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Wanted: Grim Reaper As Writing Coach

The Grim Reaper - geograph.org.uk - 522625 [1]
The Grim Reaper by Trish Steel [CC-BY-SA-2.0 [2]], via Wikimedia Commons [1]
Last month, through pure serendipity, I stumbled across an intellectual exercise which I’d like to recommend to all my fellow writers.  I believe it will be of particular benefit to those of you who  a) are overwhelmed with life and yearn for a reset button b) wish to clear away the cobwebs of smugness and complacency, or c) like me, write genre fiction that others might call “quiet” or, in a cruel moment, “escapist schlock”.

The procedure is as follows:

Step 1: Have an appointment with a new-to-you medical specialist and agree to go through a number of baseline tests.

Step 2: In the interest of saving time, review your results together over the phone. Without accounting for the fact that you’ve met for a grand total of twenty minutes or that you’re missing visual cues, assume that you understand his speech patterns and way of using subtext. For example, that brief hesitation as he explains a particular number? It’s not due to a brain glitch or the distractions which inevitably accompany a hospital practice. Rather, he’s attempting to deliver exceedingly bad news in an artful manner.

Step 3:  Because you prefer to fall apart in private, keep the extent of your devastation to yourself. Don’t ask clarifying questions and whatever you do, don’t cry until you’re finally off the phone.

Step 4: Once you’re over the worst of your shock, determine to flex your proactivity muscles. Read the medical literature. You’re on the lookout for what you can control.

Step 5: While revising the plans for your life, realize you can’t optimize them without information from your healthcare team. A full week after the original phone call, obtain your specialist’s email and fire off a list of questions.

Step 6: Discover you misunderstood one key piece of information and spun everything else forward in such a manner that—were Thomas Hardy alive, and were you to apply your talent for gloominess to fiction—he would view you as a serious rival. (As it turns out, not only are you not declining, you’ve actually improved your health.)

Now, why in the world would I recommend that writers go through such an exercise, Unboxeders? (Because, as you no doubt surmised, this was what I got up to during my summer vacation.) And why would it be true that I’m grateful for the experience? That I occasionally wish for—even long for—a few more days in the tortuous head-space of steps 2-5?

Before I answer that question, can I suggest you give yourself a few minutes to consider how you’d respond if you learned you had only a few years left on this mortal coil? Pull out a blank piece of paper or open a fresh text document. Give yourself time to envision a comparable scenario to the one mentioned above. (You’ll know you’re there when the hair on your nape is standing on end and your bowels are starting to shift.) Got it? Now, jot down everything you notice, and since this is a writing blog, after all, pay particular attention to your insights about fiction and its role in your life.

While I realize this is a highly personal exercise, in the interest of sparking ideas, here’s some of what I noticed during the gift of that week:

1. While it’s a story trope we often disparage, Great Misunderstandings occur in real life and cause real havoc.

If your writing involves a Great Misunderstanding—and I admit this is something I enjoy playing with in my fiction—make sure it’s both of a reasonably short duration and adequately motivated. (For instance, a character who doesn’t immediately ask for a conversation because she takes pride in her self-reliance, has a desire not to burden others, or whose job conditioned her to appear to be a locus of calm when internally she’s a hot, screaming mess.)

2. You can compartmentalize more than you think.

I’d always believed I couldn’t write a lighthearted scene when I was angsty, or a scene about forgiveness when enraged. Now I’m not so sure.  At one point during the week, when I had cause to send a health update to concerned family and friends, I managed to compose it so not even they could detect a hint of distress. Similarly, the limited fiction I wrote at the time seems free of emotional contagion. Another myth busted about the preciousness of my process and productivity? I think so.

3. Make time to protect your health. It’s a bedrock of your writing.

If you’re not alive—or if you’re waking moments are consumed by your declining health—then it goes without saying that you’re not writing.

Speaking for myself, when my health was slipping through my hands, nothing seemed more critical than shoring it up. Those reasons why I was too busy to prepare a nutritious meal or perform resistance training? Gone. And it’s not like I had to reason this through or arrive at my conclusions through a tedious process. I simply wasn’t willing to waste one more second on BSing myself.

On a similar note, I conducted a serious inbox and Feedly pruning to protect my mental health.  It was clear that I was spending a disproportionate time reading about writing and preparing to write, but not enough time on the actual practice. Enough!

4. Is publishing everything to you?

Would it surprise you to know that I wasn’t bitter about not being published?  For all that I chastise myself about being a slow writer, or making my path tortuous by working on more than one project at a time, I didn’t choke up about the lack of public recognition. At least, that’s not a huge motivator for me.

To be honest, that pleases me. It might make me hugely unattractive to agents and editors, so perhaps it’s a risky thing to put out on the ether, but it feels like a grounded, peaceful place from which to move forward.

Contrarily, I did shed tears over the fact I hadn’t completed and “shipped” certain of my stories. (We’re not necessarily talking the ones with more commercial appeal.) The reason for my regret? These stories kindle something inside me—something useful, warm and hopeful—and I have the feeling that one or two readers in the world might wish to sip on the same emotional cocktail. I yearn for that connection.

Also, I can see how my stories’ incompleteness would send the wrong message to my kids. I believe actions are more important than words, and I wouldn’t want them to throttle themselves the way I constantly do.

5. Your route to publication has implications for your legacy.

I don’t wish to get into a debate about the relative merits of self-publishing versus traditional publishing versus hybrid careers, but there’s no doubt about it: whatever route you choose, it will have implications for your estate.

For instance, this month I found myself wondering whether I would want to saddle my husband and kids with take-down notices.  Would I expect them to maintain vendor files as the formatting requirements evolve over time? Alternatively, assuming I had the luck, desire and opportunity to go the traditional route, how would they feel about having to deal with an agent or a publisher for the rest of their lives?

I can’t say as I arrived at definitive conclusions, but no doubt about it, these are issues to consider and discuss with my family.

6. Lastly, for writers of escapist schlock, including myself:

What kind of fiction do you think you’d choose to read if you had advance knowledge of your expiry date? I enjoy fiction of all kinds, from bestselling literary fiction to erotica, and everything in between. During my challenging week, though, while I read even more than usual, I needed a diet of comfort reads: stories about families making peace with one another, lovers reconciling and finding happy-ever-afters, etc.

I’ll admit I was surprised by my choice. When time is short, wouldn’t one expect to reach for unique, challenging material? Ultimately, though, my life was a non-stop parade of profundity and seriousness, where the sight of a dew-laden lawn was sufficient to set my lower lip a-quivering. I needed reminders of humor, silliness, play, everyday miracles, Unboxeders. I wasn’t after life-changing fiction so much as life-sustaining fiction. So if that’s what you write—genre fiction that’s on the smaller or quieter side—know that there’s a cadre of people in the world who might literally depend upon your work to get through the day.

Now that’s enough of me and my tale of non-woe! If you went through the above exercise, did you learn anything about your writerly self? Alternatively, if you’ve dealt with health challenges, as so many of you have, what proactive changes have you made to your writing life? What did I miss? Please share if you’re comfortable.

About Jan O'Hara [3]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [4] left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen [5]; Cold and Hottie [6]; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [7]). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.