Writing, Creativity, and Motherhood

The Atlantic published a great article about creativity and motherhood this week. As the mom of an almost-2-year-old, I think a lot about how motherhood has changed me and affected my writing. There seems to be a misconception in popular culture that once a woman gives birth, her writing (or other creative endeavors) suffer. In this blog, I will discuss my own experience as a writer both before I became a mom, and after I gave birth to my daughter. Having a baby improved my creativity and my writing, and has driven a personal creative renaissance. I will not discuss the idea of “having it all” because I think that idea is total bullcrap, and sexist. When is the last time you heard people debating about whether or not a man had it all?

These little people are delightful, but they take up a lot of time.

I’m going to be honest here. Prior to having my daughter, I was writing sporadically. I have fond memories of writing in my office at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls during the two years I taught in the English department there. I would commute in from the western suburbs of the Twin Cities, often arriving by 7am. I’d dim the lights in my office and write essays and poetry, before the students arrived for their 8am classes and the hustle and bustle of the day began. It was a lovely way to start the day.

After I left UWRF for the 9-5 world, I went long stretches without writing. I just didn’t know what to write about, and I flailed, looking for a topic that grasped my interest. I look back at that time and think I should’ve tried harder, that I should’ve been more disciplined, but I also know you can’t force writing. So I just went out and lived my life, and I began to think of my writing life as my former life. I was also not sure how Purge: Rehab Diaries, and the subjects in my book, would be received by my colleagues at work, so I went underground, until it felt safe to emerge.

It took until my daughter was almost one-and-a-half for the desire to write to return, but it returned with a sense of urgency. Like many new moms, I felt like I needed to do more than work my 9-5 job and be a mom. I love my job, and I love being a mom, but I am so much more than that. I started thinking about an idea for a novel, and began taking notes on my iPhone, and an old notebook from UWRF. As a new mom with a full-time job, I did not have much time to write, and I was exhausted a lot of the time. I took novel notes while I pumped milk for my daughter, while I was on the bus or light rail, or in the few quiet moments before I fell asleep for the night.

I spent 1.5 hours pumping every weekday for 13 months…sometimes I would have ideas about writing. Sometimes I would just want to watch trashy TV on my phone.

Now, I have a bit more time to write, and I cherish that quiet time in which I get to inhabit another world. I’m writing this blog at 9pm, after my daughter’s bedtime. My husband is watching TV and I’m sitting here with a glass of pinot noir and our laptop, luxuriating in the relative peace and quiet. In the last few months, I have felt just driven to create again. I owe it to myself, and my daughter to honor that impulse to create. Taking the time to do this sets a positive example for her. To use a popular buzz-phrase, writing is self-care. By making time to write, I am taking care of myself, so that I may be the best mother I can be for my daughter.

We owe this to our children, not to be subsumed by parenthood, but to remember who we are outside of parenting, and our jobs.

I am thankful for my daughter, my husband, and my job. I am also thankful for the urge to write. Motherhood and parenthood do not need to diminish the desire to create. It can instead cultivate creativity.

Silencing Your Inner Censor: Writing Through the Fear

I’ve been working on my novel tonight, and I’ve had a few breakthroughs in terms of character development and character motivation. In the past week or so, I’ve realized that I need to give myself permission to write a story that is weird, dark, profoundly sad, or whatever it needs to be. I had been unintentionally censoring myself as I wrote, which was hindering my character development, plot, and essentially the entire story.

Once I decided to just let go, I learned that not only does my protagonist have a secret, but so does another main character, who is one of her best friends (perhaps also a protagonist–time will tell). This is one of the most exciting parts of writing a novel; you never know what will happen, or where the writing will take you.

It’s hard to silence that inner censor, but luckily I have some practice. When writing my memoir, Purge: Rehab Diaries, the fear that I was writing something weird and too personal, that no one would want to read, was always ever-present. Pushing through that fear, writing, turning pages in for workshop, reading my work at readings, sending my book to agents, having my agent send my book to publishers, all of that was a constant exercise in staring down fear. Then, when my book was picked up by Seal Press, I had to deal with the fear that reviewers would write scathing reviews, that it wouldn’t sell, and that it would be a failure, and that I’d fail as a writer.

