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3 Lessons About the Creative Process (As Learned From My Toddler)

One of the greatest gifts of parenthood — and perhaps one of the greatest tricks — is that as much as you are teaching and guiding your kids, so too are they teaching and guiding you.

Even though my daughter doesn’t yet comprehend what I do, she has been an invaluable source of inspiration, and education, for my writing. Here are 3 of the biggest lessons — on process, craft, and creativity in general — that I’ve learned from her during our not-quite-3-years together.

1. Have Fun, Be Fearless

I love playing Legos with my daughter. She has no sense of “right” or “wrong” when creating. She just snaps pieces together, following whatever whim strikes her in that moment. All different shapes, sizes, colors…

Everything is possible, and nothing is impossible.

We imagine, build, pretend, destroy, build again.

Nothing is too precious to take apart and use in a new way.

She riffs on things she has seen.

She makes up things she’s never heard of.

It doesn’t have to be logical, it just has to be fun.

There is a purity to her process — or lack thereof — that I envy. For the most part, she does not judge her work or herself. And on the rare occasion that she does get frustrated or disappointed, I am there to remind her: It’s OK not to be good at something right away, to make a mistake. That’s part of the learning process. Whenever you try something new, you will inevitably fail in some way, at some point. But the more you try, the better you will grow.

Sometimes I don’t know if I’m talking more to her or to myself.

2. Time Is Precious, Guilt Is Poison

I’m a champion procrastinator, bad at estimating how long things will take me to do, and also the type of writer who needs at least 20 minutes to really sink into my work. This is not a great combination under any circumstances — especially with the internet available as a constant distraction — but for parents in particular, getting 20 or more minutes of uninterrupted time can feel as impossible as a catching a unicorn.

The superhero parents make their scraps of time work anyway. Mothers scribbling stories in spiral-bound notebooks as they sit through soccer practice. Fathers tapping out novels on their phones during the daily commute to and from the office.

Some days, I’m one of them, because I have to be. I dictate a few quick lines of dialogue into my phone at a red light. I jot notes for a scene on the back of a receipt. I stay up later than I should, trading how I’m going to feel in the morning for a few hundred words in my manuscript.

But more often, I just let go. In a healthy way. I don’t force myself to write, because I know the writing can wait. The stories aren’t going to expire or evaporate.

(Although if they do, that’s OK too. There will be other stories. There are always more stories.)

Whereas my daughter — and my due-literally-any-second-now son — will not wait. Kids may not expire or evaporate either, but they cannot stop needing, growing, changing, becoming. They cannot be put on hold the same way a story can.

(Note: I don’t mean to be parent-exclusive. This is true not just of children, but also many other aspects of non-writing life.)

My favorite days are the ones where I don’t have to make a choice, the days when there is room for both writing and family. I feel balanced. Fulfilled in two different spheres of my soul.

But what I’ve learned is that, when I do have to choose, one choice isn’t inherently better than the other, so there is no point feeling guilty. Whether I’m neglecting my work-in-progress to blow bubbles with my daughter, or I’m late to pick her up from school because I was finishing a scene. Writing and family are both valid uses of my time. Writing and family are both valid parts of me.

3. Treasure the Trash

Sometimes my daughter and I paint on blank canvas boards. I help her set up the paints, the brushes, the cup of water for cleaning between strokes. She chooses which colors to use, where to put them, whether to dab or blob, streak or smear, mix or not.

When we are done, we have more than one work of art. There is what she did on the canvas, and then there is everything else. The splatters of paint and water on the paper I put down to protect the table. The rainbow of smudges on the napkin I used to dry the brushes. The conversation between us, her frowns of concentration and consideration, our laughter.

In general, people tend to focus on the end result. Where are we going, not how are we getting there. What will we have, not how are we making it.

But these days, I’m getting better at remembering to admire the beauty of the process. To appreciate the value of the parts that get left out.

If you’re a parent, what have you learned from your child/ren? If you’re not a parent, is there something else that helps you tap into a child-like joy in the creative process? 

About Kristan Hoffman [1]

Originally from Houston, TX, Kristan Hoffman [2] studied creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University and later attended the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Now she lives with her family in Cincinnati, OH, where she writes both fiction and nonfiction with a focus on feminist, multicultural stories. Her words have appeared in the New York Times, Switchback, and the Citron Review, among others. She is currently at work on a Young Adult novel, and is represented by Tina Dubois of ICM. For more, please visit her website [3].