- Writer Unboxed - https://writerunboxed.com -

When the Book Takes Over Everything

Here is the truth: sometimes, you cannot have work/life balance.  In the current world, that’s almost heresy, and as you know, I’m a deep believer in keeping the well full and taking care of yourself and loving the work. I like artists dates and measured hours for the writer and plenty of exercise. All that stuff.

But sometimes, the book is going to take all you’ve got. You will not be balanced and measured and sane.  You’ll be unshowered and wild-haired and babbling about things that have no meaning to anyone in this world. Nor will you be able to have actual conversations with the living world because you have used up all your words on the book and there are none left over for live humans.

Sometimes this state comes about because of deadline, and that’s always the case for me.  I am a working writer, and I’ve pretty much had a deadline for the next book for thirty years. Sometimes that deadline is a comfortable distance away, but most of the time, it’s coming up faster than I expected and then I have to go in my office, and shut everything else out.

But whether or not there is a deadline, there comes a point in every book when this has to happen. At some point, I have to open the window to the other world, the book world, and step into it.

And live there.

It takes a lot of effort to build the world of a novel.  It’s a vast, complicated, layered thing, with about ten billion details you have to place. The landscape alone is complex, located in a particular place and time, with particular flora and fauna, and furniture and customs. Then we add the people of the book, the stars and the secondaries and the peas-and-carrots bit players. We conjure up weather and cars or horses or carts, and skies and sounds and meals and clothing appropriate for each one. Gestures. Habits. Longings and goals and frustrations and backstories.

That’s a lot.

It usually takes me the first six months to get the building right. I build and revise, the words coming slowly as I sit on the window sill and try to see what’s there.

Each day, when I come to the page, I have to open the window, let that world in, and get myself situated again. I do this over and over, day after day, until suddenly I can’t really leave it. There are too many things I’m trying to hold space for—the hares and the sea and all those dishes and growing things and birds. The only thing to do is to abandon this world and go live in that one.

Which also isn’t easy, as you well know if you’ve done this even once. Many of us here have done it multiple times, many times.

It isn’t easy for a few reasons. You do actually have to sustain your physical body, for one thing. You have to eat and sleep at the very least, and although I am not the kind of woman who forgets to eat, I will sometimes forget when I’m living in the other world. When I remember, it’s scrambled eggs or a grilled cheese sandwich and since it’s hot, watermelon or cherries.  Food I can make easily and consume while working.

Sleep is also necessary. I try to sleep more than usual, but what often happens is that I nap between writing bouts.  I’m not sure what this is about, honestly, but it has been a part of the process for me for a long time. I write for a block of time, usually 50-90 minutes, and then I’m sleepy and have to take a break to close my eyes for 20 minutes. This can go on all day long.

It used to make me feel very lazy. I mean, really, how much time was I wasting by taking all those breaks?

Now I know that it serves some important purpose. It saves me from entering this world very far, for one thing. I break from the book world, take that cat nap, then re-enter the book world. While I’m napping, the girls in the basement solve story problems and offer up tidbits and snippets I didn’t know I needed.   

Most of us also have families around, and friends, maybe a spouse. My partner and friends and family all know this time will come in every book, and after knowing me for so long, they’re used to me disappearing for a few weeks. Friends will not see me, and my family sees my body but my brain is elsewhere.

Animals are good companions for all this, of course. They’re content for you to be physically present, even if you’re not there mentally/emotionally/spiritually, with one caveat—that daily walk. Which I do let go during this mad time if I don’t have a dog.

Society will try to pressure you to be something else, but I’m here in the wilderness right now, sending back the message that you don’t have to do anything. This is exhausting work.  Exhausting. It always amazes me how utterly drained I am at the end of a day living in the book world, especially at this stage. It’s like spell-casting, holding a sacred circle, standing guard against intruders—all by yourself, and then also acting, directing, producing an entire movie at the same time.

Balance, while lovely at other times, is just not possible at this point in a book. For that few weeks or couple of months, you are allowed to be as weird as you like. Wear the same soft t-shirts and loose, soft pants (oh, they are so very soft) all day long. Eat the things that get you through. Sleep and write, write and dance, write and walk. Write, write, write, write, write.  Live there.

It’s what we all wanted, isn’t it?  It was what I wanted. To make things up and let them come to life using my body and hands and mind as a conduit. If I do it well enough, others will be able to go live in that world, too.

Which makes us all magicians, doesn’t it?  We are casting spells, holding space, making magic. Magic takes what it takes. Nobody would ask a wizard to stop being weird and get dinner on the table.

When it’s finished, you can dive into a bed and sleep for days and then emerge and reclaim order, and eat the right things again, and get some fresh air.  There is plenty of time.

In the meantime, just write. Write.

What stage of the book are you writing right now?  What is the end of a book like for you? Do you strive for balance or is it difficult? 

About Barbara O'Neal [1]

Barbara O'Neal [2] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [3], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [4].