My book. Totally worth all of the hard work.

Writing Purge: Rehab Diaries was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it was also one of the most worthwhile things I’ve ever done. I’m finding that novel-writing is similar to memoir writing in regards to being hard, but worthwhile. Working on my novel, I don’t have the fears I used to have when working on my memoir, as I’m not workshopping the novel, I already have an agent (and a publisher who gets a first look at new work), and I am not thinking about reviewers, sales numbers, or worrying that I will fail as a writer.

I am already a writer. I was a writer from the moment I started scribbling poetry in my notebook in high school (cliche, but true!).

Sometimes, when I think about how long this novel writing process will be, I get discouraged. I’m not in an MFA program with dedicated writing time like I had when I wrote my memoir. I work a full-time job, I’m married, and have a 22-month-old. Time is a precious commodity, and writing in starts and stops is frustrating, but it forces me to reflect on what I have written in between writing sessions.

When I get discouraged about how long it is taking me to write this novel, I think about all the amazing, wonderful things that came from publishing Purge: Rehab Diaries. I’m going to share some these things with you, as many of you are new to my blog, and this is a good reminder that we never know what wonderful things might happen if constantly write through or stand up to fear.

I published my memoir in 2009. It is 2017, and I still have people who reach out to say that my book has helped them in their own recovery journey. This is hands-down the biggest reward for having published Purge: Rehab Diaries. My aim was to help others who were struggling with eating disorders and mental health. Anytime I receive an email from a reader who has been helped by my book, I am honored.

Having gone through the University of Minnesota MFA program, I viewed myself as a writer, but it never occurred to me that I could speak about eating disorders and mental health issues. I have had the privilege of speaking at a middle school, high school, and many colleges and universities about writing and eating disorders. I never, ever would’ve imagined that this would be a result of publishing my memoir.

Speaking at Lynchburg College as part of NEDAwareness Week.

Whenever I have to give a presentation at work, and I’m nervous, I remind myself that I spoke about eating disorders to an audience of 400 high school girls in West Virginia, and I can handle an office presentation.

This is from a speaking engagement at Elkins High School in Elkins, WV. The answer is false, by the way.

On a completely random but fun note: I got to meet Olivia Newton-John! She was on local television the same day as me. We did our makeup together in the green room, and I gave her a copy of Purge: Rehab Diaries, and she said, “Good on you for writing this!” in a very Australian accent. She told me one of her loved ones had struggled with anorexia.

That time Olivia Newton-John and I were both on local television, and I had terrible red-eye.

You never know where writing or life will take you. I am excited for where my novel will take me, both in writing it, and what comes after.

Thoughts About the Writing Process & Inspiration

Part of why I wanted to start blogging again is because I enjoy writing about the writing process. Some writers prefer to keep their writing life private, but I find that writing about writing and talking about writing is energizing.

I’m going to write about what inspires me, and sets the tone for my writing my novel.

As I work on my novel, which is set in Minneapolis and northern Minnesota, I find myself drawn to Aimee Mann’s music. I’ve been listening to Mann nonstop, whether I’m at work, in the car, on the bus, or writing in a coffeeshop. Mental Illness, Bachelor #2, and Lost in Space are on heavy rotation. The wry melancholy of Mann’s music creates the perfect headspace to write a feminist mystery novel. One of the main themes in Mann’s music is the failure to connect with each other, hiding our true selves, and missed opportunities.

I love this album. The first time I listened to it was on the Greyhound in the early 00s. Image: Wikimedia

There are two Aimee Mann songs that are so important to me as I write my novel that I’m thinking about using sections of them as epigraphs: “Just Like Anyone,” and “Patient Zero.” At the very least, they inspire me every time I work on my novel.

I’m also listening to Lana del Ray’s “Young and Beautiful,” and “Gods and Monsters,” along with whatever is in my music library. Sometimes I become so involved in whatever I’m doing, I don’t even realize what I’m listening to.

