How to Become a Writer: A Post to My Younger Self

I frequently get emails from aspiring writers, bloggers and authors. They tell me that they’ve always wanted to be writers. They ask, “Do you have any advice?” That question often causes all of my thoughts to vaporize from my brain. After all it’s quite difficult to compress four years of J School and nearly 20 years experience into one short email. Usually I write something like, “Just keep trying. Never stop learning. Good luck!” I imagine people get those emails from me and think, “Gee, thanks for nothing.”

I want to be more helpful than that, so I wrote this post so I can refer aspiring writers to it when they ask me for advice. The post contains all of the things I wish I had known when I was just starting out in all of the following fields: newspapers, books, magazines and freelance.

  1. In the beginning, you will be filled with ambition. You will want your words to change the world, win awards, and gain you much recognition. Your elder peers will tell you that most people lack the maturity and life experience to write anything other than drivel for at least a decade. You will become angry and set out to prove these people wrong. You will believe that you alone can be the exception to this rule. Ten or so years later when you are finally writing words that move people, you will realize that your elder peers were right and you will be humbled.
  2. Read—a lot.
  3. Study the craft of other writers. Never stop studying the craft of other writers.
  4. Stop looking for short cuts to becoming a better writer. You become better by writing and by reading good writing. There is no substitute for either.
  5. You will find that most professional writers are irritated by the question, “Do you have any advice?” If you ask enough professional writers this question, you will likely hear one or more of them sarcastically say something like, “Gee, I’ve always wanted to be a brain surgeon. Do you have any advice?” It’s for this reason that you should ask very specific questions like, “I have this piece that I can’t place anywhere. Here are all of the outlets I’ve tried. Do you have any suggestions?”
  6. Never stop learning. Go to conferences. Read blogs about writing. Buy and read books about writing. Attend lectures about writing.
  7. Just when you think you’ve mastered technology, it will change. If you fail to embrace this, you will end up in therapy.
  8. It would be nice if you could just do the one thing you love and are good at. In reality, you will spend a good portion of your time marketing yourself, asking people to pay you, doing accounting, networking, and pitching story ideas to editors. Accept it as part of the job or you will end up in therapy.
  9. Help other writers whenever possible.
  10. If you want people to read and respond to your words, write for the reader and not for yourself. Words are not about what you want to say. They are about what other people want to read.
  11. Before you become a writer, you will think that the title of “writer” is glamorous. It’s only after you become one that you will realize that most of society thinks of writers as people who goof off and drink coffee all day long. As a result, they will ask you to watch their children during the day, to walk their dogs, and to go shopping with them—because they assume you don’t have anything better to do.
  12. You don’t have to write about Pulitzer worthy topics to change the world with your words. You can change the world by writing about people who rarely receive attention and recognition. You can change the world one person at a time by being kind and compassionate with every editor you deal with. And you can do it by changing the lives of your readers: helping them to become healthier, happier, smarter, more relaxed, and more motivated to help their fellow humans in need.
  13. You will suffer from writer envy. You will envy other writers for their Amazon sales ranks, book deals, awards, magazine placements, titles and even for their friends. If you fixate on how they don’t deserve what they have, you will only create unnecessary misery for yourself. Rejoice in the good fortune of other writers. It will open up the creative energy you need to create similar good fortune in your own career.
  14. You will get rejected – a lot. This does not mean that you suck, should change careers, or don’t have what it takes. Every famous writer you can think of has been rejected many, many times.
  15. Your writing will be criticized—a lot. It will be criticized by readers who wish you’d written something else. It will be described as “stilted” “unimaginative” “disappointing” and “nothing new” by reviewers. It will be torn apart by wanna-be and aspiring writers who envy you. And it will be ripped to shreds by various editors. If you embrace the criticism and learn from it, your writing will improve. If you ignore it and rail against it, your writing won’t mature and you will end up in therapy.
  16. There will be times when you will be convinced that you are washed up, have no more good ideas, and should never have become a writer in the first place. It’s almost certain that you feel this way because you haven’t been getting enough sleep or because you have PMS—or both.
  17. It’s okay to use passive voice as long as you are doing it for a good reason.
  18. The best cure for writer’s block is a mortgage. If that doesn’t work, try taking a nap or a walk.
  19. If you want to make a living as a writer, then learn two important skills: 1) How to write about any topic, even topics you know nothing about 2) How to write about the same topic over and over again. You will do both in your career.
  20. When interviewing people, shorten the wind up and get to the questions faster.
  21. When interviewing people, stop talking about yourself so much. Ask questions. Listen. Ask more questions.
  22. You will make mistakes. When you do, apologize.
  23. Lots of people will help you advance in your career. Thank them.
  24. Deadlines are important. If you are going to miss one, let your editor know.
  25. You will spend your career dreaming that some day you will write the perfect piece—the one that requires not one change by an editor. This is a nice pipe dream, one that most writers share but few ever experience in real life. After all, editors edit. That’s their nature.
  26. There will be a few people who believe in you. There will be many who don’t. Learn how to believe in yourself.
  27. No award or accomplishment will ever give you the satisfaction of a thank you letter from a reader whose life your words changed for the better.
  28. You will spend many years wondering when you will “make it.” One day you will know you have must have made it at some point because you no longer wonder about when it will happen.
  29. If you want to get hired again, find out what your editor wants and then write it. If you don’t want to get hired again, write what you think your editor should want.
  30. Start with the big picture and slowly work your way to the small. Nail down the outline, then fill in the information, then add the rich voice and funny turns of phrases. Finally get the spelling and grammar down.
  31. Early in your career you will worry that someone will discover your weakness and broadcast to the world that you are a terrible speller. Later in your career, you will tell people, “I’m a terrible speller” and it won’t phase you because you will know that you are a great idea person.
  32. There will be times when you show your writing to friends and family and notice that they don’t really care. At first this will anger you. It’s important to remind yourself of two things. 1) They are not your audience. 2) How would you feel if they offered to take you with them to work for a day so they could show you what they do for a living?
  33. There will be many times during your career when you will consider becoming something else. Eventually you will realize that there is nothing you would rather do than write.

