When Funny Just Won’t Come

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Craig Cloutier on Flickr Creative Commons

When I became a regular contributor to Writer Unboxed, I made a silent vow to write something funny for my bi-monthly contribution. Therese and Kath, Writer Mamas, gave me carte blanche to write whatever I wanted, but I wanted to write funny.

But, this time, try as I might I can’t be humorous. In fact, it’s hard to even laugh too much. Sure, there have been moments, like the pie-off at Snip ‘n’ Clip, where I get my hair cut. You see, two months ago as I was getting my hair done by Sue, Deb was cutting John’s hair. I’d never met John but within a few minutes we were having a rousing conversation about pie—how we each thought ours was better.

The conversation led to the aforementioned pie-off. I brought Quiche Lorraine, John brought pumpkin pie. “This isn’t weird at all, is it?” I asked a friend who saw me on the way to get my hair cut, when she asked me about the quiche. “Bringing pie to the hair salon?”

Sue, Deb, John, and I  stood in the small kitchen area—after the haircuts—and ate pie. The quiche then the pie. I won of course. (Well, in my mind I won, we didn’t actually vote, although Deb did say, “if this writing thing doesn’t work out, I think you should open a restaurant…” I took that as winning. I’m competitive that way.)

These days even the small slices of life are tinged with sadness, though. The truth is, it’s been a tough time in our house. My husband lost his job two weeks ago. That’s a funny way to put it, isn’t it? Lost, like he might find it? (He won’t). I mean he’ll find another one. We’ve been through this before. But that one’s gone for good. The company reorganized.

The company reorganizing, my husband being home, has reorganized my life, too. I’m not going to the coffee shop anymore in the mornings. I’m writing instead at the kitchen table, a moratorium of sorts. But I am still writing. It’s what we do as writers, right? It’s what I do to work through it. The happiness, the sadness, the good times and bad. The first thing I always think is: “How will I write this?”

For me, the person, the wife, life is taking an unexpected turn. That happens a lot in life, I’ve come to learn. And when it does, the writer in me writes to make sense of it all. I look for the story, what makes it universal, you know? I wonder. Is there a piece of what I’m going through that will inform others? Bring comfort? Help to understand? If not others, then by my actual writing about what’s going on, will that help me to understand?

To be honest, this is not a conversation that happens immediately or easily. This time, in fact, it took writing this blog to really dig deep and even think about it. (Thank you, Therese for helping me dig.) A part of me wants to run away and hide, to forget it all and continue to write the easy stuff, the already-mapped out sorrows and heartbreaks of each of the characters in my current WIP.

Which leads me back to being a writer. For me, the wife, I need to make sense of it all. But for me, the writer, I know what I’m feeling and the hard times that may come—harder or easier than we expect, we don’t know until they play out—will gather in my mind, will provide a new depth and more feeling, will emerge in my writing when I least expect it in ways I may not even recognize as related. And that is the basis of being a writer. Of taking what life gives us—the discomfort and heartbreak or the incredible joy—and creating stories. To allow others to peek in, to know they aren’t quite alone as we all  journey through life in our “lives of quiet desperation,” in the eloquent words of Henry David Thoreau.

Even Thoreau must have grappled to make sense of it all—retreating to Walden Pond to ponder the world and his place in it. Wondering, as we all do, how we will write it, hoping and grasping to make sense of it all. This life we lead. As a woman, a wife, my future is truly unknowable and I’ll find out as I go, but as a writer I know the answer will come in my words.

This is how I write it when funny just won’t come.

How about you? When things happen—good or bad—are you like me? Do you wonder how you’ll write it? Have you been through a tough time in life when writing helped you or the experience informed your writing?

 

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About Julia Munroe Martin

Julia Munroe Martin (@wordsxo) is a writer and blogger who lives in an old house in southern coastal Maine. Julia's other passion is photography, and if she's not writing at the dining room table or a local coffeeshop, you'll likely find her on the beach or dock taking photos. Julia writes The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series as J. M. Maison.

Comments

  1. says

    It is in the category of making, not just lemonade, but lemon meringue pie when given lemons.

    I can remember three specific instances just this past week where something seemed almost too big to handle, but the fact that I will use it when I write, give it, as it were, to a character, took the edge off. Just a little.

    I think that is the gift writers bring to the world: making sense of the systemic and the random pieces of life by finding the universal part – and writing it.

    It is something we do for the others – those who feel the same way and the same things we do, but can’t quite put it into words.

    Words help.

