny how a new baby comes into a family by storm, how those first few months feel blurry and unreal, and then, looking back, it’s hard to remember a time when new baby was no baby. I try to see what life was like before you, and it’s impossible to remember what I did with my nights but give you the last goodnight, sleep tight kiss. It’s impossible to remember what I did with my mornings but burrow my face into your belly to make you laugh. It’s impossible to remember afternoons without your curled up form, sleeping soundly in a crib.
Ours is not a complete family without you.
I know your brothers would agree. You are the light of their day, smiling no matter how the world is falling apart around you, calling to them when they pass you on their way to the refrigerator, missing them when they’re away at school. You are sunshine in a hurricane. You are morning song splitting a silent night. You are breath and hope and life and love and miracle.
I spent my birthday last year holding you, just three hours old, against my chest, and I did not think that I would ever put you down, because you were beautiful, and you were here and you were ALIVE and you were last.
And then we brought you home and you fit right in like the whole world had waited on you before it started turning again, in just the right way. Your brothers lived for one little smile, one little contagious laugh, one little hand pat on their leg. You looked around for them when they were gone, because the noise was a constant in your existence, and you did not know, exactly, what to do without it.
It’s hard to explain what you mean to me. But I will try.
That first moment in the hospital, you looked into my eyes, and you reminded me that I mattered, because you were born on the day before my birthday, and I’d always had a complicated relationship with birthdays, because there was always someone missing from mine, but you reminded me that my birthday mattered, that I mattered, and you have no idea what that did for me, my sweet. I was able to unfold in your first year of life in ways I had never done. I was able to dream truer and hope wider. I was able to, finally, live.
You are my last born son. You are the culmination of eight years of childbearing, a whole lifetime of longing. I have given my skin, my eyes, my nose, my mouth, my hair to all of you, some getting more of one than others. Mostly, though, I have given my heart, marveling at who you are and how beautiful this mothering is and what a wonder it is that you are all here, breathing, sleeping, living out loud in the very center of me.
But, you see, there is a sadness you brought with you (if, in the future, you happen to notice this sadness shaking my face, it is nothing to do with who you are). Because everything I watch you do will be the last time.
Your first smile—it was the last first smile I would see from one of my babies. Your first wobbling steps—it was the last first steps I’ll ever see from my own. That 2 a.m. feeding, the splendid silence of it, was the last 2 a.m. feeding I will experience.
It comes with being the last child, but it has nothing to do with who you are. You will see the sadness in my face the first day of kindergarten, but it has nothing to do with who you are. You will see the sadness in my smile when you walk the stage at your fifth-grade graduation ceremony, but it has nothing to do with how you’ve done or who you’ve grown to be. You will see the sadness in my pride the day you drive away from home, but it has nothing to do with who you have been beneath our roof.
You will be the last one who learns to drive a car and the last one who takes Algebra II and the last one who marches in the school band or sings in the choir or lines up on a football field. You will be the last one to go to the senior prom, and you will be the last one to pack your stuff and leave home. And so all along this growing up will be moments of such great pride and wonder, and they will be moments of profound sorrow and pain, too.
Soon, you will learn to wield a spoon, and you will learn to dress yourself, and you will learn to tie your own shoes, and there is a grief in this passing away, because what does a mother do when she has nothing left to do? When she is not needed anymore? When she is just an important person in a life instead of a vital, I-can’t-make-it-without-her person?
Well, she loves. She keeps on loving. She keeps on.
I know we’re a long way from those days of doing for yourself and walking to school on your own and leaving home for good, but here we are, in the blink of an eye, at your first birthday, and it’s the last first birthday I’ll experience with a child of my own. So it is a day of celebration, and it is a day of sadness. This evening I will pack away your clothes, which you outgrew weeks ago but which I’ve been slow to clear out, because it’s the last time. I will mail them to your cousin, and, meanwhile, you will keep growing up, never to stop, no matter how desperately I want you to stop, for just a small moment in time so I can preserve that gummy smile and commit it to memory forever and ever and ever, so I can remember the way you reach for me every time I come into a room because I’m your favorite person in the world, so I can watch you giggle and laugh and do a dance of your own when your brothers turn the music too loud. I don’t want the moments to go away, and, like every moment, they must.
So I guess what I want you to know on your birthday is this: You are perfect just the way you are. I love you with all the love I have in my heart. You are a wondrous ending point to our family with your great joy and wide smile and sweet nature.
Happy birthday, my love. You are mine for now.
Believe it or not, I meet a lot of people who want to write well but say they don’t read. How do you know what good writing is, then? I don’t think we can, outside of reading widely and voraciously, and here’s why:
If you read often, you are picking up things that you don’t even notice. If you’re reading fiction, you’re picking characterization, point of view, dialogue, sentence structure, grammar, spelling, and story structure, among other things—all of which is important for writing your own stories. You can study those elements on your own, of course, but until you see them in action, in a story, they will remain abstract concepts.
