As you know, I am a self-employed writer. This business of putting my words on the page is how I bring money into my house. As every author must, I also engage in social media and various marketing and teaching gigs to keep myself afloat.
But sometimes life goes awry.
A week after Thanksgiving, I woke up with my sister’s cold, which she generously shared that family day, with all of us, though not my dad who refused to come to the feast because he didn’t want to risk getting sick.
Good thing. It turned out to be one of the sloppiest, most miserable colds any of us have had in years, lasting weeks and weeks.
But you know, Christmas season waits for no woman, so I dosed myself up with meds and went about my business. I had a back-and-forth schedule of revisions for my new book,The Art of Inheriting Secrets, that would end just before Christmas, and I was eager to have the chance to tweak and smooth and polish, the last shiny round before the book goes off to production.
On December 4th, I was rushing around on Christmas errands when I injured my ankle. It seemed like a low-key injury at the time—honestly, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sprained this ankle—so I hobbled around on the rest of my errands. After a few days, I started to realize maybe it wasn’t just a sprain, so I hobbled into the doctor, who then hobbled me for real by sticking me in a walking boot to await surgery, which I absolutely did not want to have before I flew to San Antonio to see my darling girls for ten days at Christmas.
On December 6, my father went into the hospital. On December 7, my brother was visiting him and had a major heart attack—at the hospital, which absolutely saved his life. *
They live about 50 miles from me, and I was desperate to go see them, but—remember that cold? It was at the very worst level of contagion, so sloppy I didn’t even go out to the grocery store.
Finally my sister the nurse gently said that the worry of contagion was over. I hobbled down to see my dad on December 8, and when I was on my way home, he died. Yes, it was as terrible as it sounds. He was in poor health and had been in and out of the hospital for the past year, but it is still shocking and devastating when it actually happens.
Of course, then family took precedence, and my sons arrived (a great joy to play games at Christmas time, a pocket of happiness in all the chaos). There was the funeral and all that goes along with that, and the strange, loving, and sometimes uneven business of siblings grappling with the loss.
Meanwhile, in the writing world, I had those revisions on my first new book for my new publisher to grapple with. We were on a tight deadline to keep the pub date, so I was faced with either getting them done or pushing the date back, which I very much did not want to do. **
Three days after the funeral, one day after my last house guest departed, I hobbled to San Antonio, for the relief of little girls and the pleasure of forgetting everything.
Except that I’ve been engaged in building a new venture, one that has potential but has been perplexing and challenging to get up and moving, the Patreon teaching platform I’m developing, and I’d come up with some ideas to help engage the group a bit more—a daily post between Christmas and New Year.***
The only thing I could do was switch into what I’ve labeled Emergency Mode.
Every writer faces periods like this. It might be a sick kid or a car accident or a diagnosis or a divorce. A big move. A family crisis. Two blocks over from me, two houses burned when the fence between them caught fire in early December.
If you work for yourself, you don’t have the luxury of dropping all of your obligations. If you have deadlines, you still have to meet them. If you’ve made promises to others, you have to keep them. If you want groceries in the house in a couple of months, you’d better find ways to get the work done.
As you can imagine, I had little creative or physical energy left after all the other things that were rushing through my mind.
And yet, what can you do but show up?
I showed up. I let household tasks go and when my daughter-in-law offered to cook, I let her. I went upstairs to my quiet office and did my best to focus on the actual words of the revision requests. Through my fog, I read one sentence at a time: can you clarify why she would do this? This section goes too long, can you trim?
Reading notes, making changes, one at a time. I had a feeling that I missed a few things when I returned the manuscript, and I did, but we caught those on the next round. If there is anything else, I’ll see it in copy edits.
And no book goes out into the world perfect anyway. I know that. The most devoted writing, the most eagle-eyed of editing, the best vetting (and I am very, very, very lucky to have the eyes of two brilliant editors and an agent and a senior editor on the book), will still not lead to a perfect book.
When I made my way to my girls, the luxury was that I’d be able to spend time with them while they were out of school. I awakened early and crept downstairs to write before the eldest got up, because the minute she came down, her exuberance and chatter would make it impossible to keep working for long. Sometimes, I bribed her, “If you let me finish this part, we can get the paints out….plant those seeds….go upstairs and play dolls.”
Were those brilliant posts on Patreon? I doubt it. But I don’t have to be brilliant to show up. I can show up in my wounded, broken, earnest state and do my best.
What I know about times like this is that it does no good to say, “Why is this happening to me?”
It happens to everyone, no matter how much of a positive thinker you are, or how many marathons you can run, or how much money you have. Times of trouble simply arrive, out of the blue morning, leaving scars and marks and messes.
It does help to have work you love. That offers a sense of purpose. On those quiet mornings in San Antonio when I was making the effort to offer something to my fellow writers, it gave meaning to my life. When I rewrote that one sentence and moved that paragraph, and saw a place to make a moment even more powerful, I could see a path to the future, when life wouldn’t be so challenging. When I escaped into the world of my book, my heart wasn’t so heavy.
My father was a very practical man. He would say, to all of us, “get over it. Move on.”
Because I am the earth mother, I say:
Sleep as much as you can, because sleep heals us.
Allow yourself breakdowns, but then take a shower, straighten your spine, and work for an hour.
You can do it.
This won’t last forever.
And I sing under my breath, “Let it be.”
Let it be.
What do you do in times of trouble? What was your dad’s best advice for these times? What’s your best coping technique?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!
*My brother is fine. My mother is remarkably fine. I will be all right.
**We got the book into production on time. The Art of Inheriting Secrets is available for pre-order.
***If you want to participate in my Patreon experiment, join me there https://www.patreon.com/barbaraoneal