Discover more from Write More, Be Less Careful
"understand that there will be setbacks but also gifts"
a good creature interview with writer Sarah Wheeler about treating her ADHD like another dependent, keeping a rejection leaderboard, and paying attention to the conditions that support your creativity
Hello there! This is our second entry in a new section, good creatures, that will explore the intersection of caregiving and creative practice. I’m so excited to showcase people doing lots of kinds of caregiving—people caring for kids or pets or other family members and/or caring for space through gardening or community work or activism—and lots of kinds of creative work.
If you know (or are!) a good creature whose work we should feature, send me an email—you can just reply to this newsletter.
Today’s interview is with writer Sarah Wheeler, who I’ve gotten to know through the wonder of the internet.
Though I don’t know Sarah in person (yet!) her voice in her writing is so warm and so smart that she really feels to me like a friend and trusted guide. She writes about parenting, ADHD, child psychology and more. (Her response to Emily Oster’s whole deal, especially the focus on optimizing everything about your kid’s childhood really spoke to me when it was first published in August 2021, and it’s just as sharp on a re-read now.) One of the things I think Sarah does really well is explore ways we might parent and cohabit differently, like in this piece, I’m Pretty Sure Renting The Apartment Upstairs Saved My Marriage. I could go on and on, but for now I’ll share just one snippet, from a piece she wrote for The Cut, Moms Gone Wild:
But the only way to get through early motherhood appeared to be suppressing any and all of my own urges. I had absolutely no tools to heed my therapist’s warning. I was too busy making order out of the chaos I was experiencing as a new mom. I was a slave to the nap schedule and reading up on Janet Lansbury, determined to protect my children from future sociopathy by being the most responsive motherfucker on the playground.
Below, Sarah and I talk about how motherhood lent urgency to her writing practice and building creative community—and she shares a couple really fun playlists.
Who do you care for?
I have two children ages five and seven, about to be in the same, free, school and I can’t effin wait. I care for my husband, Jon, when I remember to, and thank my lucky stars (and lots of therapy for us both) that he also completely splits the caring of the kids with me in every way except styling them, which I insist I am in charge of. In a way, I feel like my ADHD is also another dependent. Sometimes I take good care of it, remembering to eat meals, putting a cool tracker on my keys, and developing mantras to combat my motivational swings, for example. Other times, I treat it with benign neglect.
What kind of creative work do you do?
I am a writer as well as being an educational psychologist. I write a very lazy but fun Substack, Momspreading, that I’ve done for over three years. I do freelance for a bunch of places and currently have an “anti-parenting-advice parenting-advice” column in Romper. When I remember to, I try to write weird stuff just for myself, or a spoof song for a friends birthday (ChatGPT really made that talent useless though).
What’s changed in your creative life since becoming a caregiver?
Everything. Before I was a caregiver (and let's be honest, like many women I have always been a caregiver, even before I had kids), I didn’t really have a creative life. I was always a creative kid and young adult, but then I got on a professional track and didn’t get off. Of course being an educator requires a great deal of creativity, but it wasn’t until attempting to recover from the shock of parenting, and particularly parenting in the pandemic, that I re-discovered writing. All of a sudden I had this urgency to get my experience down on paper, to connect to other people who were going through it. Then I realized, or maybe remembered, that I had a voice that resonated with some people, and that was enough to keep me writing.
I don’t know if I would be writing now, if I wasn’t a mother. I’m cautious of how damaging it can be to perpetuate the image of the selfless mom, but in reality I don’t think I would have done it for myself. But I think that recognizing that part of myself was something I felt more pressed to do in order to show up better for my children, and then I understood how meaningful it was for showing up for myself.
Is there someone who inspires you that both fosters a creative practice and is a care-giver?