For me, writing goes beyond the actual time I sit down and compose on my laptop. If I’m working on a project, I find that I work through plot issues and other writing concerns when I run, swim, ride the bus, hike, and do mundane everyday activities. I have a small notebook I take notes in, although I find myself using the notes app on my phone more and more often.

Hiking clears my mind and helps me think through my novel.

I don’t often have time to sit down and write for long stretches at a time, so I find the note-taking helpful. I also have an outline and repository for snippets of ideas, themes, character descriptions, etc. If I don’t have a block of time to write, I can often squeeze in some note-taking or outlining, which sets me up to dive in when I actually do have time to devote to my novel. At this point in my life, when I do get the time to work on my novel for an hour or more, uninterrupted, it feels like a gift. It makes me appreciate that time so much.

When I was writing Purge: Rehab Diaries, I used to drive around the Twin Cities listening to mix CDs that included anything from Lilith Fair to whatever was popular when I was in treatment. It was 2004, so think Christina Aguilera, Outkast, Five for Fighting, and Maroon 5. Songs by those artists were the soundtrack to the summer I was in treatment, and hearing those songs would help me remember and write what that time period was like.

My little notebook and some tea, at my favorite coffeeshop.

I hope to write more about what inspires me and helps me write, including other authors’ writing, experiences I have had, and the little things in everyday life that spark something within me.

What inspires you to write (or create any type of art!)? What does your process look like?

I Am (Tentatively) Back

It’s been over two years since I last wrote a blog post, but I’m tentatively coming back here, as I’ve been thinking more and more about writing, my experience with writing and publishing Purge: Rehab Diaries, and having a film option on my book fall through. Life has changed so much since I regularly wrote blog entries. I have an almost 22-month-old, and I work a 9-5 job. Both of these things keep me very busy, yet I’m finding myself ready to come back to some of the practices I had before I had my daughter, and before I left teaching.

Looking out at Lake Superior on a recent vacation.

I’ve started running again, practicing yoga, and writing. All of these things are so important to me, and it feels good to come back to them, although the experience of doing all three has greatly changed, since I have greatly changed.

I’ll start with running. The farthest I have ran since having my daughter is an incredibly slow 1.5 miles. After carrying an almost 9-pound breech baby, having a c-section, and breastfeeding for 13 months, my body is completely different now. Yet, it feels so good to come back to running. I love the meditative aspect of it, and hitting the point in a run where I just feel glorious. My hope is to run a couple times a week, especially as we’re coming into autumn in Minnesota, and cool, crisp autumn runs are the best.

My running shoes I bought last November…I’m finally getting a chance to use them now.

I have had an on-again, off-again relationship with yoga. In my twenties, I loved hot yoga, but now I’m finding that I gravitate toward slower, more deliberate styles, such as yin and restorative. I think that’s what my mind and body need right now. I also have done a bit of yoga nidra, which involves group chanting, which I thought I would absolutely hate, but I loved it. I was also invited to join a goddess circle and embrace the divine feminine at yoga one night, but that’s a bit beyond my comfort zone at this point. I’ll have to write more about yoga in future blog posts.

I <3 yin yoga.

Writing. Oh, writing. How I love and hate you.

This is complicated.

I have struggled to find my subject matter after writing Purge: Rehab Diaries. At first, I thought I wanted to write a sequel about life after eating disorder treatment, but I soon realized that I was done, at least for awhile, writing about eating disorders. Next, I tried writing about where I grew up, and gun culture in rural Pennsylvania, and while the research for that project was very fun, I found it wasn’t what I wanted to write about. I wrote a couple articles for one of my favorite websites, The Billfold, one about running my first 5K, and the other about places where I have lived, and also focused on poetry.

Writing at my favorite coffee shop in Minneapolis.

Then, I decided to leave teaching, and transition into a job with a steady schedule, benefits, etc. Soon after, I was pregnant with my daughter, and my world totally changed, and I did not write for a very long time.

