I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: So much of this writing gig is about keeping yourself in the right emotional space to be able to just do the work.
There’s a lot going on in that phrase, really, which is probably why I like it so much. But like everything else, the way I feel about it totally depends on where I’m at when I think about it.
When things are going well and words are flowing, I can say it to another writer or to someone who doesn’t really write and feel somehow wise. I’ve been doing this for a long time, after all. I know what I mean, and when things are going right this idea carries a lot of weight.
Similarly, I can say it to a group of writers and we can have a conversation about what it means in relation to things like writer’s block or any one of a hundred other little writerly things. In those times the phrase seems simply workaday, something sitting there at arm’s length, ready to be dissected and used generically as we think about how to live a life as creative people. These conversations are safe places for writers. It’s okay to at least glance at all your little insecurities centered on what it means to be living out there on your own because the conversations are more hypotheticals, or at worst things in the past, things happening to other people, you know? They aren’t about concerns in the moment, so everything is fair game in those environments. Consider them a writer’s effort to vaccinate against problems, preventative therapy of a sort.
But here’s the thing.
Sometimes things get real quickly. Or they get that way slowly, but for a long time. Even if you think you’re in good space, sometimes life hits before you’re ready to deal with it.
If you’ve followed me recently, you’ll know that a month ago my mom and dad had a medical emergency. We had come to Tucson specifically to be with my parents as they aged, and so, while this problem was hard to deal with, it was at least not totally unexpected.
I had been writing a book at the time, doing a Novel Dare alongside my friend Lisa Silverthorne. To put it directly, this issue stopped me in my path. I didn’t write a single word for two solid weeks as we shuttled to and from hospitals and care centers and dealt with doctors and nurses and whatnot. I’m not wanting to run you through all that, so I’ll cut to the chase and say that the good news is that recovery is happening and it’s looking like things might well get back to something that looks almost “normal” again with some time. Fingers remain crossed.
What I want to talk about today, though, is what it’s been like for me to get back on the horse.
A week or so ago I finally sat down to create words again.
For whatever delusional reason I had, I thought I would plop myself back in front of the keyboard and, yeah, maybe it would take a day or two to catch the tasty wave of the book I was writing, but I’d wait for it and things would be going again.
That’s how it works, right?
Apply pants to seat and make words come out until you’re done. I mean, I’m a “professional” writer, whatever you want that to mean. That’s how it works most of the time. I mean, I’m a big boy. I’ve taken vacations and come back to jump right into the fray before. I know what it means to take a break, and I know what it means to hold yourself accountable to get work done.
Here’s the thing, though.
The book I was working on before the accident—hence the book I returned to—is a lighthearted romp, a fun baseball thing with a generous mix of wild genre swapping whenever it suits my needs and interests. They’re full of dumb jokes and twisted stereotypes. They include overly emotional odes to sports and games, and classic tropes (hopefully twisted a bit), and sometimes just silly things that I throw in because, well, because they make me happy. People either love them or don’t, I suppose…but at the end of the day, to me, these stories are like comfort food full of empty calories that are just fun, and hopefully, for the right audience, just as satisfying.
I took the first day back to just kind of run through it again, lightly editing and adding bits and pieces, but mostly just getting the story reloaded into my brain.
It wasn’t until the second day that I focused on creating words.
It didn’t feel right, though. Nothing was coming out like I felt it should. Still, I pressed on, because that’s what you do. Lather, rinse, hit wall, dust yourself off, repeat.
A couple days ago, Lisa (the wife/copy editor) asked how it was going, and I had to be honest and say it wasn’t going as well as before the accident.
This is when I first noted that I’d kind of forgotten that whole thing about needing to be in the right emotional space to do your work.
As we talked a little longer, it became obvious though.
Of course I wasn’t happy with the work.
I’ve just been through a deeply intense two or three weeks. My brain is weighed down with all the kinds of events and thoughts you have when you’re faced with these kinds of things, and here I am, trying to write silly assed pulp fiction comedy on a baseball field.
As friends of mine will often say, writing is supposed to be fun.
“Go play,” some of them will say when they talk about going to write.
And, yes, writing—though sometimes hard, and sometimes aggravating—is supposed to be fun. It’s good to keep that in mind all the time. But sometimes writing cannot be fun because sometimes a person just isn’t in the right place to have fun at all. There’s a perspective to achieve, you know? A way of being in the world, or of coming to terms with the situation around you that becomes necessary to really function fully. I’m no therapist, but I assume some of this is a defense mechanism wherein my brain is asking for recuperation time.
Here’s the chase, though: I was having fun writing this book before the accident. I’ll have fun writing it again, soon, too.
I can feel it.