 What do you wish you could tell your younger self? It can be about writing, about your career, about relationships or about life in general?

A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of The 7 Day Slim Down and Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Story of Alisa, Part 5

21 Lessons I’ve Learned From Blogging

During my first year of blogging, I learned many things about writing, blogging, and life. In no particular order, they are as follows:

  • If you make fun of yourself, people will laugh and feel a kinship with you. If you make fun of others, people might laugh, but that will come at the cost of losing your friends and becoming the least loved person in your family.
  • Sometimes all the inspiration in the world can’t turn a thought into something that’s worth publishing. The process of trying to turn it into something worthy of publishing isn’t a waste, though. All writing – even bad writing – is a practice and a warmup for better writing.
  • The topics that I almost don’t write (no one wants to know about this, this is going to offend some people, I can’t believe I’m willing to talk about this) usually end up being my most popular posts. This might be true for your writing, too.
  • Have the courage to be controversial. Strong convictions, points of view and voice are what make one blog stand out from the millions of other blogs on the Internet.
  • To write with a strong voice, you need to do two things. First, have the courage to be you. Second, read your writing out loud. That’s the only way you can hear whether or not your voice is truly in your writing. I read every blog out loud before I post it. It not only helps me to Voice It Up, but it also helps me to catch typos.
  • There are people whose have made it their goal in life to make other bloggers feel sad. Ignore these people. Their anger says a lot more about them than it says about you and your writing. If your writing attracts trolls? You are doing something right. You are Troll Worthy.
  • Occasionally you will accidentally offend people with your writing. Even if no normal person would have ever misunderstood your point, it’s better to apologize in the comments area or write a formal blog apology.
  • In every post, make it your goal to lift people up and help them improve their lives. Do not spread ill will. Although that tactic does work for a few, it doesn’t work for most, and it’s bad for your Karma.
  • Every post should accomplish a goal: to help, to teach, to inspire, to entertain, to provide comic relief, and so on. If the post serves no purpose? It’s probably not worth posting.
  • There are many ways to promote your blog and find readers. The three tactics that have worked best for me: guest blogging, writing controversial list posts for social media promotions, and publicity. Most bloggers forget about the third. Getting quoted on a news site or high profile blog can bring you thousands of visitors in a day.
  • You can overcome a fear of public speaking, especially if you are passionate about what you are talking about. Speaking about what you blog about is another powerful way to promote your blog—and get paid in the process.
  • Writing in your own voice can induce a state of bliss that is more powerful than any street drug or trust fund—even if you never earn money for this writing.
  • When you first start blogging, you’ll hear many stories about people who monetized their blogs quickly. The went from zero visitors to a million in one year and no income to 6 figures in the same amount of time. These people are exceptions to the rule. If you try to reach the same goals in the same amount of time, you’ll end up in a mental health hospital. In reality, it takes the rest of us a long time to earn money for this type of writing.
  • Don’t get attached to having a certain number of web visitors, comments or subscribers. As long as these numbers are consistently growing—even if just by a little bit—you are doing something right.