    Alicia

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    • says

      As a naturally helping kind of person, I like what you say…
      “…it is something we do for the others – those who feel the same way and the same things we do, but can’t quite put it into words.” Nicely put! (And I also wish I’d thought of the being given lemons leading to lemon meringue pie… NICE!)

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  2. Jeanne Kisacky says

    I think that might be why inspiration is always strongest when life is the craziest. Processing the chaos is essential, and if writing is a means of processing, it’s way better than other options. Here’s to hoping your life has just enough crazy to keep you writing deeper.

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  3. says

    Sorry to hear that MEH lost (yes, that is a funny word we use, isn’t it?) his job.

    I’m like you, in that I need distance — be it physical, mental or emotional — from the event in order to process it for writing of mass consumption. I might get initial impressions out in a journal, but it’s not refined enough to share with the world. It may take months, even years in some cases, for me to weave together what I really want to say. I envy writers who can be eloquent and sharp and insightful in the throes of a difficult experience.

    Do you write in a journal or pour all your writing energies into your WIP?

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    • says

      Thanks, Jackie. And, yes, that space is essential for fiction writing (for me too). As for journals… I don’t normally write in one, but I think it may really help and I thank you for the idea!

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  4. says

    You’re right. In those moments, those most horrific moments, I do think, “How will I write this?” And there are times when the answer is, “I’ll never be able to…it hurts too much.” But, of course, I know deep inside that one day I will, that though it may take a long time, I’ll have to write it. I’ll have to write it because I know the healing won’t have happened until the words come. Thank you for your post.

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    • says

      I get that answer, too, Christina — and many things have been pushed aside but are often there when I least expect them during fiction writing (and often I don’t even recognize them until I reread during some draft). Thanks for reading and for your comment!

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  5. says

    What a shame about the lost job. The unpredictable and the unexpected are great in stories – not so much fun in real life. Here’s hoping that a new job is “found” and that this loss and stress can lead to even stronger characters.

    I, for one, can’t write the husband in the house. Much too distracting. Mine always needs to talk to me when he sees me sitting quietly at the keyboard. Worse than the kids or the dogs.

    Consider the library as a cheap alternative to the coffee shop. :)

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    • says

      Yes, it really is a shame, and as you say not as much fun as it might be to read (or write about) in a book. Thanks for your well wishes and the library suggestion! I usually can write in the house when my husband’s home, but I am a bit distracted lately and the library may help me focus.

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  6. says

    Uncertainty, as Lynn said, is so much easier to take in fiction than real life. Saying a prayer for a new job, and soon, for your husband.

    Also like Lynn, I can’t write when mine is home. Small house, big presence. :)

    To answer the question, yes. My experience with cancer at age 30, then five years of chemo fog when I was unable to write, strongly informed the journey of one of the main characters in my debut novel, Burning Sky.* Though of course I made it worse for him (nod to Donald Maass) than it was for me.

    *The emotional more than the physical, since this character lives in a time before the devastating healing that is chemotherapy.

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    • says

      Thank you for your well wishes. I can well imagine not being able to write through chemo fog — but to be able to have it inform your fiction must make your novel incredibly powerful. I look forward to reading it. (I must say that, strangely — jogged into memory by your story — when I was writing this I didn’t even think to relate it to my own cancer journey! I had melanoma six years ago….but it’s amazing how that’s been pushed out of my mind when thinking of writing through stress — like you I wasn’t able to write at all during that time. It all must be pushed into some waiting corner, to emerge when I least expect it…)

      Thanks for the comment (and memory!). I can’t wait to read your novel, Lori.

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  7. says

    I know just how you feel, Julia. I had intended to spend the week polishing a very humorous novel. But then something terrible happened and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. In fact, for a while I couldn’t do any writing at all. But somewhere in the midst of my misery, I recalled another project I’d had lingering in the back of my mind, something I wanted to do but had put off because I knew it was going to be depressing. But suddenly it wasn’t depressing anymore. In fact, thinking about that was so much better than what I was currently feeling that working on it actually lifted my spirits. And within an hour I had five new pages, and more importantly, I was calm again. The writing gave me a way of working through my emotions. I hope that the essay you’ve written for us worked as well for you.

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    • says

      It really did help to write this, Lori — thank you. And it helps all the more knowing others have been through similar feelings. Thank you for reading and especially for your empathy and understanding!

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  8. says

    Julia,
    Sorry to hear about you husband losing his job. I hope he finds a new one soon. This is a thought provoking post. I suspect each writer handles personal crises differently. I went through a divorce in the past year and I’m not sure I will ever be able to write about it, but that may change as time passes. I do believe that the sum total of all of our experiences provides the wellspring from which we draw our stories and form our characters. Thanks for a great post.

