Friday, February 24, 2012

Necessary Cuts (Or, the problem with outcomes)

When I was in graduate school, I wrote a novel. It wasn’t particularly good, and it won’t ever see the light of day now that workshop days are over, but there was one section in one chapter I adored. I revised it over and over until each word felt perfect, until the description was just right, the details distinct and evocative. It was one of my better pieces of writing, and for a long time I resisted what I knew deep down was true: I needed to cut it. It just wasn’t working for that section, and keeping it there because I liked the writing threatened the integrity of the project.

A few weeks ago, I was feverishly revising the last couple chapters of my book. They were rougher chapters—big, unwieldy, complex chapters that I threw all kinds of ideas into, knowing they needed refining and chopping. And late one night I realized I needed to cut a whole interview portion I really liked, about a subtopic that was really interesting. As strong as the ideas were, they weren’t essential to the chapter’s narrative. In fact, they prevented the arc I needed from forming.

I knew what I needed to do, but it was still hard. Hard to see that even if that section didn’t make the cut, that it was still valuable, that it was still a part of the process involved in writing and drafting a successful chapter.

I thought about that after I cut it, and looked around at the piles and piles of research stacked up all over my office—not to mention the thousands of electronic resources filed away in Gmail folders. How many of those have I read and forgotten? More than that, how many of those did I annotate and underline, scribbling notes on and tagging for use in iterations of chapters that don’t even exist anymore? I spent years compiling research, and what is staggering to me isn’t the amount that made it into the book, but what didn’t.

And yet it is all part of it, it all contributed to the process that ultimately resulted in a full draft of the book. Whether it led me to another source that proved useful, whether it sparked a question I asked during an interview, or if it just expanded my understanding and fluency on a particular topic, each piece had a role.

For better and worse, I am an outcome-based person. As a child, I cared more about my grades than my parents ever did. I see traces of myself in the students who bemoan a B+, who ask not how they can improve their writing but how they can get an A, who have a difficult time seeing that huge improvement from a rough draft to a final draft is an indication of success. I can empathize with that struggle.

The older I get, the less useful an outcome-based perspective seems. Perhaps it’s because so much of life resists clear-cut outcomes like grades or test scores. I know writing certainly does. Even though I am ranked and evaluated every academic year, I find it is the student feedback I get that is most meaningful to me. Maybe it’s also because the older you get and the more you risk, the more failure you open yourself up to, and sometimes all you are left with when things fall apart is the journey itself.

(Small proof I have evolved? I lose of Words with Friends, yet I keep accepting rematches with my husband and (gasp!) still find it fun, anyway.)

Clearly, being a patient with incurable conditions has shifted my perceptions on outcomes. It’s not a question of the ultimate outcome—a cure—but more an issue of the everyday ebbs and flows of chronic illness. We can take the medications and follow the rules and still experience flares, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t inherent worth in keeping up with the minutia of daily maintenance and preventive strategies to minimize disease progression.

And becoming a parent? That has been the biggest influence of all. After our long journey to parenthood, and the intensity of our high-risk pregnancy, I have seen what is possible when we let go of outcomes altogether and the end result surpasses every expectation or dream we ever had. Watching this little girl grow into her own unique, independent person is a daily reminder that living in the moment, that appreciating the journey and the discovery, is a blessing.

I delight in what I learn she knows, and I love when she bursts out with new words, or recognizes new letters, or figures out how to do something new. But I find that the older she gets and the more she shares with us, I care less and less about pre-school placement, kindergarten readiness, or summer camp enrichment. I want the smile of pride she gets when she screws a bottle cap back on a seltzer, draws a picture, or drinks from a cup without a lid, the earnest smile that lights up her whole face, to follow her—no matter the spilled cups, the missteps, the experiments that don’t pan out as planned.

For an incredibly thoughtful, candid view on outcome-based parenting, I recommend Katie Allison Granju’s post on Babble. In a nod to writing, parenting, and (Weekly) Grace in Small Things, four other posts I am grateful for and suggest you read are
Aisha’s post on being present, Maggie May’s post on being a “good enough” mother, Glennon’s Momastery post on gifts and talents, and Brooke’s post on choosing love again.

Friday, February 17, 2012


So often lately I can’t seem to get out of my own way. I have these ideas for posts and write them in my head and know just how they should go, the points they should cover and the links and resources they should include.

And then I sit down to write them (or add to the few lines saved in a draft folder) and I don’t have the mental energy or clarity to do them the way I want. So I get stuck—if I can’t do the stand-alone, substantive pieces I’ve planned, I don’t do anything.

Really, that’s not what writing—or blogging—is about. After all, when I hit rough patches in my freelance work or in the book draft, I don’t stop altogether. I just move to a different section and come back to the problem area when I’ve worked it out.

Even more than that, I find that what I want to write about lately aren’t always the things I am comfortable writing about, or aren’t necessarily what a blog about chronic illness covers.

Aside from days like today, when weeks of feeling sick caught up with me and I am flat-out, heavily medicated, almost hospitalized sick, chronic illness in of itself isn’t something I spend too much time thinking about, and the fundamentals of it—symptoms, treatments, fluctuations—have never been all that interesting to me as a writer. Of course it’s part of my daily life, like when my lungs are so tight it is hard to carry my daughter upstairs, or chest PT happens at a time when she needs me. But family stuff, parenting stuff, work stuff, and, well, life stuff consume most of my attention and efforts.

It is the relationship between chronic illness and all those other facets of life that is a richer source of material, and I suppose it always has been.

Blogs grow, writers grow, interests grow. My life has changed a lot since I started this blog as a single graduate student. My roles are different now—mother, wife, full-time faculty member, published author—and as a result of these changes, I am different, too. Of course—we all are. So instead of fighting this constrained feeling, this writerly need to express the ideas that really resonate with where I am now, I need to work through it. Just write, I tell my students during free write exercises. No caveats, disclaimers, hesitations, or explanations.

That’s my plan, then, to try and find my equilibrium in this space, to be a more engaged writer, reader, and commenter. Some of the topics I’m interested in exploring more include parenting, parenting after infertility, clean cooking and eating (for children, too), writing, and, as a testament to this blog’s roots, how to be a better patient—because that role still matters, and continues to change as everything else does.

As readers, what are you interested in discussing more?

And finally, because it is an important piece of equilibrium for me, a quick installment of (Weekly) Grace in Small Things:

1. Lazy, happy dogs sprawled on the rug, sleeping in the warm beam of February sun streaming through the front window.

2. A giggling, chuckling toddler whose laugh reaches every corner of the house and always makes me smile.

3. Words with Friends, which makes time spent in exam rooms and waiting areas go much quicker, and is a small, silly way my husband and I keep in touch during the day.

4. The ability to say yes, without hesitation, when my worried doctor asks I have anyone who can help me out while I get over these infections.

5. Catching up with a good friend and wonderful writer this week whose continued success and dedication is awesome to watch.
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