How to Play Favorites

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I’ve often heard writers say that their books are like their children. Oh, how true that can be!

As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, “Your child and your work hold you hostage, suck you dry, ruin your sleep, mess with your head, treat you like dirt, and then you discover they’ve given you that gold nugget you were looking for all along.”

Everyone knows you’re not supposed to have a favorite child, but I’ve been thinking recently that playing favorites in a different way can actually be a good thing. After all, many professional writers will tell you that the secret to being a writer is to love writing. Similarly, I’d argue the secret to being a parent is to love your kids.

And the secret to loving either one might be picking out your favorite parts. 

1. Notice

First of all, remember that instead of having a favorite (singular), you’re looking for favorites (plural). The only catch is to pay attention and figure out what you love to love.

My kids and I often make an impromptu game of this when we go outside this time of year. “Ooh, Mom! Look! This flower is opening up!” or “The seeds are growing!” or “The vines are climbing so high!” I don’t remember how we started this tradition, but I’ve become so fond of it, and I hope that it’s teaching my kids to notice and appreciate nature.

For me as a parent, having the right attitude for this on a regular basis requires me to take deep breaths and stop and really look at my kids rather than impatiently rushing on to my next task (which I’m often guilty of).

This week, when I remembered to notice, I was treated with so many gold nuggets, like spying my six-year-old lying on his back, hands behind his head, elbows out, pondering the universe; catching the very first attempts at a clap our nine-month-old made before mastering the milestone; and seeing the three-year-old don every kind of amusing combination of spy glasses, pirate patch, pirate hat, crown, Home Depot apron-turned-cape, pirate hook, pirate sword, etc.

With writing, I try to find aspects I enjoy at every stage of the process. Right now I appreciate that the story is in place and that my characters are rounding out so nicely; I notice how fun it is to tweak sentences and add cool details. I watch to see what are my favorite aspects of each phase.

2. Enjoy

It’s one thing to say, “Oh, hey. Looks like the baby learned to clap,” and another to stop what you are doing and enjoy the moment.

One night as I was cooking dinner, Baby started doing a peculiar dance around the kitchen floor: crawl three feet, sit on bum, clap twice; crawl, sit, clap; crawl, sit, clap; over and over. It was hilarious, and the six-year-old and I were busting up laughing.

Making dinner can often be a stressful time, especially if I’ve got hunger-grumpy family members whining at me to hurry, but enjoying that moment with the kindergartener and the babe wiped out all the frustration of the dinner chore.

Enjoying favorites helps to keep me from feeling overwhelmed in writing, too. When I focus on how much better this one particular paragraph is getting and how much fun I’m having tweaking it, I’m not letting myself stress about the thousands of other paragraphs I still need to work on.

Maybe it’s the secret to living in the moment.

3. Remember

Earlier today, my three-year-old yelled at the six-year-old, “I DON’T APPROCERATE IT!”

This was in the middle of a heated argument between the two of them, but the strange word paused it all. The six-year-old and I looked at each other and then at the preschooler. “What?”

“I DON’T APPROCERATE IT!”

We couldn’t help laughing.

“You mean you don’t appreciate it?” I asked.

I happened to be working on this post at the time, and I typed “approcerate” onto the screen to help me remember. So often I’ll start to tell people, “Kids are hilarious! They’re always mixing up their words and doing the funniest things,” and then they’ll want an example, and most of the time I can’t think of one. How sad!

But more important than bragging rights is that remembering my favorite things cycles me back to noticing them more.

When I keep lists of my kids’ funny words, I listen for more words to add. When I remember how much I love the way my three-year-old dresses, I stop to look at him every time he comes up from the basement with another piece to his wardrobe ensemble. 

I remember that I love the eight-to-ten-months age with my babies, so now that I have a third one in that stage, I’m eating it up, enjoying those chubby thighs scoot scoot scooting his knees across the floor, those grabby hands reaching for everything so he can explore all five senses of his world (especially taste, whether dirt or Play Doh or toys or food), those wobbly legs that narrow to tiny feet struggling to balance as he pulls himself up on the nearest furniture.

And it’s the same when I get to certain stages of writing. I used to hate the first draft, but now that I’ve written two full manuscripts, I tell myself to remember the good things about a first draft, like the fun of piecing the story together as you go, not even knowing what the next scene will be until an idea for it lands in your head and you start typing.

By remembering that I enjoyed that process, I can look forward to doing it again and not feel so terrified by the blank page.

And then, there are the things that help you remember to remember, like writing. These lines from a poem I read years ago in The New Yorker remind me to watch for “the merry clap-clap” of my babies, enjoy it, and treasure the memory:

Two children astride me
in rumpled bed this A.M.,
and when she petted his
baby head, crooning a word
almost his name,
his eyes hooked her face,
his hands discovered applause
in halting pace:

clap (pause) clap clap!
Their mingled laughter,
the nickname again,
the merry clap-clap,
the jerking bright giggles

so free I dropped through time

(from “Dad, You Returned to Me This Morning” by Deborah Garrison)

I’m not perfect at this game of playing favorites, but when I do all three steps they make a huge difference for me. I love the things I notice, enjoy, and remember.

What have been your favorite parts of the past week/month/year/whatever? What are your favorite things about what you do? How do you notice, enjoy, and remember when you play favorites?

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