I know I’m not alone when I say I have been in a place where the pain is blinding, and the very idea of writing is unimaginable. This is one of those posts. It’s about survival and self-love and honesty. It’s also about finding joy.
My child was in great distress from early fall through the end of the year. I could not see or think or hear. I could only feel, and what I was feeling was intangible and immeasurable. It’s something I’m still grappling with, to say nothing of how I am trying to support my kid, but some days, I still feel as if I’m on a wild ocean current without a life vest. During those months, I also happened to have the largest number of deadlines I’ve ever had in my life. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, they say and I was—am—grateful for the projects under contract, but—
I had to allow myself the “but.” It’s the first “but” I’ve ever really used since I began my career as a writer. I’ve been a workhorse, doing my share and then some, always finding the bright side of things, even when the going got rough. When the main road was blocked off, I came at things sideways or sneaked under a bypass to find another way. This is who I am. I am one who fails and learns and perseveres.
But as my stress mounted and my deadlines drew closer, I learned a valuable lesson. Sometimes, one cannot see a bright side. One cannot put everything aside and do what needs to be done for work or home or living. One must sit quietly and allow the pain to come. To wash over you, so you may feel it. Process it. Emanate it. In those moments, it is omnipresent, and there is nothing else. You are a vessel of pain. And you know what? That’s okay, because there is no fighting something you cannot control.
I stared at my computer screen for literal hours, days passing to weeks. Weeks passing to months. My brain was foggy, emotion clotted in my chest, and I could only call one word to mind over and over again: impossible. This was impossible, this writing, these deadlines.
Only it wasn’t impossible. It was different. Different in the way that I had come to a new understanding of what my limitations are and what is important. Unforeseen disruptions can be as annoying as a bathtub leaking through the ceiling or a Homer-style tragedy; a disruption that rocks the very foundation of our lives. So I owned it, this disruption. I started to think differently about my work—my writing—and about the list of things I didn’t, wouldn’t, and couldn’t do. How important were are all of these deadlines, in the end? In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they were at the top of the pyramid in my mind, and I was at the bottom.
I’ll never forget the incredibly inspired, lovely, funny, and ultimately heart-wrenching, keynote speech Ann Hood delivered at a conference I attended a few years ago. She lost her daughter to a virulent case of strep throat at around age 7 or so. She talked about the way the pain paralyzed her and closed the part of her brain that longs to tell stories. She couldn’t feel her way through a story anymore because it was to evoke her pain all over again. Her speech was honest, gut-wrenching, and moving, and yet, the audience also laughed and laughed. By the end of it, we cheered for this woman who had discovered something precious about herself, about life, and also about her writing. Her inspiration hadn’t gone away. It had only been on pause and during that difficult time, her creative and emotional well were quietly learning how to fill up again.
Though my story is different, the end result is the same. When I let go of trying to do and be and keep it all together, things were quietly falling into place. My agent, editors, and my writing partner who were all depending on me on the other side of those deadlines, knew me. They knew how much my writing and my professionalism meant to me, and they empathized with my struggle. All I needed to do was ask for help. For a little time. For a little understanding. I didn’t need to punish myself for the work I absolutely could not do. I was on pause, and that was okay.
Sometimes, making it through the day with small comforts is all there is. Other days, there is a glimmer of motivation—a craving for normalcy—and I learned to seize it. It’s how I found my way back in to writing. I was on a very long, cold, dark walk well into the evening when I heard a whisper from my protagonist. She was trying to show me there was a parallel to what I was experiencing; that I needed to take my experience and channel it onto the page. Soon, I found myself sitting down with a pen and a journal gifted to me by a friend.
I quickly jotted down this parallel my protagonist was trying to show me.
I wrote a journal entry that started out in my point of view and morphed into my main character’s.
I waded into a scene that needed to reflect on pain and loss and channeled everything I had into it.
And in subsequent days, I rediscovered a trick that has always helped me when my life, or my head and my heart are too full. I set an alarm and woke up so early I had to peel my eyelids back, with the promise to let myself nap later in the day. But the house and my head were quiet, and I found relief there, in that silence, and amid the fictional world I was trying to create. The words came back little by little.
To struggle is inherent with being alive. I know this on a cerebral level, but it is the stark and difficult emotional reminder that really threw me into a tailspin. Still, I like to believe my experience will shape me as a writer for the better, even if that is hard to see some days. And here, my friends, comes that looking on the bright side again that has, thankfully, ruled my life.
If you are in the midst of some unfathomable pain, I extend my hand to you. If coping means not writing right now, it’s okay. It’s good, even. It’ll come back to you, just as your joy will. All in good time. All in good time.
What are your coping techniques that help you find your way back to the page again, whether it be from a long spell away from it because of lack of motivation or from some difficulty that has arisen in your life?