In the pandemic, I started this weekly accountability group for creatives. Four other women showed up, all of whom are also mothers, and we’ve been inseparable ever since. We call ourselves “Ladies Making Shit.” Not everyone is a writer, which is actually quite fun, but we’re all absolute fanatics of one another’s work and being. At first, we were so desperate to talk about our art for just like one hour a week that we didn’t talk much about being caregivers. But then we let ourselves bring it into the conversation. It’s really critical for me to have a space where no creative success or failure is too small to share or witness in others. After reading this beautiful piece by Kim Liao, we started a tongue-and-cheek “leaderboard” for how many rejections we were each clocking (I’m currently in first place!). We once did this activity where everyone passed their journal around, and each person wrote an entry in it about what we felt that person’s strengths, talents, and offerings were. It was huge for me. Mostly I work alone, but I kind of always feel their presence with me, like four cute little shoulder angels being like “you are the shit.” People express wistfulness for a group of their own like this all the time, and I don’t really have any advice other than to kind of Field of Dreams it, and make the space and see what happens. But we got lucky, for sure. It was just kismet. I also have other creative-caregiver friends who are essential to me, like Courtney Martin, Garrett Bucks, and my sisters Mariam Gates and Kate Cortesi. And I make new ‘mom-writer’ friends every day on the internet (like you!). People are so eager to be generous, particularly women and caregivers. It’s a horrifying time to be a woman, in many ways, but I think we’ll look back on this time as the golden age of creative moms.
Is there something specific you do to jumpstart creativity?
It’s cliche, but inspiration is everywhere. I go out by myself every Thursday night, and I get a lot of juice just from talking to the bartender at my local bar, window shopping in my neighborhood, or going to the movies by myself (just saw the tremendous Past Lives, which has some great writer jokes in it). My creativity is also very mood dependent. I need ideas but also the enthusiasm and confidence to carry them out. I often try to get that going through music, very loud music. I made this playlist for my friend Courtney when she was in the final stretch of submitting a book draft, and I go back to it a lot and just, like play a few songs and dance to hype myself up before writing. I also watch the end credits dance sequence from the Will Smith rom-com Hitch, which I maintain is one of the best movies ever made, on the regular. Other than the fat-phobia, it fills me with deep joy.
What are some creative milestones you’re looking forward to? Or ones you “missed” due to the both/and aspects of your life?
I was never really trained in writing craft, and I have some esteem issues around it, as well as some very practical holes in my skill set. I feel kind of “late to the party” among all of these writers my age who actually know what they’re doing. I am almost automatic now at the formats I’m practiced in (personal essay, advice), but everything else, like some recent forays into more reported pieces, I am learning on the fly. I got a lot better at pitching through classes with Amber Petty, who is just the funniest and realest and smartest teacher. But I really struggle with revisions unless I have an editor (I’m lucky to work a ton with the rockstar writer and editor Meaghan O’Connell, who has helped me be a much better writer). [ed. note: I’ve worked with Meaghan, too, and she really is the best!] I’m currently taking an essay writing class with Theresa Okonon at Grubstreet, and I just got feedback on an essay that was politely rejected by half a dozen publications. I am absolutely terrified of sitting down and trying to improve it. My best friend in grad school once told me that she was jealous that I could crank out an assignment that was an A- with seemingly little effort, but I longed for her ability to take time with something and get the A+. I’m working on it.
What advice would you give someone who has a creative practice and is embarking on becoming a caregiver?
Don’t worry! Or, rather, understand that there will be setbacks but also gifts. If you’re neurodivergent, not good at routines, or find yourself unable to establish discipline while caregiving, it’s okay. Don’t feel inadequate if you can’t wake up every morning before your kid and do morning pages. And of course don’t believe the hype that the only other way to be a writer is to abandon your family and hide in the woods (although I do encourage doing this from time to time, I’m working on this too!). It can be enough just to pay attention to the conditions that support your creativity, and try to move towards more of them happening more of the time. Maybe it’s taking walks with nothing to listen to. Maybe it’s reading a lot. Maybe it’s just having rich conversations with other creative people. Then, when time or opportunities present themselves, you’ll be ready for them. Let yourself let your creative life get a little weird and unpredictable and see what happens. And find other creative caregivers, even if you feel anxious or embarrassed approaching people.
Sarah Wheeler is an Oakland-based writer and educational psychologist whose work has been published in The Cut, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, HuffPost, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Romper, and more. Her bi-weekly column, The Good Enough Parent, is published by Romper. She also writes the Substack Newsletter, Momspreading.
You can read more of her writing here or find out about her educational psychology practice here. You can find Sarah on instagram and on twitter. (And you’ll definitely want to subscribe to Momspreading!
Write More, Be Less Careful is a newsletter about why writing is hard & how to do it anyway. You can find my books here and read other recent writing here. If you’d like occasional dog photos, glimpses of my walks around town, and writing process snapshots, find me on instagram.
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