So my brother and I are hanging out with his 2-year old goddaughter a few weeks ago. She’s the kind of kid who, as he points out, smiles not just with her face, but with her whole body. At the moment, her smile is trained on a plush, kid-sized, easy chair. Which, she has just discovered, can be tipped upside down into a little triangle, so that it doubles as a soft-sided slide. She starts climbing up one side, then sliding down the other. And when she does this, we all clap for her. And then she claps for herself. Which gives all the adults that idiotic warm feeling inside.
Inevitably, the slide turns into a tumble. Instead of landing feet first, she rolls over and bonks her head. We all hold our breath while she takes the requisite 3-second pause to decide whether this fall is a good one or a bad one. Then, having determined it was bad, she takes in a huge breath, and bursts into tears.
Her mom and dad, in smooth, wordless agreement, immediately launch a play they’ve doubtless run several times before. Dad moves toward kid. Mom grabs paci and hands off to Dad. Dad swoops up kid, pops paci in mouth, and gives her a kiss. It’s a gorgeous display of parental teamwork. But the best part is what happens next.
The kid’s wailing, but Dad doesn’t fawn. He can see she’s alright, so he doesn’t need to say so. He doesn’t ask where the boo boo is, or whether or not she wants a bandaid. He rubs her back. And in a voice like honey, he asks her, “Did you fall?”
Kid nods her head, teardrops as big as she is welling out of her eyes. “And what do we do when we fall?” Dad asks her. She’s still crying, and can’t recall, so Dad reminds her: “When we fall,” he says, “we get back up.”
Now, I don’t know anything about child development. But I know what it looks like when someone is hearing an idea that’s changing their life. I don’t mean in the I’m-a-totally-different-person kind of way. I mean in the, O-hey-there’s-a-totally-different-way-I-could-go-through-this-moment kind of way. That little girl has that look in her eye.
She’s still crying, but she’s no longer wailing. Instead, she’s listening to her dad. Her breathing slows down. So does the river of tears. Then he asks her again: “What do we we do when we fall?” The tears are still welling up, but now she wipes them away. She takes in a breath—does that double hiccup thing kids do. Then, barely audible through the barrier of the paci, she says,
A minute later, she’s out of his arms. The makeshift slide has been pushed aside, and she’s tearing around the room. The smile's back in her body. No big deal. Happens all the time. But for days afterward, that scene kept popping up in my head. And here’s why.
That little kid is like a lot of scholars, especially junior folks, the ones who are still new to the profession. They’re bright. They’re curious. They’re delighted to turn things upside down and see what new things they can do with them. It’s not just one of the funnest things they can do. It’s kinda how they go through life, constantly cocking things up at weird angles and getting lost in the exploration of what could happen next.
At first, when we do this, it’s all fun and games. The people whose opinions matter to us seem to like it, and they clap for us. Which intensifies our own pleasure in the act, so that we then clap for ourselves.
Then, inevitably, we fall down. We get tangled up going down the slide and we hit our heads. Sometimes when other people are watching. And you know what? That shit hurts. This, my loves, is writing. It can’t be avoided.
But one of the most infuriating things about academia is that it rarely creates the structures that help scholars figure out what to do when we fall down in our writing. If we’re lucky we have an advisor, or a cohort, or a group of grad school friends who teach us what to do. Much of the time though, we walk around alone with bumps on our heads. And suddenly that idea we turned upside down doesn’t look like fun anymore.
It looks dangerous.
When I watched that kid with her dad, it seemed to me that they embodied all the things writers need to do when we fall down. They went through a series of steps that often elude us when our article’s been rejected; or we’ve missed a deadline; or we’ve skipped three writing days in a row.
These are moments that can seriously derail us, making it harder to jump back into work, even when we really need or want to. Here's what her response suggests about how to handle the inevitable ups and downs of writing:
1. Pause and feel your feelings. You know how kids do. There’s that moment, after they’ve fallen down, when they check in with themselves. You can almost see them patting down their sensory pockets, checking to see if they remembered to put their pain in the front right, or happened to stuff it in the back. It’s equally important for writers to check ourselves in this way. Because it’s the feelings we have about writing, not so much the tasks we’re engaged in, that trip us up. Taking a moment to fully admit to yourself how you feel—and how intensely you feel it—is necessary if you want to figure out what your next steps should be.
2. Connect with your supporters. This kid is lucky because she’s constantly surrounded by people who strive to make every moment a supportive learning experience. It was her family that helped her figure out an alternative to her crocodile tears. Similarly, when we make a mistake, when we fall short of what we’d wanted to do or be, it helps when we can communicate with people who have our best interests at heart. They help us see the truth of what’s really happening. They can tell you if your work’s really shit, and if so how to fix it. They can also tell you when you need to face your fears and hit send. In short, connecting with your community validates your feelings at the same time that it protects you from their intensity. By doing so, they help you see both the problem and the solution more clearly.
3. Find a kind reminder. My guess is that part of the reason the idea of getting back up was so powerful for this kid was because she wasn’t hearing it for the first time. Her dad was repeating something he’d said before. He knew it worked. She knew it worked. But she couldn’t move forward without being reminded of that fact. Writing is the same way. The moment we hit a crisis point is not the time to be coming up with strategies—we need to know what our emergency procedures are before they’re needed. Then, when stuff goes sideways, we’re not trying to create something new. Instead we’re focused on recalling the solutions we know will work for us.
It’s worth considering what this little girl didn’t do. She didn’t say to herself, sheesh, what an idiot I am. I never should have gotten on the back of my plushy chair. Only a fool would do something like that. What’s wrong with me?!?
I’m not saying she isn’t impacted by her failures. In fact, earlier that week, she’d accidentally ridden her trike down a flight of stairs and taken a fall that stopped the hearts of every adult in the room. She was, miraculously, just fine. But when her dad tried to tempt her toward said trike, she wasn’t having it. She got a little crease in her brow, told him, “I fall,” and turned decisively toward another toy. Clearly, she was not ready to get back on the horse. But she didn’t say “I fool. I idiot.” Her choice about what made sense didn’t require self-flagellation.
What do you do when you fall? Do you muscle through, trying to pretend it doesn’t hurt? Do you isolate yourself from your support networks? Or do you sit in your feelings, reach out to your squad, and lean into what you’ve learned over time will work for you?
Being a scholar and a writer means that you are constantly exploring. Constantly risking. Constantly falling down. You don’t need to avoid it. You just need to have a “back up” plan. Something that reminds you how to smile—with your whole body—so you can go back to turning things on their head, to see what happens next.