I do not feel bad about this. Sometimes you have to live life instead of writing about it. Yes, you can do both at the same time, but that’s not where I was.

Shortly after starting my new job, a legit (not some guy in his mom’s basement) Hollywood screenwriter optioned my book. This was incredibly exciting, as it meant someone wanted to use my book as source material for a feature film! I was so thrilled, and I spent an inordinate amount of time daydreaming about who would play me in the film. I daydreamed about the soundtrack. I spent a good couple months with my head in the clouds, and rightfully so. It was a huge honor to have my book optioned.

The option period lasted roughly a couple years, then the option was not renewed, and it messed with my head. I hadn’t realized how important the option had become to me. After it was not renewed, I felt like I should just get over it, and move on. Then I realized, I needed to let myself mourn. So I have. I’m still not fully over it, but I realize I cannot let this loss paralyze my writing.

Now that I’ve been in my current position a year, and my daughter is becoming more independent, I am finding time for writing again. I surprised myself and started working on a novel. It’s very early on, but I think about it a lot, even when I’m not writing.

If you’re a writer, everyone wants to know what you’re writing about. So here is the general idea I have for my novel: I am writing a feminist mystery in which the focus is on female friendship. I am enjoying writing the novel, although much like running, it’s slow going.

That’s my update. I hope to blog more often now, as I miss it. It’s a good complement to writing my novel, and journaling.

On Hiatus

As you might’ve noticed, this blog (and me) have been on hiatus for awhile. I’m taking a break, mainly because I had a baby in October, and I’m trying to figure out the whole working mom thing. I have some ideas, and hope to work on writing and publishing again soon. Thanks for all your support. If you’re stopping by my website and hoping to connect, I still check my email regularly: nicolejjohns@gmail.com. I still love hearing from people who have read my book!

Cami Applequist’s Brilliant Post About the Ghettoization of Plus Size/Women’s Clothes

I love my friend Cami Applequist for many reasons. She was a fabulous roommate, she officiated our wedding, she’s hilarious, bright, kind, and a great person. Cami has been writing a lot of essays lately, and she posted an insightful, funny, and sad blog post about her experience as a plus-size woman looking for some new clothes at Macy’s. I cannot believe this is still happening in 2015. Here is the link: http://camiapplequist.blogspot.com/2015/05/macy-woman-please-head-to-tornado.html

You should also check out the rest of her blog, because it’s awesome.

Cami tweets @camiblog, and she’s been tweeting at Macy’s about her experience.

In Praise of Doing What Does Not Come Naturally

Yesterday I went for what might’ve been my last run until the spring thaw. It was a bit blustery at 36 degrees, but it felt so good! I ran a slow mile and then walked another mile, savoring how good it felt to run outside for what might be the last time in a long time. This morning we woke up to a few inches of ice and snow, and now I’m very glad I went for that run. Running has taught me a lot. I am not “good” at running. I am lucky if I run an 11-minute mile, and a few years ago, I would’ve taken this as a sign of failure, and I would’ve quit running, but now I’m at a point in my life where I don’t care if I’m good at something, as long as I enjoy it. I do enjoy running, quite a bit, so I’m going to keep doing it. Slow and steady wins the race, right?

When I run, I have no expectations that I will be fast, or that I will win a race, or complete a marathon. It’s not about speed or winning, or distance, it’s just about the running itself, being in the moment, and enjoying the run. I will admit that I love running when it’s cold out, because I feel like a bit of a bad ass with my gloves, fleece headband/ear warmer thing, and tights. That being said, I’ve found that I greatly prefer running when it’s cold to running when it’s warm.

Running has helped my writing, in that when I run, I think about all sorts of things, including writing. I mull over old ideas, and come up with new ideas. I work through difficulties. Running also gives me confidence, because even though it’s difficult and does not come naturally to me, I can still do it. While one mile might seem like nothing to a marathoner, to me, that mile is hard work and takes significant effort. I am proud of that one mile!

