Everything else, Writing

Feast or Famine

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Writing is weird. Sometimes difficult. Often joyous.

But always weird.

My brain seems to function on a feast or famine basis when it comes to writing. Right now, I’m writing and writing and even when I’m not writing… I’m still writing. The story is moving along in my mind, I’m hearing the characters, I know exactly where it’s going and where it’s been and where it will be in another five years.

When I’m in this mode, it feels more like I’m a vessel for the characters in my head and I’m more or less transcribing their story. I’m less the puppet master and more the marionette. I love it. Regardless what time of day I’m able to sit down and write, it’s there, right at my fingertips, ready to roll. But it isn’t always this way. Some days, my brain is dry as a desert. Some days, I spend three hours moving a comma. Some days, I can’t stand to even look at my laptop.

And that’s okay.

Social media can be cool, in the sense that it feels as though it brings us closer to those we admire. I mean, twenty years ago I would never have known what Stephen King thought about the president or that he has a dog he calls the Thing of Evil. I would never have known when Diana Gabaldon had a new grandbaby. But as I pull back more and more on social media, as I unfollow and unfriend more and more writers, I find I’m enjoying the act of writing more and more.

I wondered why that was.

Presumably, following and friending other writers should make me feel surrounded by a community of like-minded artists. Supported. Encouraged.

I haven’t found that to be the case.

As much as I love art, as much as I love words and books and writing, as much as I love seeing the creativity of my friends’ minds coming to life, the more I watch their journeys taking shape –

the more I realize other writers stress me out.

Not all of them, of course. I’ve made some wonderful friends over the last few years. But the ones who post obsessively about writing – I find that stressful.

The ones who constantly post how stressed out writing makes them – I find that stressful.

The ones who constantly want something from me – stressful.

The ones who talk about missing out on milestones in their children’s lives, or their wedding anniversary, or their eighty-year-old mother’s birthday party because they were writing or trying to make a deadline or just couldn’t stop editing –

Man, just the thought of these things stresses me out.

Don’t get me wrong. I love writing. I mean, I love writing. When I’m in that zone, when I’m planning twists, when I’m cracking up at a funny scene I’ve written, it’s the best feeling. It makes me feel whole. It’s my passion, one of my greatest joys.

I don’t want it to become one of my stressors. I’ve done the whole writing full-time gig before. I didn’t enjoy it. I felt like I was supposed to. I began to dread writing. I felt anxious that my bills being paid depended on my ability to write enough words in a day.

I see this in other writers as well. When they talk about writing being so stressful they cry over it. When they are so panicked over a deadline or a cover reveal or getting enough reviews they can’t sleep. They are missing out on life because of the stress writing brings to their life. They’ve lost the joy, the passion, the pure wonder of creating a world and people and events in their brain. I don’t want that. I get asked if I hope to make the NYT bestseller list –

the answer is no.

I get asked if I hope to  be able to live on what I make from writing books –

the answer is no.

I get asked if writing is the most important thing in my life –

the answer is no.

Last week, I attended a funeral visitation for a three-year-old child and her twenty-seven-year-old father.

A three-year-old child.

Listen:

I love to write. I’m sad when I can’t. It hurts – physically hurts me when I can’t.

But there is so much more to life than writing.

This year marks twenty-five years since I married my husband. My marriage is more important than writing.

My youngest baby is about to celebrate his sixteenth birthday. A blink of time ago, he was a chubby-cheeked, toothless baby. My oldest child is nearing the end of her Bachelor’s degree program. My middle two children are finding their balance in life as young adults.

I love to read. I love to write. I love to hold the books I’ve created in my hands.

But I don’t love any of that more than I love my kids.

When other writers say things like, “Nothing is more important to me than writing” –

that stresses me out.

Lately I’ve unfollowed or unfriended the bulk of writers I used to interact with. Not the ones I have developed actual friendships with.

And I mean… not Stephen King. Because, obviously.

There is a lot of pressure on writers and artists in general, I think – a notion that says if you don’t want to be the best, be at the top of the list, have bajillions of reviews and followers, then you just don’t want to succeed hard enough.

Maybe. Maybe not.

I guess that depends on what your personal idea of success happens to be.

