Andrea L. Volpe teaches writing at Harvard University. She was recently named managing editor of a new journal, History of the Present (www.historyofthepresent.org).
Recently, I thought back to what I learned from Sharon’s coaching as I re-committed myself to living what I’d learned. Several years ago, I worked with her to make more disciplined headway on the progress of a book manuscript during a sabbatical. Two months in, I was afraid that I was going to re-write the same chapter for a year. In the years leading up to that moment, I’d plotted a course for myself from widow and expectant mom to a single, working parent with a child in elementary school and a new partner. Reacting to what was at hand had worked well as a survival strategy, until it didn’t. As I reframed my life, I’d recommitted myself to the book project, and I knew I needed to get somewhere, but even after all I knew about how to weather sea changes, I wasn’t sure how.
As simple as it sounds now, I had to learn how to make myself and my project a priority. I had to make a choice; I had to say yes to some things and learn how to say no to others. I needed to plot my project, and stay the course, so that logging time over time would shift the project. And it did. Part of what I learned that year was that what I wanted to do was going to take (still) more time than I thought it was, but that I wanted to and could do it. I had to treat my work like an endurance sport (the ultra triathalon of parenting, teaching and writing). Very basic things that had been part of me for a long time—cooking well, exercise, friends—were foundational to that discipline.
Recently, I did a one-month brusher-upper with Sharon to accelerate my progress—while my son was at sleep-away camp, I completed a full draft of the manuscript–the final arc of the project had emerged and only did so with twelve days of uninterrupted writing, thinking (and yoga breaks). I found that all the work up to that point had been my training–I had gained focus, confidence and stamina. I loved having Sharon on my team but I also learned that those resources were now part of me. This year, as I’ve plotted out my final revisions between teaching and nurturing my blended-family-in-the-making, I’ve started to see the ways in which I coach myself:
- I have a master vision of what’s important to me: family, friends, exercise, writing. Of all those, exercise is probably the wellspring for everything else. I actually plan most of my work commitments around my schedule at the gym and yoga studio (“I’m sorry, I can’t meet then, have a ‘meeting’ to go to…”). I know that when I sacrifice what sustains me, I lose what grounds me.
- I am always trying to better at setting limits. The support of friends has been so essential to me, it’s hard to limit my social calendar. But I’ve held myself to my tried and true inner circle as other priorities—family and writing—have come into focus.
- I don’t multi-task. For a long time, I worried that I had ADD—but then I realized it was just single parenting (and one time or another, we are all single parenting.) Now, as much as can, I do one thing at a time; I write when I have time to write, I run when I have time to run, I play Parchesi when I play Parchesi. And more gets done. I love this!
- I reward myself. These aren’t, in the post-recession world, necessarily large or visible luxuries. I might just really appreciate getting to spinning, or I might sneak in a manicure while my son is at karate, or I might buy a new cookbook and plan a great dinner.
- I know what energizes me. I know that cooking good meals for myself and my family is restorative and always worth the time. I stopped drinking coffee and switched to green tea.
- I plan. I plan menus and shop from them, always on Saturday afternoons; I plan a budget and reassess it every year, me and my partner plan our family’s calendar in (at least) 6 month increments.
- When things crumble or buckle, I re-evaluate and problem-solve and remind myself of my foundational resources. Recently, I wanted to get a block of work done but not sacrifice the quality of our meals—I knew I needed something to sustain me at the end of a writing day that wasn’t from Trader Joe’s. So I became my own personal chef. I did a little research, dug into my favorite cook books, bought some Pyrex and started cooking for the freezer. If you cook three meals at once, you can bank almost a week’s worth of meals. I wrote the chapter, and we ate well: I took care of myself.