Thursday, April 20, 2017

Creativity, Frustration, and Burnout

It was the best of jobs, it was the worst of jobs. . .




When people ask me what I do (which is the typical first encounter questions in the US, as if doing is more important than being. When I remember, I ask instead 'What do you enjoy?') I tend to reply with something like this:

"I have the best job in the world. I get to make stuff* up for a living."

And I'm not lying when I say that. I've done other things for work, most notably a 25 year career as a physical therapist. I truly loved being a PT. It was something that was both a job and a calling and in my long career, not only did I directly and positively impact the lives of thousands of patients, I also directly nurtured the careers of dozens of clinicians as well as helped shape the way chronic pain is managed throughout the profession.

Still, being able to live a life of creativity through my writing is amazing. It's what I always dreamed of doing, since early childhood. It's hard to top that with any career, no matter how successful.

There are days where going back to the routine of evaluating and treating a patient seems the simpler path. You know that famous opening line from A TALE OF TWO CITIES? Yeah. Turns out Dickens was right and was probably also talking about the life of a creator. Definitely a best of times/worst of times gig.

Understand, I'm not complaining. No one is holding a gun to my head and forcing me to write for a living. And I went into this gig knowing how mercurial it would be: How long the odds of success. How having a day job or a patron went with the territory. How few writers made a full living from their writing. How much luck and timing counted, even when the hard work was done and I had a solid book, with solid editing, and a solid cover.

Knowing all of that doesn't make it easier to understand why amazing books get overlooked. And I'm not even talking about my own work, here. Over the years I've been working this author/publisher gig, I've had the pleasure of reading some incredible novels and meeting (both virtually and in person) some incredible authors. 

And we're all struggling with having our books discovered. This isn't an indie vs traditionally published dichotomy either. I personally know:

  • a NYT bestselling genre author who, trapped in midlist hell, broke with her agent, stopped writing her own titles and now only ghostwrites;
  • a traditionally published author with a 3 book deal, the novels have been well reviewed and well received, and she'd drowning in her day job, desperate to be able to leave it and afraid to do so;
  • an indie writer whose work is simply astonishing and well-loved by his readership, but who can't seem to get that big break that causes the work to catch the attention of Amazon's algorithms;
  • actually, that last point for at least a dozen writers I know and whose work I have recommended over the years. 

I'm not even sure what the point of this blogpost is, to be honest. My fellow writers already know this; they live it. I suspect that most of my blog readers are fellow writers, so we're all singing to the same choir. 

Maybe it's simply to remind myself that this is the work that I love. As frustrating as it can be, I keep stringing words together to make sentences, turn those sentences into paragraphs. And somehow, those paragraphs stack up over and over and end up telling a story.

I'm a storyteller. It's what I do, who I am, and what I love.





*Depending on the audience, that gets changed to 'sh*t'

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

"And then they stay dead"

Selfie with my Dad


I've quoted these lines from Donald Hall's "Distressed Haiku" before, and they are no less relevant now.

"You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead."
Today would have been my father's 96th birthday. He died 2 years ago, next month and I still miss him keenly.

It's funny - for all that the characters in my novels have fraught relationships with their parents, I had a loving and nurturing family.  My relationship with my father, especially, deepened and strengthened in the last years of his life and for that I am utterly grateful.

He died, on his own terms, after over 8 years on dialysis. He was able to die at home, with hospice support, surrounded by his children and grandchildren, after a long and fulfilling life. In those last months, he and I had many true conversations about life, mortality, love, disappointment, and joy. In the end, we left no unfinished business.

All lives end. We know this. Yet, no matter how old someone you love is when they die, it is a shock. A loss that can hollow us out.

In the first few months of this year, two friends lost their spouses to unexpected sudden death heart attacks. They are both reeling from their grief and struggling to live with profound loss.

There is no security, no technology that protects us from this.

I miss my dad.

My mom died several years before him, of complications of dementia. My grief for her is a distant pain - my mother had vanished years before her death, her memories and personality warped by the disease. We had unfinished business that could not be reconciled before her death. I had to come to terms with that and her loss at the same time.

