I need to confess something: this newsletter has been a real struggle for me to write. For the past several months my team and I had gotten into a good rhythm. We had mapped out the newsletter topics for the “10 Lessons in 10 Years” series. We had figured out a streamlined workflow. We had a schedule. But when I reached the midpoint, my motivation suddenly disappeared.
I don’t like admitting it—because it means I have “feelings” and don’t have things all figured out—but the past few months have been hard. Quarantine with two small kids and two working parents is no joke.
Not to mention that being stuck indoors all summer hasn’t exactly been oodles of fun. While I’m not a super outdoorsy person (my idea of “outdoors” is staying at a quaint BnB in the country) but I’ve always loved summers in NYC, where everything, from Coney Island to the Cloisters, is just a subway ride away. Our family has always been big on city adventures, and under normal circumstances we would be venturing to a different museum, zoo, or other fun activity every weekend. All of a sudden, it’s almost fall and the number of trips I’ve made outside my apartment since lockdown began is lower than my age.
Life in a Time of COVID
The thing that is so insidious with quarantine is how it sneaks up on you. I’ll admit it didn’t feel terribly oppressive at first. There was a novelty to it, like when I was a kid during Hurricane Gloria and we all slept huddled in sleeping bags on a hallway floor, the only part of the apartment far enough from windows.
Quarantine had that same campy feeling to it at first. The nerdlings were excited to create their own schedule. We introduced a token system where they could earn “gold doubloons” for their “pirate treasure chests” through various activities. They could later trade those in for screen time or other treats. Similarly, for me it was an unexpected treat getting to spend my breaks with lawyer-hubby, or having lunch with the kiddos.
Bit by bit, though, the novelty wore off, and as early spring rolled into late summer, things that first seemed quaint and fun slowly started to wear thin. It likely did not help that I continued working at a breakneck pace, with a full-on course rebuild in the spring and major behind-the-scenes website upgrade over the summer. And through all of this, I kept pushing myself harder and harder, because part of me was afraid that if I ever slowed down, the reality of the past few months would sink in. With everything that was happening around me, I had forgotten to honor my reality.
Honor Your Reality
This phrase has become something of a mantra at DIY MFA. It is embedded in the word nerd vernacular; it is part of the lingo. You’ll hear people saying it in our classes and in our Facebook community. “I was on a roll with my writing, but then quarantine happened and I had to honor my reality…” While honor your realty has always been a core philosophy at DIY MFA, it is even more relevant now in the midst of a pandemic, with lockdown and virtual work/school being the norm for so many of us.
While honor your reality is at the heart of DIY MFA pedagogy now, it was not always the case. It originated in 2014, when I was creating a new course and I wanted an acronym for building effective HABITS. I had all the other letters… except the “H” and after some brainstorming I landed on the phrase.
Yet just because it had a humble beginning doesn’t make honor your reality an afterthought. On the contrary, the unassuming nature of the phrase’s origin only serves to underscore its meaning. Reality isn’t always sexy and glamorous. It is often boring, repetitive, mundane.
The word “honor” is deliberate (even though it also conveniently provided the “H” for the acronym). It’s easy to honor something that’s grand and awe-inspiring. It is far more difficult to do so with the less-than-fabulous aspects of everyday life. Honor your reality is not an excuse or a “free pass” so you don’t have to do the work. On the contrary, it is an acknowledgement that we each have full, complex lives, and that to dismiss our non-writing commitments would be just as disingenuous as if we turned our backs on our creative work.
What Honoring Reality Means to Me
Last week, I was so burnt out and exhausted that I couldn’t string two coherent sentences together. It’s no surprise that I procrastinated on this newsletter for as long as I did; I literally couldn’t find the words because my brain was in full-on meltdown mode.
I knew I needed time away with my family, but the logistics seemed insurmountable. Thankfully, I’m married to a man who has far better sense than I do. While I was hemming and hawing and saying “yes, but…” he found a cute AirBnB farmhouse just a short drive from the city. We borrowed my parents’ car, packed up the kids, and here we are. I’ll admit, this vacation has been an adjustment for me—I’m not used to being around this much nature—but it’s refreshing to be in a place where we can walk around and play in the yard without masks, somewhere we don’t have to worry constantly about social distancing or whether we have enough hand sanitizer.
The nerdlings have been harvesting cherry tomatoes each day for our dinner salad. They’ve been feeding goats and playing with chickens. And occasionally (on the rare occasion when I let them have my phone) they make videos about plants and other cool things they’ve discovered at the farm. For my part, I’ve reconnected with my writing—and I don’t just mean with this newsletter. I’ve made a solid push on my super-secret writing project I’ve had going behind the scenes and I’ve also managed to sneak in some work on a fiction project, just for fun.
This situation might seem idyllic, but honoring reality also means acknowledging the parts that have been hard. It hasn’t been easy stepping away from work for this long. The last time I completely unplugged from DIY MFA was in 2016, and the business was much smaller and less complex. There is a part of me that still thinks of this business as my baby, my firstborn. (Okay, DIY MFA and Little Man are more like pseudo-twins because they happened at the same time.) And while it’s hard to let go, it is also an inevitable part of the development process. Just like a kid moving through grades at school, making new friends and meeting new teachers, a business also requires the input from more people as it grows.
Honoring my reality means recognizing that I have to share. It means that I serve our community best if I make myself as “expendable” as possible. It means I need to recruit team members and create systems so that I can step away from this work and take a vacation (even if I don’t want to). It also means having team members who aren’t afraid to tell me to “get off Slack—you’re on vacation” when temptation gets the better of me and I try to sneak a look at how the team is doing. (Spoiler Alert: They’re doing awesome. I really need to chill and be on vacation, but old habits die hard.)
Most importantly, honoring my reality means acknowledging that struggling to be on vacation is part of who I am. It’s also part of what makes me so good at my job. It means extending myself grace when I do slip up and check email on vacation. And it means continuing to try to do better.
As Lady Bug says: “There’s always tomorrow, Mommy, and there will always be more tomatoes.”
Gabriela Pereira is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education. As the founder and instigator of DIYMFA.com, her mission is to empower writers, artists and other creatives to take an entrepreneurial approach to their education and professional growth.
Gabriela earned her MFA in writing from The New School and speaks at college campuses and national conferences. She is also the host of DIY MFA Radio, a popular podcast where she interviews bestselling authors and book industry professionals and author of the book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community.