  • Whenever you are feeling down about your traffic or comments, say something about feeling down in your Facebook status update. Your Facebook friends will make you feel loved and appreciated again.
  • Sometimes no one will comment on a blog post and it will make you feel like no one is reading. That’s not necessarily the case. It might mean that no one feels comfortable leaving a comment about that topic.
  • Store all of the nice emails your readers send to you in a folder. Read them whenever you feel like quitting.
  • Never stop learning. You can always get better.
  • It’s really okay to talk about your sex life and other intimate details, as long as you are sharing these details for a reason. It makes other people feel normal about their intimate details.
  • Connect with other bloggers. When you feel unloved and alone, they will come to your rescue.
  • Help others with your writing. It gives you a life purpose, which generates a wealth of inner peace and happiness.
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The Story of Alisa, Part 4

Words started coming to me. I would be walking down the street in New York, pass a pregnant homeless woman, not give her money, walk another block, hear a gay rights activist ask me for money, write a check to said activist, and think, “I should write about this.” So I would.

I would get in a huge fight with my husband and think, “I should write about this.” And I would.

I would wake up at 3 a.m. with words in my head. I would move them around and put them together until I was wide awake. Then I would turn on my computer, write them all down, and go back to bed.

Most of the things I wrote had no point whatsoever. They were writing for writing’s sake. I had no idea what to do with them or where to go with them. I only knew one thing—the process of it all gave me more joy than anything.

One day, however, I was walking my dog and I was thinking about the type of warped individual who would plan her very healthy husband’s funeral down to the lamb-on-a-stick she would serve the mourners. And then, just like that, the following words came to me, “I knew something was terribly wrong with my marriage when I planned my husband’s funeral.”

When I got back to the house, I wrote that sentence. Then I wrote a bunch of other words after it. I’m sure I should have been working on something else, no doubt something health or diet related, something that I was actually getting paid to write. But I could not stop myself. Before the words stopped, I had an entire chapter.

A few months later, I had 100,000 words.

As I edited—adding more words and deleting close to 60,000 others—I still had that sense that something was in me trying to get out. I decided to start a blog, too. I worried, though, about having enough material. Would I, after a month or so, sit in front of my computer and say, “That’s it. Nothing else to say. Done with this. Blog fail.”

So I carried a yellow legal pad around with me and jotted down one possible blog topic after another. And then I wrote something like 10 blog entries, just to see if I had it in me. Since I wrote all 10 in the same day? I figured I did.

I started this blog.

No one read it at first. Well, let me rephrase that. No one except for my mother, my brother, a few friends, and my literary agent.

But that changed. I had 60 monthly readers for a while. I imagined that they all knew me in some way. They’d worked with me. They’d gone to high school with me. They read my blog because they felt sorry for me.

That sort of thing.

Then, one day, I was looking at Google Analytics and I noticed something strange. I had readers in India. And Pakistan. And in Australia. And a lot of other places where I wouldn’t expect people to be reading my blog because no one could possibly know me there.

My monthly numbers climbed to 200 and then 500 and then 1000 and then 7000. I stagnated there for a while. That was a bad time. I became obsessed with my web traffic. I became depressed about my web traffic. I became demoralized about my web traffic.

