Monday, December 23, 2013

Writing Through Crisis

 For much of my early career, I used to joke that I couldn't afford writer's block. I began writing
Cemetery, New Orleans, 2012
professionally when my first child was a baby and I learned to use very small amounts of time. This involved "pre-writing," going over the next scene in my mind (while doing stuff like washing the dishes) until I knew exactly how I wanted it to go. Then when I'd get a few minutes at the typewriter (no home computers yet), I'd write like mad. I always had a backlog of scenes and stories and whole books, screaming at me to be written. The bottleneck was the time in which to work on them.
I kept writing through all sorts of life events, some happy, others really awful and traumatic. Like many other writers, I used my work as escape, as solace, as a way of working through difficult situations and complex feelings. I shrouded myself with a sense of invulnerability: I could write my way through anything life threw at me!

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

I hit an immovable wall. My mother had been raped and murdered when my younger daughter was but a wee babe. The DA accepted a plea bargain and so, 9 years later, the perpetrator had his first parole hearing. I put on my psychological armor, marched into San Quentin, and spoke at that hearing. A year later, I found myself in a full-blown post-traumatic crisis. I kept having waking nightmares of both terror and revenge. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, and I couldn't stop crying.
Also, I couldn't write fiction. Stream-of-consciousness journaling helped me get through the darkest days, but the creation of an actual story was beyond me.That creative paralysis added another dimension to the meltdown. If I couldn't write, who was I? Where were my secret worlds, my journeys of spirit and heart where people healed and things got better? Gone...and I didn't know if I'd ever get them back.

I was fortunate to have a lot of help during those dark weeks and months, some of it from fellow writers. No pep talks, just friendship, constant and true. Eventually, I was able to return to fiction writing as well, although by then, I found myself a single working mom and had a new set of demands on my time. I was able to draw on two models for personal writing success – the first being the technique of  “pre-writing” (during my lunchtime walks at work) and to use small amounts of time. I carved those out by getting up 10 minutes early, opening a file on my computer, and adding something – if only a couple of words – to the current work. I earmarked part of weekends and holidays for writing time, which worked because that younger daughter  was old enough to have her own interests. More than that, however, having recovered this precious part of my life, my writing, gave me the determination to never lose it again. That was essential on those mornings when I’d rather sleep in, or sunny days when the beach was calling. I had to find a new balance in my life, and it was up to me to give writing the priority I wanted it to have.

Dolomites, by Cleo Sanda
Writers stop writing for all kinds of reasons. In my case, it was personal and emotional, part of a larger crisis. Other times, however, the well runs dry when the rest of life is going smoothly. Quite a few years ago, I ran into a writer I greatly admired (I think it was at an American Booksellers Association convention way back when my publisher would send various authors, including me), and I'd not seen anything from this writer in quite a few years. I introduced myself and asked when the next book would be coming out. Only when I saw the change in the writer's expression did I realize how difficult the subject was. I was probably the hundredth person that weekend to ask. (Eventually this writer did come out with several new books; I wonder now if the appearance at the ABA wasn't a way of trying to get the head back into writerly-space.)

I don't think it's at all helpful to try to "cheer up" a writer in the middle of a dry period. The specific reasons -- creative paralysis, personal crisis, discouragement -- vary so much, I think it's safe to say that each of us has to find our own way through. For me, it's helped immensely to know I'm not the only one to go through it. That's the operational term, to "go through it." To come out the other side. To talk and write about what happened, in the hopes of being the light in the darkness for someone else.

I don’t know what lies ahead for me. Just because there are no thunderclouds on the horizon doesn’t mean unexpected tragedy cannot strike. I know that no matter how strong I am, I can be overwhelmed. However – and this is the big point – I’m the only one who can make me stop writing permanently. I have the ability to recover from no matter what crisis. To build my life, to return to the work I love. So perhaps instead of talking about Writing Through Crisis, I can reframe the concept as Writing Aroundabout Crisis. Remaining true to what’s important to me, knowing it’s waiting for me at the other side of the storm.

This essay also appeared as an entry in Janni Lee Simner's Writing for the Long Haul series.
 It's a wonderful series, full of wisdom, tears, and support.

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