We are naturally drawn to what we are good at, which makes sense. I am terrible at math, so I have never wanted to be an accountant, and if I was an accountant, I would probably cost my firm a large amount of money, due to mathematical errors. So it’s good that I am not an accountant. The stakes are not quite as high with running though, and I believe running has helped me  develop patience that I have not had in the past. I am a more patient person and writer.

We should all step out of our proverbial comfort zones sometimes, take a risk, and perhaps do what does not come naturally.

 

I Ran My First 5K, and I Wrote About It for The Billfold

Back in late August, I ran the Milk Run 5K at the Minnesota State Fair, and I wrote about the costs associated with running my first 5K for The Billfold. I had a great time running the 5K, and I can’t wait to run it again next year, although my running has dropped off since I started a new job, and it’s getting darker much earlier these days. Still, I’m hoping to get in some nice autumn runs before winter hits Minnesota. I’ve included some pictures of the 5K below. Enjoy!

Also, I will be writing more about the state fair; I just haven’t quite gotten to it yet.

Here is a link to my article: The Cost of Running in my First 5K.

Crossing the finish line. You can tell I'm not a serious runner, because I slowed down to wave at the camera.

Crossing the finish line. You can tell I’m not a serious runner, because I slowed down to wave at the camera.

My official race t-shirt!

My official race t-shirt!

Post-race vanilla malt!

Post-race vanilla malt!

Summer 2014: Running, Reconnecting, and Reading

It has been a very long time since I last blogged, but I’m back again, at least for now. I’m having a wonderful summer, and I’m looking forward to autumn, and football season. This will be the first time in a long time that I will not be teaching, which is a bit of an adjustment, but I now have a bit more free time to work on some projects that I’ve wanted to start for quite awhile. It has been a lovely summer in Minneapolis, not too hot and humid, although the first part was quite rainy, but there weren’t too many bad storms, and no tornado warnings, which is odd for a Minnesota summer.

A beautiful summer day at the Westwood Hills Nature Center.

A beautiful summer day at the Westwood Hills Nature Center.

My biggest goal for the summer was to run the Minnesota State Fair Milk Run 5K. Next Sunday, I will be running it, and I am so excited! I trained by using the Couch to 5K program from Cool Running. I also used the (free!) c25k podcasts narrated by Robert Ullrey, although I stopped using them around week seven, and just switched over to using the fitness app on my iPod. As someone who has never been a runner, and who is not naturally athletic, I found the c25k approach helpful. It starts you out slow, but it gets you to where you want to be. I highly recommend it. I’m planning on writing about my 5K adventures in more detail in a separate blog, but taking up running this summer has been fun, especially since there are so many great trails to run on here in the Twin Cities.

Look at my new running shoes!

Look at my new running shoes!

I’ve also reconnected with some old friends this summer, from when I was in grad school, and it’s been really good to reconnect with people who knew me when I was at a very different stage of my life. I’ve also been trying to get out and enjoy the beautiful weather and long days of sunshine while I can. It is perhaps a cliche, but living in Minnesota year-round makes you appreciate the relatively short summer.

Cherry in the Spoon at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

Cherry in the Spoon at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

In terms of reading, I’ve been all over the place, but I’ve dug into David Foster Wallace’s essays (I still can’t get through Infinite Jest though), and I’ve been making my way through Willa Cather’s prairie trilogy as well. I’ve also been enjoying the archives over at they New Yorker, since they’re currently free (that’s not going to last long though, so read up while you can).

Brady and I celebrated our 5th wedding anniversary in May! It does not seem like it’s been five years since we were married. I also turned 33, and my friends Cami and Coco surprised me with a delicious cake.

Birthday cake!

Birthday cake!

As you can see, it has been a good summer so far. I’m working on writing articles about my running experiences, and the Minnesota State Fair, both of which I will be blogging about soon!

 

Rental History Essay on The Billfold

An essay I wrote about some of the places I have lived is up on one of my favorite sites, The Billfold. Check it out: http://thebillfold.com/2014/04/the-rust-belt-a-biodynamic-farm-and-other-places-ive-lived/

This is my first piece of internet writing to be published (other than blogging), and I’m excited!