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What If You Couldn’t Write?

Flickr Creative Commons: Silva Sala
Flickr Creative Commons: Silva Sala

“What if you couldn’t write?” my teen daughter recently asked me. “What if your hands refused to type and no doctor could explain why? What if voice recognition software didn’t exist and whenever you tried to have someone take dictation for you, your words came out in a jumble? What if your stories were forever stuck in your head? How would you feel?”

“Like I was in hell,” I said.

“This is dance class for me now.”

Ballet has been her whole world since she was nine. She had a barre in her bedroom. She hummed the major numbers from the Nutcracker starting in early September. She came home after a grueling six hours of class and rehearsal only to pirouette around the living room. She aimed for the next tier of her dance company five seconds after being promoted.

Senior Company by age fifteen. That was the plan.

Her body had other ideas.

Just before her fourteenth birthday, nagging knee pain worsened and made pointe work impossible. Thus started a year-long ordeal that included a knife-happy orthopedic surgeon, one unnecessary surgery, three physical therapists, cortisone shots, MRIs, a bone scan, blood tests, two awful misdiagnoses including one where she was told that ignoring the pain might result in the loss of her legs, a medical massage therapist, two chiropractors, a nutritionist, a psychologist, and a Pilates instructor.

Everyone had a theory for why she hurt. No one could fix her.

She remained determined to beat what ailed her. She wore ice packs on the way to the studio, always arriving an hour early to stretch before taking lower level classes to build up her strength.

Before her injury she never did modifications, never sat out, and never made a peep about pain.  Now teachers began to guess which joint was the complainer du jour when she approached them. Before every combination, every jump, she had to consider the potential consequences. Pain waxed and waned, but never stayed away long enough for her to progress.

If pain drags on long enough, eventually we must question whether to press on or find a new dream.

My daughter’s body made the choice for her, but it took a year for her heart to accept she is not meant to be a dancer.

For better or worse, writers rarely face such a metaphorical fork in the road. Instead, our options branch out around us like spokes in a wheel. For example, if fifty agents reject a manuscript, we can:

This last option is the one I want to discuss today, because every writer I know has considered it at some point. Let’s face it, writing itself causes a certain amount of mental and emotional anguish, and the publishing world can make an American Ninja Warriors course look like child’s play. Most healthy and sane humans would not wish this upon themselves.

At what point, then, is it in your best interest to say “I’m done” and mean it?

Physical Pain

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is no joke, nor is the pain many of us experience in our shoulders and backs from being hunched over a keyboard.

Nagging aches may be minimized by wearing a brace on the wrist, replacing the desk chair with a yoga ball for part of the day or, for more motivated multitaskers, investing in a treadmill desk. Those with arthritis or other conditions that make typing a challenge can use voice recognition software like Dragon [1].

Technology offers determined writers options, but if sitting in front of a computer for hours each day means spending the rest of your hours in misery, give yourself permission to stop, at least temporarily.

Mental Pain

This one’s a doozy for me. My novel takes place in the early 20th century, a time period I’d love to immerse myself in for an uninterrupted week or two. Alas, I have a 21st century husband and two kids, all of whom depend on me to know if we are running out of milk or if the field trip fee has been paid. The mental exhaustion that comes from being ripped out of one century and into another dozens of times daily is enough to make me wonder why I bother to attempt writing during summer break. (The answer: It’s not much better during the school year.)

Mental pain can also come from juggling writing and a day job, or a new baby, or a divorce, or a health issue or, let’s be honest here, a Facebook addiction. So many things vie for our attention that it’s easy to forget how to focus. The problem only compounds itself once a book has launched; add networking, promotion, fielding blurb requests, conferences, etc. to that list.

Just thinking about it all gives me a headache.

Some people use writing to escape a life that hasn’t gone according to plan. It could be therapeutic, even a lifeline. This post is for the rest of us, those for whom writing often becomes one more thing we should be doing, that item on our to-do list that never gets crossed out.

Rather than let the self-flagellation begin, take a step back and determine why your brain says ‘no’ each time you open your manuscript. If it’s an attempt to avoid a dreaded scene, accept that, take a deep breath, and plunge in anyway. If, however, circumstances beyond your control are at play—a sick spouse, a struggling child, a financial hardship—maybe the muse is shouting at you to deal with real life and come back when you are prepared to listen again. That may take weeks. It may take years. Either way, it is okay.

Emotional Pain

Most writers are sensitive souls; it’s that empathy that allows us to show the world through someone else’s eyes and (hopefully) inspire readers to feel deeply for our character’s plight. Our own fears, dark sides, and deepest secrets often bleed onto the page, too. We then expose that open wound to the world to be judged by complete strangers. Rejection happens at all stages of the publishing game. Bad reviews will happen. Exceptional books won’t always find an exceptionally large audience. Or any audience.

These are harsh realities, and not everyone can respond to such scrutiny by cutting deeper next time, revealing more. If this is you and you can be happy doing anything else, do it.

Those who are meant to write can try to stop all they want. Eventually a character will take up residence in their brain and refuse to be evicted.

A retired pen can always be picked up again. Thankfully writing, unlike dance, isn’t an all-or-nothing pursuit.

Your turn. Have you ever felt compelled to give up writing (or another dream)? How did you go about re-inventing yourself? If it was something you could later return to, did you? Did you learn anything about yourself in the process?

About Kim Bullock [2]

Kim (she/her) has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A. [3], a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.