Courtney Ellis is one of the funniest people I know, one of the wisest, too, so when she told me she was releasing a second book in one year – and one about parenting – I was IN. Today, she’s here to share
I once heard Leif Enger, one of my literary heroes, say that writers should often set their stories in places they love, because when we love a place, we notice things about it that make our writing deeper and richer.
Enger sets his stories in Minnesota or on the northern prairies of the Dakotas, in small towns and wayward outposts. He has an eagle’s eye for every gust of wind, flake of snow, and eccentric Midwestern character. His affection for the people, the landscape, and the wild waves of Lake Superior makes his books magic.
As I press in to my own writing, metaphors and themes, allusions and tones, replacing each good-enough word with the just-perfectly-right one, my job is to pause long enough to notice. Is the shade of blue I want robin’s egg or ice or columbine petal or sky or Tiffany? Was her hair spiky or tousled or frizzy or punk-rock? Does anyone besides my grandpa really say, “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn?” anymore?
My writing is interrupted often these days. I’m a part-time pastor and a parent to three small humans. The phone rings, the laundry spills out of the bin, the kids seem to need to eat every six minutes.
For the longest time I pushed back against these interruptions, banging out emails with one hand while breastfeeding, shoveling papers into backpacks while dictating a scene into my phone. Get it done, I told myself. Get it all done. Writing takes focus, after all, and in the throes of parenting focus can be as elusive as a full night’s sleep.
Walter Bruggemann wrote that life isn’t just a task to be accomplished, yet I found myself fighting for task in both my writing and my parenting. The pages were due, the kids needed to be shoveled into their car seats, the publisher was waiting, the school bell was always about to ring.
In my efforts to go fast, to press on, I was missing it all, and both the writing and the parenting suffered. Then I heard a variation on Leif’s words coming out of the mouth of a mommy friend of mine: “I try to notice one new thing about each of my kids every day,” she said. “It helps me love them better.”
I took her words to heart and suddenly these pestery kids keeping me from my writing became fascinating, beautiful, holy overnight. They were magic, these little people. Inconvenient and messy magic, to be sure, but magic nonetheless. My writing and my parenting began to find new footing, grounded in the particular love of seeing and being seen.
To notice is to love. To love is to notice. Both take slowing down, looking up, logging off. Both take time.
To be a writer is to be present to the world, translating experiences and beliefs and character and plot to a reader, putting them right there with us at the scene of the accident, the birth of the child, the holy hummingbird pausing at the honeysuckle for half a wing-beat before buzzing away. It’s one of its chief joys and challenges, for suddenly everything is folded into our craft—sudsing dishes, driving to work, waiting in line at the pharmacy, parenting.
As I’ve begun noticing my kids, I’ve noticed them noticing. Few things get past an inquisitive preschooler, and as I gaze at him he is teaching me to see anew. Rare is the shiny object the baby doesn’t fixate on, and as I watch her notice my earrings, my car keys, the way the light hits the vase on the table, I see them again for the first time. And when my precocious kindergartner, who already loves words as much as his daddy and I do, asks me to define blood-curdling or unearthly or sleuth (he’s big into The Hardy Boys these days), he teaches me again the power of a word to create a world.
And in the pauses created by a constant stream of interruptions, I have found my craft improving. I can’t force the right simile, but it might come to me on a field trip with my son, noticing for the first time the exact blue of his eyes isn’t denim or navy but blue like the ocean after a rainstorm.
While changing a diaper, I see the way my younger son’s hair curls above his ear, a golden lamb’s wool, and metaphor appears that I tuck away for later use. Nothing is wasted to a writer who will notice.
Whether you’re in the throes of young parenthood as I am or not, there are gifts in your life waiting to teach you how to see. The elderly neighbor, the goats on the farm, the coworkers in the break room, the pigeons on the back fence. The world is bright with horror and delight—will we notice?
Courtney Ellis is a pastor, speaker, and author of Uncluttered. You can read the first chapter of her new book, Almost Holy Mama, for free here. She Tweets too much, exercises too little, and lives with her husband and three kids in southern California. Find her at her blog—www.courtneybellis.com—on Facebook or Twitter.