I decided that I sucked, was the world’s worst excuse for a blogger, and nobody loved me.

Then an editor found my blog, loved my writing style, and offered me a job as a relationships editor at a large women’s website. Then the recession took place. The website lost its funding and I lost my cool little blogging job.

I felt a sense of impending doom. I was sure I was about to become a big public failure.

That was pretty scary.

I wallowed in doom for about a month.

Then the blog traffic started improving, by a lot. It went to 10,000 then 12,000 then 15,000 and up and up and up. People started emailing me, telling me how much I was helping them. I got emails that said:

“For years I have been trying to find someone that would understand me and I came across your blog and I said to myself, ‘OMG, this is me!’”


“I laughed and laughed when I read your blog. OMG, I had to read it to my husband. I just love the humor in your writing style. I too LOVE to write and your writing style and accomplishments are very inspiring to me.”


“Your site has brought me a sense of calm to know that I am not the only one who feels the way I do and has/is experiencing the same challenges I find myself experiencing. I enjoy your humor, being a jersey born gal…sarcasm is in my blood and I’m also quite blunt and direct in my views and in expressing myself.  Sometimes when I read your blogs I’m like, ‘OMG, that is EXACTLY what I think!’”

I saved them all in a file on my computer that I called “Feel Good,” and promised to read them whenever I felt like I was a failure.

The traffic and feedback gave me the courage I needed to try to find a publisher for my book. And when I still didn’t have the courage to do that, my literary agent kicked me in the ass (very gently of course) and told me to get over it. So I did. He sent out a proposal. People liked it. I met with various editors. Running Press agreed to publish it in 2011.

And then really strange things started to happen. One day I got an email from a magazine writer, asking me if I cared to share my best sex tips with her readers. Another day someone from wanted to know my take on Jon and Kate’s marriage. Yet another day a writer from wanted to know why I thought marriage was not obsolete. That was incredible. Just awesome incredible.

The past year of blogging has allowed me to earn a reputation as a writer who can make people laugh and feel normal. It’s helped me become a relationships expert who offers advice from the trenches. It’s allowed me to develop my voice and find that unique take on life that only I have.

It has allowed me to very publicly have the courage to be me.

I finally know that I am a writer—a real writer—one who can change people’s lives with the words I put on the page. That’s a phenomenal feeling.

If I pass on nothing else from taking the time to write this life story, I hope I can at least pass on this advice. Do what you most enjoy in life, even if it won’t make you rich. Do it for the process, even if no one understands why you enjoy it so. Do it for the joy of it, even if it brings you no recognition or fame. Do it for yourself, even if no one else thinks you are good at it.

Do it because you have no other choice, because not doing it would make you feel dead inside.

There’s nothing stopping you from living the life you love. But you.

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The Story of Alisa, Part 2

What I should have been when I grew up

When I was in 5th grade, I wrote a series of book reports for extra credit. My English teacher gave me a C- on each and every one of them. When I asked her why she had not given me the A+s that I’d become accustomed to getting, she said, “I gave you a C- because you can’t write.”

Well, if you read Part 1 of The Story of Alisa, then you know that I was not your usual kid. Your usual kid might have been a little disappointed. Your usual kid might have said, “So I can’t write. But I’m good at math and history! And what President has ever needed writing skills anyway? That’s what speech writers and ghost writers are for!”

I wasn’t that kid. I was the kind of kid who, when a person tells her she can’t do something, becomes downright determined to prove that person wrong. Because, after all, that person IS INDEED WRONG. I was brilliant. Even my grandmother thought so.

So, on that day, I decided to become a writer. That would show Mrs. C.

Then in 7th grade I took an aptitude test. I was sure that the test would reveal just one thing. It was this: I destined was to become America’s next great Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.

But that’s not what the test found. No, according to this aptitude test? I had great aptitude to become a mail carrier.

Now that I had to prove Mrs. C and the aptitude test wrong? A career in writing was almost inevitable.

