never put all your cookies out on the table: a lesson on limits

mmmm, cookies (public domain from wikimedia)

Yesterday, I was talking to a dear friend and fellow mother about kids and modern parenting. Specifically, we talked about limits, and how important limits are to our sanity as mothers. The conversation began in a museum cafe where my friend was buying sandwiches for her family’s lunch. One of her daughters was with her, and when she asked her daughter what kind of sandwich she wanted, the daughter said, “I don’t want a sandwich.” My friend replied, “We’re having sandwiches today. What kind would you like?” despite the fact that there were many, many other options available in the cafe — tacos, soups, hot entrees, salads, etc. This is the kind of limit setting that can save your sanity as a parent. Yes, in theory, there were many other options in the cafe, but without the limit set by my friend, we might have been in the cafe for 20 minutes before said daughter could decide what she wanted.

My friend went on to tell a story about at time when she had another friend and that friend’s children over to her house to visit. At some point, the mothers put cookies out on the table. Not really thinking anything of it, they put out the whole box — assuming, as reasonable adults would, that the kids would each have one or two, and then move along. As the moms talked, the kids came in and out grabbing cookies, and before the moms realized it, all the cookies were gone. They looked at each other and coined a witty, new parenting maxim: Never put all your cookies out on the table.

To that, I say, Amen.

And today, while I was talking process with some poetry friends, I realized the same is true for poetry. In particular, we were talking about how we organize our work as poets. I mentioned that, at the beginning of each week, I go through my (very thick) “drafts” and “active revision” folders, and pull out a few poems I want to focus on revising that week. I put them in a (much thinner) “revision – this week” folder. I’ve learned that when I try to decide what to work on by staring at the 3-inch stack of active revision poems, I get overwhelmed, don’t know where to start, so put off starting at all. Pulling a few out of the file cabinet and putting them into a slim folder near my desk (thereby setting a limit) removes the emotional obstacle of feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of poems that need revision, and I’m much more likely to move forward quickly and productively with those few poems.

For submissions, I do something similar: I create packets of 5 poems that I think play well together and these are my starting places for deciding what I’ll send out to a journal. I almost never use the packets just as they are — perhaps the journal wants 6 to 8 poems, or maybe I think one or two of them aren’t quite right for a given journal so I swap them out. But having the packets ready-made means I don’t have to stare at a thick stack of “done for now” poems and decide which 5, from all those poems, I’m going to send out to Journal X.

The same goes for drafting: limits are key. If I just opened up my notebook and stared at the blank page, I might stare all morning. Instead I pull words in from wordbanks I’ve created. I map out a poem I’ve read recently and decide to use its structure in my draft (more on mapping poems here). I decide to use a phrase that’s been resonating in my head as a working title and include 3 objects in the draft. Setting limits (or, another word might be constraints) on the work actually squeezes out a draft. There is no blank page to stare at; the limits are a small box on the page, ready, set, go!

Limits, Reader, limits! They are your friends! Parents, poets, artists, teachers, pet owners, everyone — join me in harnessing the power of limits! Remember the lilac tree that flowers better after pruning. Put limits to work in your life and see what grows!

In just a few minutes, I’ll be setting some more limits.

Me: “For snack you may have yogurt and fruit, or popcorn and fruit.”
Them: “But Mooooooommmmmmmm, I want a bagel!”
Me: “For snack you may have yogurt and fruit, or popcorn and fruit.”
Them: But Moooooommmmmm why can’t I have a bagel?
Me: “For snack you may have yogurt and fruit, or popcorn and fruit.”


And remember, Reader, never, never put all your cookies out on the table. Save at least a few for yourself ;).

4 thoughts on “never put all your cookies out on the table: a lesson on limits

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