Pushing Through Vs. Backing Off
Years ago, when I was in Vermont for the summer residency portion of my MFA program, my roommate and I wanted to open a bottle of wine but didn’t have a corkscrew. We found an old, possibly broken one in the common area of our dorm, and I jammed the metal point into the cork and twisted, but nothing happened.
The corkscrew wasn’t stuck, if my memory serves me, so we could have eased it back out and tracked down a better one. Neither of us wanted the wine that badly. But I felt certain that this corkscrew would work if I got the angle right, so I messed around and twisted and tugged. The cork could have crumbled and the wine could have been ruined because of my stubbornness, but eventually, the cork popped out.
“I feel like I just learned a lot about you in the last five minutes,” my roommate, Cordelia, said, and that was probably true because this is a very in-character anecdote.
When I believe I’m getting somewhere with a task, I don’t want to stop until I’m done. I’m very good at sticking with hard things. I’m not so good at letting go and backing off, even when that’s what a situation calls for. But I’m trying to get better, and pandemic parenting is giving me quite the crash course.
Over the past month, my kids have been home a lot because of winter break and COVID exposures, so I haven’t had much time to push through anything on my to-do list but I’ve had lots of hours inside our house to fill. As I cajoled the kids to do various activities, I thought of those frantic early pandemic days in the spring of 2020, when we looked forward to my then-three-year-old’s Zoom circle time every morning and I was perpetually searching toddler-parenting Instagram accounts for activities that would occupy my kids for more than ten minutes.
One afternoon that spring, my daughter’s teacher called to see if I had any questions about supporting her learning at home, and I asked for advice about pencil grip. Someone had told me how important it was to encourage proper pencil grip—or maybe I’d read about it on one of those Instagram accounts—but when I attempted to correct my daughter’s grip, there were BATTLES.
Her teacher said I should offer to show her how to hold her pencil or crayon or whatever, but if she refused, I should simply back off and try again later. It all sounded very logical: stop pushing and wait until she was receptive. Okay! That would probably work for lots of things that had been a struggle.
But then, months passed. We decided to keep our kids home for the 2020-21 school year, and the strategy of backing off until there was no resistance felt trickier, especially with the older one who was now four and pre-K aged, because this was no longer a short-term situation. It was so hard to know when to let something go and when to push a little more persistently.
If nothing else, I nurtured her love of books, art, play dough, and music last year, and that was a win. And sometimes, I got the balance right—like when I stopped trying to force her to work on writing her letters with a pencil and let her use her finger in a sand tray instead, and then one day, out of nowhere, she just picked up a pencil and wrote her name!
But other times I got frustrated and pushed too hard or let too many things go without ever circling back to them.
One bright spot this winter is that all these days at home have showed me how much my kids have learned since the beginning of this school year, when they started in person, and how much I’ve learned since early 2020. I still sometimes push too hard or give up and do something for them that I should probably encourage them to do for themselves, but overall I have a clearer sense of when they’re really not ready for something and when I can get around their resistance if I’m playful about it.
I have a new trick with my daughter, who’s now five (and who, I should say, is not resistant at all with her occupational therapist or her teachers at school). I encourage her to try a task (writing a certain letter, for instance, or doing an OT exercise), and if she protests, I tell her it’s important that she tries it but I’m going to close my eyes and let her surprise me with what she does. I can’t quite believe it . . . but this works. If I close my eyes, she usually just does the thing I’m asking—I think because I’m pushing a little, but backing off, too.
I’ve been thinking about this balance of pushing and backing off when it comes to writing, as well. Being a keep-going-till-I’ve-got-it kind of person usually pays off for me as an author. If you’re going to write books, you sometimes need to get your butt in the chair and get words on the page even if it’s hard.
But occasionally, I keep pushing forward with a draft that’s gone off the rails when it would be better to stop and reassess. Or I circle around and around a story idea I’m sure I’ve almost figured out when I really need to step back and give things time to gel. Or I scold myself for procrastinating when I have the urge to go back and re-read the first chapter of a manuscript instead of drafting the nineteenth, but then it turns out there’s something about my character that I’ve lost track of, and my subconscious knows I need to go back and rediscover that so I can carry it forward.
