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.