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    • says

      CG, thanks for your kind words. I think you’re right that each of us as writers (and people) handle crises differently, probably even depending on the type of crisis. I love this: “I do believe that the sum total of all of our experiences provides the wellspring from which we draw our stories and form our characters.” So well said!

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    • says

      Hey CG,

      Divorce hurts and my heart goes out to you. I think a main drive of writers is to somehow bring life alive to others. I submit, THAT is healing, no matter the genre, subject or treatment.

      Take a break from writing about relationship? Sure. But keep it in mind (as if you can stop that anyway!) What a teacher loss is. It’s as strong as love. And you’re back in the listening stage. How lucky you are, because you are going to be able to heal it for yourself and others. (The complete optimist’s POV is: without suffering there can be no joy.)

      Why do I comment? I nursed my fiancee all the way through death’s door. Cancer was the culprit. Overtime, that pain inspired me to shift from songwriting to novels. And I’ve tried that subject for years with results good, but not great. Now, umpteen years later, my WIP is charging into that love and loss.

      Be well.

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  9. says

    Great post and insightful questions raised, Julia.

    I live alone in the Maine woods and have written steadily throughout the desolation of natural disasters; the deaths of family, friends, and dogs; cancer diagnosis, surgery, and chemo; and all the slings and arrows of misfortune piled upon this pitiful planet. I have filled notebooks with scribbling during my chemo drips, while my mother lay dying, when I was helpless against the cancers that stole close friends from me. Yet within the blackest times, like a Disney character perched on my shoulder, there invariably appears some wisecrack, some absurdity, some raunchy perspective that kick-starts the gears. I can’t say it’s optimism, more black humor than anything, but it serves a useful purpose, one that I gratefully acknowledge.

    I wrote a guest essay once on the processing of chaos for memoir — “for out of chaos, comes poetry,” or words to that effect. I’m thrifty. I recycle. I use everything.

    In my first novel (dealing with breast cancer, isolation, anxiety, and death) my character can’t help but introduce irreverent humor at the oddest times. It’s this attitude that ultimately saves her life and sanity — comic relief of the most primitive sort, which serves a purpose for all of us. (An interesting point how many of us have had cancer…)

    The funny will come popping out when you least expect it, and if you don’t allow yourself to burp, you’ll need to swig a whole bottle of Maalox.

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    • says

      Nice to see another Mainer! Thank you for your inspiration and support, Mara — your experiences are truly inspirational. The kind words of you and others have helped me realize I’m not alone in these feelings, and — as you say, I know the funny will come popping out when I least expect it… and I’ll make sure I’m ready to burp (I can’t stand Maalox!). Thanks again for your comment.

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  10. says

    When I got divorced many years ago, I tried to write through the pain. But it was impossible for me. I think I’m one of those writers whose creative juices flow better when I’m in a good emotional space.

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    • says

      “I think I’m one of those writers whose creative juices flow better when I’m in a good emotional space.” << Me, too, Ntasha. Thanks so much for your comment and for your understanding.

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  11. says

    I hear ya. I write a regular column for a Michigan women’s magazine called “Don’t tell my wife I wrote this.” Obviously, it requires a touch of humor. And I have a deadline. So if you’re in the “down” segment of your life happy graph, it’s tough to do your job. I try to find the humor in my situation. If I’ve just lost my job (which has happened twice now in my life), I look for the humor in the job search. And there’s plenty. If it’s something more serious, like the death of a loved one, I have to dig a little deeper. Maybe recollecting the funny moments I’ve had with them. Humor can be found in all aspects of life, even if we don’t feel like dredging it up. Praying your husband bounces back quick. I trust he will. Be kind to him. A man feels useless to the world when he’s out of work. And it makes us cranky.

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    • says

      Ron! You really made my day with your comment! Thank you for your well wishes, too. My husband is rarely cranky BUT I know it’s been hard for him. Although his stress is less right now (the job created a lot), I can see a bit of that “feeling useless” in him. I promise I’ll be kind — and we definitely will get back to finding the humor, we always do after a bounce back period. Thanks for your perspective, I really appreciate it!

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  12. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Beautiful post, Julia. Things will all work themselves out, they always do in books and in real life. It’s the part on the way to the things that have worked out that is crucial especially when you’re in that part, in both writing and real life. I hope things work their way smoothly through this crucial part for you in real life now. I know from your post above you will carry the deep emotional experiences of this time into your writing, so it looks like some things are already working their way out. Blessed be your journey.