If you are reading nonfiction, you’re also picking up characterization, sentence structure, idea organization, grammar, spelling, point of view, humor techniques (if you read humor), and the shape of nonfiction.
These things happen with your even trying.
I’ve said before that one of the most important things you can do for your writing career is to make writing a habit. I believe that making reading a habit is even more important than that. Not much more important, but still more important.
Becoming a good writer doesn’t start with writing. Becoming a good writer starts with reading. Reading introduces you to new ideas that broaden your understanding, whether or not you’re actually reading about writing. Reading, as I’ve said, shows you technique and, if you pick the right books, what mastery of language looks like. These are crucial to your writing. If you don’t read, you will not become an expert at writing. You might be able to become a decent writer, but you will not achieve expert status, because to know good writing, you have to read it. To know bad writing, you have to read it. You contain within you all the stories you have read in your life, and the more stories you read, the more skilled you will become at writing them, as the techniques and ideas of other writers flow out of your subconscious.
I believe our subconscious will pick up on these things without our even thinking about it. But if we want to learn more and faster from the texts we read, we’ll have to take notes and analyze what we like and don’t like about passages or books as a whole. I do this with about half the books I read every month, because it gets exhausting if you do it for every one. Here are some questions I ask myself when I read a brilliant passage:
- What do I like about this passage?
- How did the writer do this?
- What can I learn from this text that I can apply to my own writing?
Reading in this way puts us on the fast track toward excellent writing.
Some of you may be thinking, well, that’s great for you, but I don’t have time to read. So I want to close with a few quick tips for making habit a reading:
1. Grab every moment.
If you’re waiting in line at the store, pull out a poetry book. If you are driving in your car, listen to an audio book. If you typically scroll through social media at night, pick up a book instead. Your brain and your eyes will thank you.
2. Find opportunities to read with others.
Start a book club. Read with your family. Make a goal for how many books you’ll read this year, and tell someone, or, better yet, drag them into it, too. All of this can become accountability, so the next time you reach for your smartphone, a little voice in your head might say, “Maybe you should read instead.” If you’re my husband, that voice would be mine.
3. Reward yourself for your efforts.
Sometimes, when we’re not used to reading anymore, our attention is hard to hold. So reward yourself for the days you spend 30 minutes or more reading. Build up your attention span. It can be done. You just have to practice, it, like everything else.
I believe that reading holds the keys to a better, kinder society that could even eradicate poverty, which is why I choose to write more books. But that’s a story for another day.
For now, work on your habit of reading, and watch your writing skills flourish.
“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”
Write about the nuances of caring. What does caring look like to you? What did it look like to your parents, your siblings, your friends? What is the relationship between these acts of caring and love in your mind? Can caring be used for ill gain? How? (You can use the same exercise for your character.)
A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that was artistic, contemplative and beautifully written. There was no clear protagonist, which broke a few story rules, but the small stories within the story followed the same characters. It reminded me a lot of Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, because both Olive Kitteridge and A Visit from the Goon Squad are broken into what seems to be separate narratives that weave around the same characters. I love this sort of creative novel.
There are many things I liked about this book, but here are the three things I liked most about it:
1. The points of view. Each chapter was written from another character’s point of view, and each one was distinctly original. It’s not easy to write from multiple points of view, because many times characters end up sounding a whole lot like one another. But Egan’s did not. I loved this distinction.
2. The verbs. Throughout the book, Egan chose unusual verbs to describe things. I found myself jotting down them down in my reading notebook, because they were so much better than the typical ones and showed a much clearer view of what was happening. Her verbs painted pictures of the action.
3. The similes and metaphors. Egan’s title was a metaphor, repeated by a couple of the characters: Time is a goon. The Goon Squad is a group of people who are passing through time, becoming musicians and parents and failures and all the things that time permits. The title of the book was a large metaphor, but there were also small metaphors and similes along the way. Take this simile, for example:
“‘Ow,’ Lou says. ‘Your quill is stabbing me.’ It’s a black-and-white porcupine quill—she found it in the hills and uses it to pin up her long hair. Her father slides it out, and the golden, tangled mass of Charlie’s hair collapses onto her shoulders like a shattered window.”
That’s a great image of Charlie’s hair.
Egan also experimented with some really interesting forms of prose. One chapter is written like a skewed news article. Another chapter is written in Power Point. Reading A Visit From the Goon Squad was like taking a walk, inside a character’s head, through time. Which, I suppose, is appropriate.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this book recommendation. Be sure to visit my recommendation page if you’re interested in seeing some of my best book recommendations. And, if you’re looking for some new books to read, stop by my starter library, where you can get a handful of my books for free.
*The books mentioned above have affiliate links attached to them, which means I’ll get a small kick-back if you click on them and purchase. But I only recommend books I enjoy reading myself. Actually, I don’t even talk about books I didn’t enjoy. I’d rather forget I ever wasted time reading them.