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Losing Your North Star

Photo [1] by Artem Saranin, Pexels [2] License

In what now seems another lifetime, back when I first began to share my desire to be a novelist, a dear friend made a powerful observation. She lamented that writing must be extremely hard, citing not publishing perils or the financial challenge, as one might expect. Instead, she suggested writers had to possess supreme confidence, a pure faith that their stories were deserving of attention. At the time, the sentiment surprised me. Though I had many concerns, it had never occurred to me to question the worth of my writing. I simply had a story, at least the kernel of one, and wanted to see it through. What propelled me was a desire to convey the tale well and in a manner truthful to the inspiration behind it. That felt like enough at the time, and indeed it was.

Recently, however, my friend’s words have come back to haunt me. For I no longer carry within me the confidence to which she alluded. I didn’t grasp her meaning then because, at the time, I understood the world I was crafting. More precisely, I trusted my own world view. Secure in my knowledge, characters arcs and plot lines within the tale came into focus naturally because, ultimately, the fictional world on some level reflected my own. Sadly, this is no longer the case. These days I sit down at my desk with more questions than answers, vigilantly suspicious, like a man hovering over a puzzle while convinced a third of the pieces are missing, or from another set entirely.

Even this post reflects this turmoil. Normally a topic comes to mind, and accepting my own contribution as a given, I research what writers both past and present have to say on the matter. Then I open the doors to the WU community, eager to engage, encourage or even argue points of view. Given my current trepidation, I thought it best to take another tack, seeking input from the community at the start. The thoughtful, and in some cases heart-wrenching, responses opened my eyes to the fact we all face crises in our lives, which at times short-circuit our creative efforts. And while I must caution the insights do not provide clear answers, I hope they offer comfort and perhaps pointers for those facing doubts, even as you seek new stars to guide your way forward.

Divorce

Over 40% of US marriages end in divorce, so it came as no surprise that the majority of responses related to the tumult that follows the disintegration of one’s home life. Writer and Editor Jean Jenkins [3] was working on a number of projects when her marriage of 16 years collapsed. To this day she has never resurrected a single one, though she sometimes draws from their ideas. Still, she says the experience ultimately deepened her writing. “I’m better able to imagine perspectives and nuances now. Part is age, yes, and life experience; but most is due to that rattling, blinders-off, who-do-you-trust-when-you-can’t-trust-anyone summer.”

Natalie Hart [4] hasn’t yet reached that point. Plans to publish her nearly completed manuscript were set aside three years ago as she dealt with the emotional, financial and legal repercussions of a shocking and sudden divorce. Though she has since rebuilt the lives of herself and her children, and has even found some writing-for-pay projects, her personal works remain a struggle. As she describes, “I circle around my writing, doing little bits, but not much real forward momentum.” She knows the decision lies within her on when to begin again; but knows also it will only come when the time is right, when she is ready to make the commitment.

R James Turley [5], conversely, discovered writing as a result of his divorce. “It helped me get through it. Some of my early poems were angry,” he explained. “Eventually, after I made it through that rough time, I started writing stories.”

Grief

Ellen Appleby Keim stopped writing altogether when her father died, even in personal journals. She found words wholly inadequate at capturing her emotions. That is, she did until the dam burst, resulting in an essay on grief that was eventually published and remains one of her favorite pieces. Her advice from the experience is clear. “You can’t force your writing when something cataclysmic has happened to you … give yourself time to process.” But she is quick to add that “the act of writing can help you to process the event. Just don’t expect too much of yourself, and be aware that your voice may have changed irrevocably, and that’s okay too.”

Illness

For nearly two years, Dee Wilson [6] has undergone surgeries and therapy to treat a previously undiagnosed disease. And though her desire to write is strong, stronger than ever in some ways, she finds herself unable to open her work in progress. Fear prevents her — fear she will love the work but struggle to find new words, fear she will hate it and not have words to fix it, and an encompassing fear that the effort will take time from friends and family who have stood by her side for these many months.

While she hasn’t yet found an answer, she suspects the key is perhaps learning to work within the fine line between the positive thinking she can rally on good days and the bad days which steal her momentum.

Violence

Charlotte Mielziner [7] also faced an arduous road to recovery, though not from disease. After a physical assault left her traumatized, she first needed therapy to gain perspective. From there, she took on several things to conquer her fear — finding a good horse, taking up karate, working on a rape hotline and, eventually, returning to writing. She says her recovery is ongoing, but makes clear the journey began with one key decision.  As she puts it, “I could choose to change to be what he left me, a victim, or by refusing to bend, find my voice again.”

These are insights of just a few members of our broad and diverse WU community. And now I turn the mic to you. Have you ever lost your voice or your faith in your writing? Can you offer lessons on how to find your way back when shadows in life dim the path?  If so, please share your thoughts in the comments. I, and other members, will no doubt benefit from your experience.

About John J Kelley [8]

John J Kelley [9] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [10], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.