My grief for my father is less complicated. Sharper. More present. My memories of him are sharper, too. I still think to pick up the phone to chat with him at the start of the baseball season, or in response to something I've heard on NPR. Perhaps that's a way our minds trick us into keeping the dead present.

Today, my thoughts are filled with memories of my dad. They are bittersweet.






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Thursday, April 06, 2017

Learning from vulnerability


I feel you, Charlie. I feel you.

Yesterday, I told some friends that I felt like a border collie without anything to herd.

It's an apt metaphor for feeling rootless and restless, yet pressured by unfocused energy.

I tend to get this way in the Spring. Yeah - I've always been a kind of outlier. A lot of folks are susceptible to SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) in Winter, when the light recedes. Not me. I crave Winter's stark simplicity. It soothes something deep inside my soul. Spring, with its riot of unrestrained growth triggers a wildness in me that I don't know what to do with.

I pace. I move things in the house from one place to another. My weird melancholy is punctuated by bursts of frantic energy where I clean out closets and throw things away.

It's worse when I'm alone, and the 'perfect storm' for this is that my spouse does most of his business traveling in the Spring.

One of the blessings and curses of writing for a living is the lack of external structure. Along with the upending of my family schedule with my husband out of town, given the vagaries of my writing process, Spring seems to be the time where my latest manuscript is always out with the editor.

So, no inherent family structure. No inherent writing structure. The restlessness of Spring.

What I am feeling is vulnerability.

I am no where near as self-sufficient as I tell myself I am.

I realized this talking with a friend yesterday. This is what I told her when she asked me how I was:

I spend so much time and energy pretending to be a functional adult - and for the most part, I am - but when my normal routines and support structures aren't in place, I forget how vulnerable I can be.

I suspect this is true of most of us. The real horror of being an adult is how much we all feel utterly out of control.

Most people drown out that fear with background noise or substances. Some of us just feel it all much more acutely.

And the way society has us all split off from one another and calls needing support a weakness, well, there's your perfect storm right there.
So, I'm learning (again) how much we all "get by with a little help from our friends."

Fortunately, I have dear friends who will throw the virtual tennis ball for my inner Border Collie.





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Monday, April 03, 2017

Returning to Morning Pages







I have often said that what makes a writer is the simple act of noticing.

Perhaps it's the first requirement of an artist of any kind, because if you can't notice, can't pay attention to the sensory and emotional details of the world around you, how can you synthesize and transform it into art?

This is both a blessing and a curse. Because we notice, we risk noticing too much. As if our attention is a semi-permeable membrane with the holes open too wide.

Or to put it another way, we all have an emotional container. When we take in more than we can handle, we get overfilled and overloaded. We can cope with this in several ways: enlarge the container (difficult, though this happens through the developmental course of childhood into adulthood), shut out external influences (a dangerous choice or an impossible one for the artist), or find a way to transform the emotions into something that we can bear.

I write because that's the only way I make sense of both the interiority of my own experiences and the endless barrage of the external world.

This past year, the intrusion of the external world has battered my emotional defenses to a point where my writing has suffered. Which means the main way I process emotions has been compromised even as I'm being subjected to more and more from outside myself.

This is a perfect storm for the artist. And I know too many of my fellow creative folks are being battered as I am.

This morning, instead of starting the day with the barrage of emails, twitter, FB, texts, I sat in silence and handwrote in a spare spiral bound notebook.

I wrote without direction or overarching purpose. I didn't write to create something I could use for story or poem or anything to be deliberately shared with an audience. No. I wrote to channel the swirl and press of emotions into something that made sense to me.

I wrote as a way to empty the emotional container so it had room to fill again.

Emotions are not meant to be trapped and held. Rather, they are the tides of our creative life and we need to free them to ebb and flow. To bring flotsam and jetsam from which we find a bit of sea glass here, a perfect shell there.

If we let it, that swell of emotion can wash over and through us. If we spend ourselves in a futile struggle against that tide, we will drown.

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