It’s so hard to know when to push ahead and when to step back. But I’m starting to realize it doesn’t have to be either/or.
I can set a timer to write for 20 minutes on a day when everything feels off, and if I’m still struggling after the time’s up, then maybe my resistance means something and I should switch tasks or go eat a cookie. I can write a scene by hand in a notebook instead of on the computer if I’m tired or distracted, and type it up later. I can read a craft book or analyze a mentor text, or brainstorm in my notebook, or write backstory scenes instead of the next chapter—all those things can gently move me forward when I’m stuck.
I think maybe there are all kinds of ways to push a little while backing off a little, too, and I hope you’ll embrace some of your own. Because maybe that both/and combination is something we all need in 2022.
We’re five months out from the publication date for my next middle grade novel, Coming Up Short, on June 21, 2022! You can preorder it wherever books are sold and add it on Goodreads, and it’s also up for request on NetGalley and Edelweiss for anyone who reviews books in either of those places. I’m so excited about this novel, which might be my favorite thing I’ve ever written, and I’m thrilled that the audio rights recently sold to Tantor Media, so there will be an audiobook as well as a hardcover and e-book! To celebrate the Coming Up Short audiobook, I want to give away a downloadable audiobook of my other sporty, summery upper middle grade novel, Up for Air!
Coming Up Short and Up for Air are both standalone novels, but Coming Up Short takes readers back to Gray Island, the setting of Up for Air, and includes some Up for Air Easter eggs and cameos—so this is a great time to check out Up for Air if you haven’t already, and Rachel L. Jacobs’s narration is fabulous. To enter for a chance to win a downloadable Up for Air audiobook for yourself or a 10-14 year-old reader in your life, please make sure you’re subscribed to this newsletter and comment on this post to let me know you’re interested!
I also got to write a list of great sporty middle grade novels for athletes and non-athletes alike for a really cool new site called Shepherd.com, so if you want more sporty book recommendations, you can check out those out here.
Another piece of good news is that my last book, Saint Ivy, is coming out in paperback on May 10, 2022! Last spring was a tough time to put out a relatively quiet novel about what it truly means to be kind and vulnerable, and Saint Ivy has slid under the radar more than I’d hoped. But I’m happy it will have a chance to reach more readers in this new format, and I’m so grateful to the readers who have shared how much Ivy’s story has meant to them and reviewed it on Amazon and/or Goodreads—those reviews really help with visibility, so thank you if you’ve written one!
Finally, I was delighted to see Saint Ivy included on A Mighty Girl’s 2021 Books of the Year list with this awesome write-up!
What I’m loving lately
At my house, we’re all obsessed with this board game, Outfoxed, which was a holiday gift from my brother’s family to my older kid. It’s a collaborative detective game and a total blast. The box says age 5+, but I think it can go a little younger if adults are playing—our 3-year-old loves it, too, though he refers to it as “Out Fox Out,” which is adorable so I will not be correcting him.
I also got a donut pan for the holidays, which has really diversified my baking-with-kids repertoire at a time when we’ve needed the variety. We’ve recently made these apple donuts (definitely don’t skip the optional cinnamon-sugar topping, IMHO) and these banana chocolate ones, and both recipes were easy and a hit.
Speaking of audiobooks, thanks to my friend Melissa’s recommendation, I’ve been swept up in Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton and Oh, William! on audio. The first-person narrative voice in both these novels (which have the same protagonist) absolutely blows me away, and the relationships and details are so deeply moving and true. Just spectacular. I also loved the audiobook of Tirzah Price’s Pride and Premeditation, the first in her Jane Austen murder mystery series. The story is clever and delightful, and it provided a perfect January escape. Plus, the second in the series comes out this spring!
Thanks so much for reading, and I wish you the stubbornness to push through when you need to and the wisdom to know when (and how much) to back off!