Plus, it must be said that some member of my family who was very loosely related to me had worked as an editor of some sort at a publishing house somewhere in New York. As far as I was concerned, a career in writing was in my blood.

So, in high school, I started writing for the school paper. That, don’t you know, I won a Scripps Howard Journalism Scholarship to Penn State. I was really proud of that fact.

Penn State decided that I was not smart enough to enter as an honors student or start during fall semester with the other really smart kids. I had to start during summer session, with the kids who were deemed not quite as smart. The admissions people apparently had never had lunch with my grandmother or aunt. If they had? They would have accepted me for fall semester because they would have known about my brilliance.

I now also had to prove to Penn State that I was smart enough to be an honors student.

When my journalism teacher gave me an F on my first assignment? I called my mother at 5 a.m. and cried my heart out, telling her that I sucked, was fat and was going to drop out of school. She sent me flowers and told me she loved me.

After I finished crying, I realized that dropping out of school would mean that Mrs. C was right. It would also mean that I did not have what it took to be an honors student, and that Penn State probably shouldn’t have accepted me at all.

If I’d dropped out of school, I also would have had to pay back my scholarship, because, it would have meant that another kid deserved it more than I did.

I pulled myself together and pledged to not only become an honors student, but also convince Professor Johnson that I deserved to pass her class.

I got an A. Professor Johnson went on to mentor me and become one of my most favorite people of all time.

I became an honors student.

I got a job at the Writing Center as a writing tutor. I helped some of Penn State’s football players pass their writing comp classes.

I became a reporter and then an editor at the student run newspaper. I met some of the coolest and most talented students at the Collegian–students who were better writers and reporters than I was. Even my grandmother would have agreed. They awed me every day.

Along the way, I also did the following: perfected the art of the keg stand, swallowed a goldfish while it was still alive, did shots of all sorts of varieties of alcohol, painted my face blue and white, threw marshmallows at my fellow students, spent a lot of time thinking about whether or not the library was haunted by the student who’d been murdered in the library’s stacks years before, and overslept my 8 o’clock classes. This was all a normal part of Penn State life.

Despite all of that, I graduated with a really ass-kicking GPA was invited into Phi Beta Kappa.

Now I’m going to give you a Cliffs Notes version of my career, because 1) it seems only fitting since I just told you about college life and Cliffs Notes are a big part of college life 2) I can’t think of much of anything interesting to say about the various jobs I’ve held other than the fact that I held them. So here goes:

  1. I got a job as a newspaper reporter.
  2. I really didn’t like knocking on doors and asking grieving parents for photos of their dead children, so I quit after three years and, instead, got a job working as a staff writer at a publishing house. While there, I bought my first home computer. It was a used 386 PC that the company was getting rid of. Another highlight from these years: I met my husband.
  3. I got bored writing A to Z health encyclopedias, so I quit that job and instead started working as an editor at Runner’s World. While there, I ran three marathons. Another highlight from these years: I married my husband.
  4. Eventually, I realized I could make more money as an independent contractor, so I quit that job and went freelance. I doubled my salary that first year. I now support my family with my income.

As a freelancer, I ghost wrote 7 NY Times best sellers and got published in Better Homes & Gardens, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, Prevention, Yoga Journal and more.

Mrs. C? Soooo wrong. So, so wrong.

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The Story of Alisa, Part 1

As far back as I can remember, I saw my life from afar, as if it were a movie that I was watching. I could even hear the music as the camera faded in on my life.

As a young child, I was telling stories, writing them down, and illustrating them.

And I was reading—book after book after book.

And I was learning new words. I loved words.

And I was setting up a little table and sitting behind it and pretending to be a newscaster on television.

But I didn’t want to be a writer of books or movies or of the daily news. No, I wanted to be either a brain surgeon or President of the United States because those pursuits would impress my mother and make her love me more than my brothers. Note: This quest—to get my mother to love me more than she loved my brothers–was a competition created by my own warped mind. My parents always, without fail, said they loved us equally. I choose not to believe them.

This brings me to a huge segue because, to understand why I had a warped mind, you must know a bit about the line of people who came before me.