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    • says

      Thank you so much, Bernadette… things do work out, don’t they? And here’s hoping it’s not too bumpy, but regardless, we’ll find our way together. I didn’t mention this in the post, but I feel very fortunate that my husband is a very smart, positive and upbeat guy with a huge heart — all of which will serve him well as he travels this path. Thanks again for your well wishes.

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  13. says

    Sending you positive energy, Julia.
    There have always been things I would not, could not say out loud. But writing has always been my voice. More than that it’s helped me sort it out, unload it. Why I’ve even written about not being able to write. : )

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    • says

      You really read my mind here, Leanne… maybe that’s at the root of all of it: “There have always been things I would not, could not say out loud. But writing has always been my voice.” Thank you for understanding. It’s the things I can’t say out loud that are niggling at me.

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  14. says

    Julia, dang it, that’s lousy. That real life stuff often tastes like shoe heel and wet wool. Hope you can find a way to put some frosting on it (or shop somewhere else).

    Here’s wishing your husband gets set up in a new work situation that’s better than before—sometimes an uncomfortable change turns out all for the good.

    And I have no doubt the funny in the pen will find its way out again.

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    • says

      Thanks, Tom… yes, it’s lousy but thanks for making me smile with your comment! And I think you may well be right that a new work situation may turn out for the best. And then the funny will find its way again (if not before). Thanks again for your well wishes and smiles!

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  15. Denise Willson says

    I wish you and your husband well, Julia.

    I (we) are in the same boat. My husband has been home since February,working hard to find work, and I’ve had to work more (write less) to feed our kids.

    Life can be hard, and not always kind to people who want to bury themselves in their story. My only advice? Let it change you. Let it pour onto the page. For good or bad, it’s life’s struggles that make us alive, REAL.

    Added bonus: when you finally get the chance to escape into your WIP, you’ll appreciate this gift we have – the ability to escape at all – all the more.

    My best,
    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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    • says

      Thank you, Denise, I appreciate the well wishes. Yes, work more/write less may be in my future too (I didn’t even broach that part in the post, but it may well be part of my sadness…) I especially appreciate your advice…”Let it pour onto the page. For good or bad, it’s life’s struggles that make us alive, REAL.” Yes. As my husband says, it’s all about the journey. Thanks again for your comment and the advice; it’s comforting to hear from others in the same boat.

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  16. Tina says

    Micron is hiring engineers. But they are not it Maine. They are in DC, Utah, California, Idaho, Japan…

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  17. says

    Oh brave Julia. I know writing this kind of soul-searching post for public consumption was not easy. As the others have said, I hope it has brought some comfort and insight to hear from other commisserating writers who have been through similar experiences. I was especially moved by Mara Buck’s response. Whoa.

    Sending happy rays of hope from Arizona.

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  18. says

    I don’t feel too brave, Melissa… but you’re right, the soul-searching did help make things better and made me feel like part of something bigger, which really was helpful and comforting. I also was moved by the responses — insightful and thoughtful. Thank you so much for the rays of hope, I appreciate them so much!

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  19. says

    Experiences always do enrich, but yeah, when in the midst of it, it doesn’t have that “hey! this sucky stuff will enrich my writing! booyaaaa!” Instead it’s “omg, this SUCKS!” and the writing life can almost seem trivial in comparison – like we aren’t “supposed” to do it, like it’s something that is throw-away-able . . . and it isn’t, it really isn’t – it can be a life-line.

    Then when all the crap clears, all those sucky things become fodder – once we rise above them and see them from the distance they need to become good writing experiences – like they happened to someone else.

    Hope life pulls itself up for you and your family . . . .

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    • says

      I completely agree, Kathryn, writing does become like a lifeline to me during these times — even when I’m not writing about the sucky stuff going on. Thank you for your comment…and for understanding and well wishes.

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  20. says

    A very moving and honest article which must have been difficult to write, but which shows how writers almost need such experiences to add greater depth and understanding in their writing. Devastating at the time, but it can be put to good use.

    Hope your husband soon finds a suitable position. Meantime, I hope you can both keep your spirits up.

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    • says

      Thank you for your kind words, Dorothy. Yes, it was a bit difficult, but it’s made me feel so much better after — with the wonderful support of other writers. Again, thank you so much for your comment and your encouragement.

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  21. Cynthia Robertson says

    Sorry to hear about the lost job. That can make the future seem very uncertain. For me it takes time to process events before turning them into writing. When in the throes the feelings are too overwhelming, and I have no distance. That you can write about it at all right now is amazing!
    Best wishes for MEH’s job hunt, and a quick resolution to your present troubles, Julia.

