The Post Book Crash

Last month, I finished my new book, How To Bake A Perfect Life, and sent it off to my editor and agent, who are both speedy readers. By the time I polished up a couple of talks for a conference and returned home, they had turned it around, and I plunged into revisions. There’s a fairly tight schedule here (the book is out December 28), complicated by the fact that I’m traveling for nearly all of June, and we had to get everything done before I leave.

Over the past week, I’ve noticed that I’m indulging in all things wordless. I walk around my neighborhood and spy catkins hanging from an aspen tree. They’re backlit by morning sunshine, making all the tiny hairs glow. The sight seems incredible, extraordinary, and I shoot twelve pictures of them with my phone, first with the regular camera, then with a funny little app called Hipstamatic, which has brought me no end of delight. Bemused, I wander on, my brain quiet.

A few days later, the sun is out, spring is finally arriving after the long, cold winter, and I gorge on bedding plants at the local Lowe’s, which have “distressed” plants for .50, and I buy everything pink. Dianthus and dahlias and snapdragons. For hours I plant in wordlessness, soaking in the sunlight, drinking in the endless, minute variation on this single color, pale to dark to vivid. The smells of earth and lavender fill my empty heart.

I cut a stalk of lilacs, and put them in a vase. The smell makes me think of my grandmother, long gone now, and I wordlessly remember her eyes crinkling. She sat with me through the whole of the writing of this book, a book about grandmothers and mothers and the way we get in each other’s way and help each other out. She’ll like it, I think. Because my phone is handy, I shoot the vase, the star-shaped petals, and the color of light. Purple fills me. Tiny bubbles cling to the glass, and light shines through the base to the table, and I shoot that, too.

Flowers. Light. Color. Scent. I use words to describe them here, because words are what I have, but my weary brain soaks them in as pure experience. It’s looking at the shape of a single lilac star, at the variations of one color, at the fingernail length of a catkin because that’s all it can manage at the moment. One thing at a time. Close up.

Writing a whole book is a tremendous undertaking. We tend to forget that sometimes, just how gigantic it is. We are writers—that’s what we do. But it’s hard work. A book has a lot of words and people and ideas, and sentences that should make sense at the very least, and perhaps be sometimes beautiful, and strong. It has zillions of details that we somehow manage to hold in our minds (mostly). It takes a lot of hours to just physically put the words on the page.

And what gives out, for me, is the word functions of my brain. By the end of the book, I often find myself with speech aphasia—I can’t come up with words for simple things. Fork. Sky. Foot. All my words have gone toward the book, and I can’t find any for talking.

It makes sense, then, that all my pursuits are wordless. After all that work, I’m filling the well, almost instinctively. We’re traveling soon, too, which is something that I often schedule to give the girls in the basement to play with, and I’ll no doubt do many wordless wanderings and shooting of little things in faraway places. When I return, I’ll be filled up again, moist with words that need shedding, and I’ll get back to work, happily.

How do you fill the well? Do you find as much pleasure as I do in wordlessness?


About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.


  1. says

    Wordlessness. That’s a good word in such a noisy society. Just a quick thought before I’m off to work.

    I’m a skywatcher, Barb. From the time I was little, I’ve chased clouds and counted endless stars. The world is so beautiful. We just have to stop sometimes and take a good, long look.

    Love that photo! The beads on the glass…love that.

  2. says


    This is beautifully written. I think your well must fill up fast, because your words and descriptions really resonate.

    I also like to drink in my surroundings when I’m pensive. It helps me find the things that ground me and are meaningful so I can reboot myself.

    I am not usually at a loss for words (unless it’s the kind that I need to fill a blank page), but I understand the need to find new ways to experience the world and communicate with others. You’ve done a wonderful job here.
    .-= Kristen Gibson´s last blog ..The Results are in – Success or Mess? =-.

  3. says

    I couldn’t agree more! We all need time away from words. The link at the bottom of the post will bear this out — I have Wordless Wednesday on my blog, and as this is Wednesday, all I posted today was a picture of a flower. Un-interpreted, un-described, un-commented, un-presented. Just a flower.

    .-= Jael´s last blog ..wordless wednesday xxxix =-.

  4. says

    Really enjoyed this — especially being new to the area and picking up on little things in your post — like I heard about catkins for the first time a few weeks ago, and now I see the word again.

