I turned in my third novel on April 12th after a six-month extension that required nights, weekends, and workdays that often began at 4AM. To say I was burned out would be putting it mildly. Fried, torched, or incinerated were better words for my condition. This one got me, on every level and to my core. The morning after I turned in the manuscript, I stood at the mirror brushing my teeth and barely recognizing the exhausted woman who stared back at me.
And two questions came to mind: Do you really want to do this again? Why do you write?
I had no answers. Instead, I saw a fleeting image within the reflection, a glimpse of one of the characters from my just finished manuscript. Rose is a schizophrenic homeless woman who “sees” music. She isn’t my protagonist, but she is the character who has stayed with me, the one who has most touched my soul.
I often joke that I am a “method writer,” and that was truer with this book than with any other. To get into the head of my characters, I try to become them, to walk in their shoes, sometimes for many days at a time. A writer friend has called this “empathy taken to the extreme,” implying that it might not be an entirely healthy practice. In the case of Rose, I cannot disagree. But each writer has a process, and this is mine. Generally, I like becoming my characters. When a story is finished, I want them to remain. They have become friends.
To which even I would reply, “You really have to get out more, Brunonia.” True enough. And I’m trying to do just that. But when I go out into the world after finishing a book, at least at first, my characters go with me. Rose certainly did. I have found her to be one of the most compelling and authentic characters I’ve yet written, and I not only want to keep parts of her with me always, but I realize that it is inevitable that she will stay. Rose isn’t going anywhere. She has been internalized. The results have left me with the residual appearance of a woman who has seen too much of the street for people to be entirely comfortable around.
For me, the period after turning in a manuscript is a strange kind of limbo that is filled with baby steps. This time, I literally found myself walking in circles through the myriad of household rooms I had been neglecting for months. Then I took to the streets. Too much sitting at the computer had wreaked havoc on a body that I had also neglected. It was time to move.
I bought myself a Fitbit, one of those little wireless devices you clip on that tracks every step you take and monitors your sleep. I figured Fitbit was probably the only entity that would reward me for walking in circles, sending ongoing motivational messages for what anyone else would consider erratic or at least unusual behavior. For that reason, Fitbit and I were a perfect match. The expectation? 10,000 steps a day. I could do that in circles alone.
But I didn’t, thank God. Slowly, the circles widened until I found myself walking my neighborhood and eventually my city. I wasn’t walking alone. A few of my lingering characters went with me, Rose in particular. They needed exercise as much as I did. It worked. The circles widened again, taking me and my friends into Boston in time for Grub Street’s annual Muse and the Marketplace event.
I am an enthusiastic supporter of Grub Street, serving on their Development Committee, trying to give something back to a community that took me under its wing a few years ago when I was starting my writing journey. While I sometimes teach at Muse, I did not this year. I had nothing left to teach. Hell, I wasn’t even certain I wanted to be a writer anymore.
As luck would have it, the first session I wandered into was aptly titled: “The Strategic Writer: You’re bigger than your book.” It was taught by Eve Bridburg and Michelle Toth two of my Grub Street favorites, who were asking the same questions I was. Why do you write? What do you want to accomplish? What do you consider authentic?
One of the exercises they recommended, and one I urge all writers to think about, is to create what they called a “guiding statement.” At first I resisted. It reminded me too much of the mission statements I’d encountered in my many years of corporate life. But when I saw the results people were discovering, how they changed and morphed as each writer began to really give this subject the attention it warranted, I was quite impressed.
I suggest taking the class if you have the opportunity. There’s a good chance it may soon be online. In any case, I recommend giving the subject some real thought. Because at some point, burned out or just beginning, we should ask ourselves these questions and give the answers due consideration. Why do we do the work we do? Why write?
For me, the answer has a lot to do with Rose and with the other characters I’ve come to know, people who have been somehow marginalized: the mentally ill, the abused, the invisible and misunderstood. I’m writing to give voice to those we don’t normally hear and to start a dialogue about them with readers.
That’s my first attempt at a guiding statement. I’m certain I’ll be working on it for a while. Before I begin the next book, I’ve promised myself to get it down on paper, so I can pin it to the wall above my desk and remember to look at it in those inevitable moments of burn out when I ask myself why I’m choosing to do this work.
It takes some drilling down and stripping away to get to what is essential. The answer may not be what you imagined. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on the subject.
Why do you write?