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    • says

      Yes, the future does seem uncertain — and like you when I’m in the throes it’s hard to write about it. But I felt it was important for me to write this, as a sort of standing in my truth and also to feel the support of other writers (which I have!). Thank you for your well wishes, Cynthia; I really appreciate it!

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  22. says

    Julia, as always, you share life’s challenges in such a way that we all feel stronger for it. Thank you for that. I know you and I have spoken several times about how life can step in and affect our writing. I have finally learned to focus life’s challenges into my writing, whereas 20 or even 10 years ago, I would have been under a table and unable to write through them. You and MEH will get to the other side of this challenge, I have no doubt. Hugs, my dear.

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    • says

      Thank you for your kind words, dear friend. I know what you mean about learning to focus. It’s such a necessity as we know since it’s hard to predict what path life will take. Like you, 20 years ago, I’d have been not just under the table unable to write but also in terror about what the future held. Yes, MEH and I will get to the other side, and amidst it all, we’ll even manage to enjoy the lighter times together. Thanks for your support and hugs back.

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  23. says

    I’m so sorry about your husband losing his job, Julia. Tough time, indeed. But you’re very brave for being open about it, and I know you’ll work through it. You’re right that writing helps, in one way or another, and I think (speaking from my own experience, at least) that the two most important things you can do as a writer at times like these are 1) allow yourself to write about it in whatever way feels best and 2) allow yourself to *not* write about it, too. I’ll be thinking of you.

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    • says

      Thanks, Annie. I completely agree with this: “two most important things you can do as a writer at times like these are 1) allow yourself to write about it in whatever way feels best and 2) allow yourself to *not* write about it, too.” Exactly.

      I wanted to write about it this time partially to reach out for support but also because I’ve felt a stigma attached to the whole thing, and that feels a little bad. I’m hoping that being straightforward about it will help me (us) come to terms with the fact that it’s something we need to work through but not feel ashamed. Does that make sense?

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Annie.

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  24. says

    Julia,

    Another voice to offer support. So much wisdom here in your post and in the comments. A recent WU posting about Taking a Break jumps to mind. This is not to say you should stop writing (not my gut feeling at all from what you say), but life always intervenes and in that interruption is the map to wisdom, if not the wisdom itself. All the stuff that happens around our lives as writers, one way or another, is our work.

    Which books written about things only going well are in their second printing? But the lost job (and the worry, struggle, depression, even the raised voices that come with it) is the seed of conflict. No matter the approach, writer’s write to connect humanity to itself. You are connected. Thanks for writing.

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  25. says

    I love that last line. This is such an honest piece, Julia. I’m thinking of you extra now during all of this rearranging of time, space, feelings, etc.

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  26. says

    Oh dang it, Julia. I’m sorry to hear about MEH. Writing sometimes is the ONLY way to deal with crisis and I’ve filled many a page while down and out. I tend to journal when bad things happen and blogging is an extension of that. Once it’s down on paper (or computer screen), it seems to lose its grip on me and I’m able to see things a little clearer.

    Life gives us plenty of book material, doesn’t it. Might as well use it!

    Thinking of you! xox

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  27. says

    Thanks, Hallie, we really appreciate your support. I used to write in a journal all the time, but not at all anymore. But based on your suggestion and one other in these comments, I think I may start. I will undoubtedly blog about it again, too, but sometimes I think blogging holds me back from being too honest with even myself — does that happen to you? But as you say, writing helps loosen the grip. Thanks again, xoxox

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  28. says

    So sorry to hear about MEH losing his job, Julia. I’ll be sending positive vibes and thoughts your way, but I also know, from reading your blog and writing and letters, that you are both strong and built to get through this, so I have confidence in that.

    Thank you for being brave enough to be vulnerable and write from such an honest place. What a beautiful post, and a powerful reminder of why it is we write—to make sense of it all.

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    • says

      What a very nicet thing to say, Natalia — it’s so nice to know we have the confidence of others. And it really did help make sense of it (and to put it in perspective) by writing about it. Thank you for your support.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] When things takes an unexpected turn, I do what any writer does…wonder how I’ll write about it. A “pie-off” and Henry David Thoreau help me make sense of a life reorganization in a post I wrote today for Writer Unboxed called When Funny Just Won’t Come. […]

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  2. […] Like most of us, I got busy again. I think one day I had to go to the store immediately after the coffee shop or I was meeting a friend—I’m not sure which. Then MEH (My Engineer Husband) lost his job and I got really distracted. (You can read about that here on Writer Unboxed.) […]

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