    So I’m filling my word bank again.

  5. says

    Barbara, this was a beautiful post. It’s nice to hear from an author that writing is hard work. It drains the brain, so I think a “sensory recalibration” is essential. I like to add words back in after pouring them out into my manuscripts, so I usually go on a reading binge. I also like to do as you describe — soak up new experiences, which naturally will find their way into future works. :)
    .-= Donna Cummings´s last blog ..To Blog or Not To Blog =-.

  6. says

    Oh, this is so lovely, and so true. A heartfelt way to describe something that, as a writer, can be a little perplexing and frightening. What happens when there are no words left? What will I do next? This is a graceful, poignant way to look at what anyone else might call writer’s block. Thank you for making it “normal.”
    .-= Leslie´s last blog ..Celebrity Tell-All : YOUR TURN! =-.

  7. says

    Love that, Donna, “sensory recalibration.” I’m pretty much always on a reading binge, but definitely gets more intense after I turn in a book.

    Skywatching! Family, wine, all those things.

    Wordless Wednesday is a great idea, Jael.
    .-= Barbara Samuel O’Neal´s last blog ..Book club picture =-.

  8. says

    Oh, man, you still have managed to squeeze some words out for this post. beautiful. I am in the throes of being wordless too. soaking up experience and life. Thanks so much for sharing this–it’s like having a bit of honey with the morning toast.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..Clint, from AAA, you saved my life =-.

  9. says

    Pardon our dust … we are undergoing sensory recalibration. :)

    Last night, I told my daughter I had to take a break from answering questions for fifteen minutes, so not to take it personally when I ignored her. From now on, I’ll just tell her I need a sensory recalibration break.

  10. says

    So glad you’re having a lovely post-book time! I had a lovely post-book week, reading, taking in the autumn colours, watching movies and even had a massage but then the post book euphoria plummetted and I crashed with it. It happens every time and I hate it. I can’t seem to stop it happening either which is really frustrating. I think each book is like climbing a mountain and after a long, hard journey you reach the top and you’re flying high when your editor loves it. But the crash to the bottom of the mountain comes because another book needs to be written. I have decided that I am addicted to the finish, the rush of relief, the sheer joy that I did it despite the seeds of dout, but starting must scare me silly. Some of us are starters, some of us are finishers…I wish I could be more of a starter. The fact I am on this blog is a pretty good indication that I find starting hard cos the story idea is hovering but I just don’t want to get to it!

  11. says

    Thank you so much for this post. I was just talking to my roommate an hour ago about this. I write, she paints, and neither one of us has really been “feeling it” since we finished rather large projects recently. There seems to be such an attitude on some writing sites that if you’re not writing 24/7, you’re not a real writer, and it’s refreshing to read posts proclaiming that a little bit of time away is a normal thing. I really like the idea that writing a book empties us of words for a little while, and we need to fill up again before embarking on our next endeavor.

    I do like wordlessness. Even just walking in the park, I soak it in as experience, and don’t try to describe the scenery around me with human language. Instrumental music also works, as does looking at beautiful photographs.

    (And for someone lacking words, you wrote a really beautiful post.)
    .-= Kristin Laughtin´s last blog ..What Lost Can Teach Us About Story-Building (Part I) =-.

  12. says

    What a wonderful way to explain wordlessness . . . and how perfectly you deal with it, one deed at a time, one image . . . slowly building up the bank of experience and thus your word-bank which feels at deficit point.

    When you think about it, its a very spiritual way of dealing with re-grounding of one’s self. You begin living in the now by appreciating the little things in front of you. And no, I am not some wacky pseudo-guru, just a writer who is researching an Asian inspired culture for her current WIP, and some of it is rubbing off. Thanks for such a wise post, Barbara.

  13. says

    Terry, it’s always so much fun to learn the words and smells and labels in a new world. Catkins…catkins…catkins…

    Kristin, yes. The pauses are like the rests in a musical piece.
    .-= Barbara O’Neal´s last blog ..Book club picture =-.

  14. says

    What a gorgeous post.

    When I’m in that post-writing empty place, I try to turn my attention to my family. I have to confess that as my novels reach their conclusions, I give the pages more attention than the people around me. When I come up for air, I try to make up for the time I wasn’t as available as I’d like to be.
    .-= Erika Robuck´s last blog ..The Lull =-.