When I scanned the work that was there, it made me smile. Good book, bad book, indifferent book, it’s a story I like, and I know it will mean something to me when the thing is finished. And the truth is that there are moments I’m having fun, even now. But where I am right now, the issue is as much emotional stamina as it is anything else; my ability to concentrate is a mess. I find myself into the piece for fifteen or thirty minutes, then I’m out again, reminding myself about a prescription mom probably needs or a doctor’s appointment she’s going to need to get to, or whether it’s time to go walk the cat (yes, we walk our cat, don’t judge us).
Or I find myself surfacing from the book to remind myself that we need to get to the store, or whatever.
It’s like I’m getting back on the horse, but the horse isn’t totally broken, yet, and next thing you know my backside is sitting in the dirt again.
It’s frustrating, yes.
I wanted to hop into the chair and start banging out 3-5K words every day. Or worse, I expected to do that. The issue is that my body just isn’t ready to do 5K words. Instead, it’s ready to do 300 words, or 500 words, or whatever.
I’m needing to be good with a slow reentry.
I’m needing to give myself a break.
This is hard, you see, because I’m me.
If anyone else were in this same situation, I’d be telling them to take it as it comes, I’d be telling them that they are the same writer they were before, but that they just need to give themselves some space to let their brain get back into the right spot. Sure, show up for work every day, but take it in steps. In other words, if I were talking to someone else, I’d remind them that this period isn’t about creating words as much as it is allowing my mind to get back to the right emotional space to do the work.
Write something different, I’d say to them.
Take on a quick short story, I’d suggest.
Work on your book for as long as you’re feeling humorous. And then, when you’ve finished a bit, give yourself a mental high-five because you totally rock, and then take a break.
Go work on something else.
Like your fake baseball team, or like reworking your production plan for next year …
Well, maybe even a blog post.
It’s all good, you know?
Things are going to be all right.
That’s what I’d say to someone else, anyway.
So, here’s the thing: I’m going to be fine.
Yes, my time is still going to be constrained, and that’s going to be frustrating. But I can manage. As I said earlier, I feel things coming back. I need to get my act together and stop running open loop on my plans, but I’m going to be good.
I decided to write this over-long post today, however, because I know there are writers out there who struggle with things that are outside their ability to control.
I’m writing this now because, while I’ve talked about this kind of subject before, I’ve generally talked about it only when things are going well—times when it’s felt like I’m in control and being productive—which tends to make me feel like I’m out there spouting pretentious doses of pomposity.
So much of this writing gig is about keeping yourself in the right emotional space to be able to just do the work, eh? Sounds like a blubberpuss to me.
I’m writing this now, though, because I’m in a different place today.
I’m writing this now specifically because my body is most definitely not in the right emotional place to do the work, and because this is not my “fault.”
And I’m writing this because I know for a fact that when a person is in that struggle—especially when success hasn’t happened, or perhaps even worse because success has happened, but is now stopped—it’s really easy to let the weight of the moment break around you in dangerous ways.
It’s easy to think you’ll never be creative again.
Because, let’s be serious, okay, that’s the fear. At least that’s where it starts.
But it ends up in places even worse.
I’ll never be creative again, you start out saying, then graduate to Everything I do from here out is going to suck. Next thing you know you’ve moved on to So the hell what? Everything I’ve done so far was pure luck anyway. What does it matter if I make it back? No one will ever read it.
If you’ve never felt that, well, good for you. But I’m not sure I’m going to believe you if you say it. I’m a guy, you know, and a guy of a certain age. I was taught to hide stuff deep and keep the motor going. But it’s there. For me, this particular event was immediate and traumatic, but I’ve been in the troughs of these things before, and I know they come in a lot of different packages. The world has an infinite bag of tricks it uses to wear a person down, each one bringing with it a whole fleet of insecurities. I know what it’s like to cover those things up.
If this is you today, if you are in a place where your mojo has been stripped away, and where you’re worrying about this, I want you to know you aren’t alone. That it happens to essentially everyone. Or at least, anyway, that it happens to me.
And I want you to know that, if you are like me, that yes, you will be creative again.
But you probably need time.
Maybe a little, maybe a lot.
So let your brain do what it will.
Pick your projects. Push yourself when you feel it.
It will happen, though.
You rocked before.
You’ll rock again.
Immensely helpful essay, Ron! I relay needed to hear this today too. Being in the right emotional space is so oddly unrecognized by so may of us! Thank you for saying it!
Forgot to mention, best healing wishes to your parents and strength to the whole family!
Thanks, Ron. Having a similar problem, I finally turned to Dean’s Start/Restart Your Writing lectures, looking for a solution. My favorite nugget is his remark that after a life roll, a writer may have trouble restarting because on the subconscious level, the future is no longer predictable. The next life roll may happen any moment and the writer feels compelled to put aside writing to get ready to face the next danger.
You mentioned a number of tasks that interrupt your writing and they seem to come from that place in all of us that wants to believe the future can be made safe and manageable. What I like about this explanation is that it takes the blame from what feels like a failed work ethic and puts it squarely on my subconscious aka critical voice. My favorite villain!