You see, I inherited this little gene that makes me special. It’s a gene that seemingly makes people brilliant and creative, but also somewhat neurotic, in a very endearing way, of course. This little gene has been passed down from one generation to another. Among other things, it seems to cause the following:

  • Insomnia: I get all sorts of important things done at 3 and 4 a.m., whether it’s updating my status on Facebook or cleaning out the junk drawer in the kitchen.
  • Catastrophic worry: I have a headache; It might be a brain tumor! What’s the noise? There must be a serial killer hiding in the closet!
  • Delusions of Grandeur: I won’t just become a writer; I’ll become a writer who wins a Pulitzer. I won’t just write a book; I’ll write a NY Times bestseller. I won’t just get on TV to promote my book; I’ll get on Oprah. I won’t just go into politics. I’ll become President of the United States.
  • Highs and lows: During a high phase I can get 59 things done in a day because I am the super mother who does not sleep! During a low phase I get little done because I suck, I’m fat, I’m washed up, I’m past my prime, and I’m worthless. Oh and nobody loves me.
  • Fear of heights.

As a result of this gene, I’ve been a professional consumer of various forms of therapy, self-help and all good things that are thought to help people like me ever since my early 20s.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s back up to 4th grade, when I still wanted to be President. As I said, I wanted to be this because it was untrumpable. With the possible exceptions of being the first human to walk on Mars or winning a Nobel, there was nothing my brothers could accomplish that was more Parent Attention Deserving than me becoming President.

And even though all of my 4th grade classmates laughed at me when I mentioned this career aspiration, I never doubted myself because my grandmother and great Aunt (who both hail from the Delusions of Grandeur side of the family) always told me that I was brilliant and that I could accomplish anything. For a brilliant and beautiful girl like me? Life had no limits.

My great aunt and grandmother told me that I was brilliant so often and so earnestly that I completely believed them, despite lots of evidence to the contrary. When I was not accepted into my school’s gifted and talented program? The other kids must have all cheated on the test. When my repeated attempts at the PSAT and SAT produced appallingly average scores? The test had a religious and sexist bias.

I thought I could do anything. I thought I could be anything. I thought nothing was outside of the realm of possibilities.

So, of course, I would become the first woman President.

That is, until I decided to become something else.

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The Story of Alisa, Part 3

My loving dog.

In my early 30s, I had everything: a marriage, a house, a successful career, a dog, friends, volunteer work, a garden, and a book club.

But I felt incomplete.

What I really needed? A baby.

My husband didn’t think I needed a baby, though. He thought I needed an unattached life, the same unattached life that he needed.

It took a while to bring him over to my way of thinking. In August 2004 we had a baby.

Not long after that? My hair started to fall out and my marriage started to fall apart.

I also did not sleep for an entire year, which had a negative effect on my career. It’s hard to cover up the fact that one’s brain isn’t quite operating at full-power when one dials into a conference call not just at the wrong time, but on the wrong day. Ditto when one doesn’t show up for a training session because one thought said session started at 1 p.m. instead of 11 a.m.

And because I was moody and boring and self absorbed and never wanted to leave the house because I was too tired to stand up? I grew out of touch with my friends.

And I stopped reading books because, whenever I opened one, I fell asleep.

So I stopped going to book club.

And I resigned from my position as chair of a volunteer organization because the idea of doing anything other than being a mom and a writer made me feel overextended.

Weeds took over my garden. Then the grass came. Soon you couldn’t tell that I ever had a garden.

But my dog still loved me. Dogs are good that way.

My dog’s love, though, wasn’t enough to keep me from feeling misunderstood, overwhelmed, and alone. I don’t recommend those feelings if you can avoid them.

It was a hospital-based stress reduction class that changed everything. I signed up because my internist suggested that the tingling sensation that I noticed periodically in my right arm was not a sign of an impending heart attack, but rather a sign that I had a stress disorder. He prescribed the class. I was such a mess that my health insurance covered the cost.

By the end of the class, I felt like I’d escaped from a Matrix. My entire life seemed different. I felt in control of my destiny again, and I started to take charge.

I started a marriage project, one that spanned 4 months and involved reading 12 marital improvement books. I took charge of my career. I re-established some friendships and made new ones, too. I started attending book club again.

I got myself together. And then I felt inspired—more inspired than I’d ever felt in my life.

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Yes, my child, Santa Claus is still flush

The other day, my 4 year old discovered the Toys for Tots bin at our grocery store.

“Mommy! Over here! Over here!”

She almost dove into the thing.

“No honey. Those are not for you. Those are for needy kids.”

She turned and frowned. Then she declared, “But Mommy, we’re needy.”

“Um, we so are not,” I said. “What makes you think we’re needy?”

“Because you’re always saying that we can’t afford stuff!”

I laughed so hard that egg cartons shook off the shelves.

Then I felt distraught, because, in that moment, I realized two things. One, I’d co-opted nearly every phrase my parents had ever spoken when I was a kid—the very phrases I’d sworn I would never ever in a million years say to my own children. “We can’t afford it” had become as comfortable to me as “Because I said so.”

It was a distressing realization indeed.

Two, I’d been lying to my child. Truth be told, we could afford most of the things she asked for. After all, she’s of the age where she loves little plastic things that are made on assembly lines in China. They have names like Preyus and Skyrus (from Bakugan Brawlers), Treeko (from Pokemon) and Optimus Prime (from Transformers). Most are available at Target for somewhere between $6 and $12.

I usually have about that much in my pocket at any given time. So why do I tell her “we can’t afford it,” when we really can?

It’s complicated.

First, like the rest of the world, we are on a pretty tight budget at the moment. We’re not eating out. We’re on a clothing-shopping freeze, and my husband knows that he will have my blessing to go on another ski trip when hell freezes over.

Second, I firmly believe that my daughter already has too many toys as it is. I’m not quite sure where they all came from, but they seem to have taken over every bit of floor space in our home.

The day she stops whining about “clean up time” is the day I start dolling out money for plastic things from China upon request.

Finally, I would like my daughter to learn the values of sacrifice and generosity, just as I did as a child of the 70s. In case you no longer remember, the country was in pretty dire straights back then, too. My parents could only fill their gas tanks on even or odd days — I no longer remember which. My parents bickered nightly about where Dad might apply for work were he to find he no longer had a job. For instance, during one argument, I vividly remember Mom yelling, “We will move to Newark New Jersey over my dead body.”

Thankfully, Dad’s company decided to keep him around. I’m glad Mom is still here with us.

Anyway, during the 70s, my father kept the heat so low that one could make Popsicles without the use of the freezer. We also kept the lights off most of the time, and I don’t believe my father bought a new pair of underwear or socks during the entire decade.

During those years, new toys only flowed into our home on three very specific occasions: Christmas, birthdays, and when Nana (our maternal grandmother) came to visit.

Did all of this penny pinching and frugality ruin my childhood? Deep emotional scars were certainly inflicted when we were the last family in our neighborhood to get cable, but I was able to heal up and move on once, as an adult, I earned enough money to pay for my own individual psychotherapy sessions.

Other than the cable trauma, I remember the recession years as warm, loving, and happy ones for our family of five. I may not have had the Hungry Hippo game that every single one of my friends had, but I had hot food for dinner every night and parents who loved me.

More important, my parents bequeathed many values during those years. They taught me the value of hard work. I learned about giving back and about generosity. I learned how to sacrifice and do without. Who needs heat where there’s flannel? Who needs cable when there are books? Who needs toys when one can antagonize one’s brothers?

I discovered that happiness has no monetary value. It cannot be found in things, but it can be found in family, friendships, and community.

How do I explain all of that to a 4 year old?

I can’t, so I’m going with the phrase that my parents taught me. “I can’t afford it” works for the 363 days a year that are not her birthday or Christmas.

On Christmas, however, our needy little child will wake to discover that while her parents are strapped for cash, Santa Claus and Grandma are certainly not. She’ll find any number of wrapped pieces of plastic from China under the tree, because Santa and Grandma are both as flush as it gets.

Do you ever say, “I can’t afford it,” when you really can? Do you limit your children’s toys? Leave a comment.

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