I accepted a long, long time ago that my brain works differently than other people’s brains do. What I cannot accept is the idea that if I’m not out to make a million, it’s worthless. If I’m not ignoring my family and making writing my number one priority, it’s worthless. If I’m not stressing myself to the breaking point or making my livelihood reliant on it, it’s worthless.

I’m content with my writing at this point. I have a little band of readers who love what I’m doing, who are invested in my characters and have all my books on their shelves. I love not freelancing anymore. I enjoy not being so constantly stressed over deadlines. I am happier writing this way. I’m not making a million dollars. That’s fine – I never intended to.

My vision of success is to continue to write my weird books to the best of my ability for the foreseeable future. I will do what marketing and promo I’m able to do, and let it rest. I trust that the people who need my books will find them.

What I won’t do is be a martyr for my art. I won’t give up everything else in my life for the sake of writing.

I love to read. I love to write. I love making books.

I also love my family. I love to walk barefoot in the grass, and look up at the stars. I love  to sit still and ferret out the meaning behind song lyrics. I love to listen to the rain. I love to hear my children laugh. I love to crochet. I love to try new things. I love to hear my husband tell me about his hopes and dreams. I love to look back at how far we’ve come and think about how far we’re going to go. I love to daydream.

I love to write, and while some days, it feels like my ideas and ability to write is feast or famine –

I don’t believe my dedication to the craft always needs to be one or the other.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

One Step Forward. Three Hundred Sixty Four Steps Back.

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People who know me keep asking if I’m feeling better.

I’m never sure how to answer that question.

What exactly is “better?”

Better from grief? From depression? Anxiety? I don’t know. It’s all tangled up in me and I can’t always pull the different emotions apart.

If the question is, Have you gotten over the deaths of your siblings? Then the answer is no, and I never will, so you might as well stop asking.

If the question is, Are you making any progress at all? Then the answer is, Yeah, I think so.

It feels like I am. In really, really, miniscule ways, I’ve made some progress. For a long time, I felt so raw I could barely stand most of my clothes, so it’s been leggings and soft shirts  most of the winter. But the last few weeks, I’ve been able to wear jeans.

Last Thanksgiving, I hosted the family dinner. My niece brought a turkey. It was too heavy to pull out of the oven, so I transferred much of the juice to a big Mason jar. I set it on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. I’ve been looking at that jar for months, disgusted with myself for not taking care of it, but too exhausted and overwhelmed to deal with it. Two weeks ago, I dumped it out and washed it.

Three weeks ago, as I was walking out the front door to take my boys to school, my youngest son said something funny and I heard myself laughing. Like, really laughing out loud. Hard. And I thought to myself, Oh my God, I’m laughing. How long has it been since I laughed last?

My therapist says she’s proud of me. I wonder how I got to a place in my life where it means so much for a therapist to tell me she’s proud of me for doing simple things like leaving my house or washing the dishes.

I’ve gone to dinner at a couple of smallish restaurants without having an anxiety attack. I told the psychiatrist I’ve been seeing about the anxiety attacks that hit when I’m in crowds and she told me to breathe into a paper sack. So that was just phenomenally unhelpful. Glad I’m getting charged nearly $200 for that bit of advice.

Still can’t watch television or read much. I’ve found a few more musicians I can tolerate the sound of, so my playlist has gotten slightly more diverse, but I still listen to the same songs every day. I have no idea what it is about these artists that makes their music tolerable, but for the moment, I’m just glad I can listen to any music at all.

But it feels like in more ways than I’m moving forward in, I’m stumbling back. Anxiety makes me more awkward than usual, and the usual is pretty damn awkward already. I work in a very small office, usually with three other people that I know pretty well. I have my own desk in a room with two other desks, but there’s usually nobody else there when I’m working. So I walked in last Thursday to find a new person had been hired. She seems entirely pleasant, but I was caught off-guard. I couldn’t think of what to do, anxiety had my brain all jumbled up, and even in the best of times, I’m not huge on hugging, especially with people I don’t know. But the new chick is a hugger, so she jumped up to hug me hello and introduce herself. Entirely inadvertently, I jumped backward and flung my hand out like “stop.” Immediately, I attempted to apologize and shook her hand, babbling incoherently about my own inadequacies and anxieties, and generally making the situation even more awkward. Anxiety ballooned this incident in my mind until it was nearly all I could think about. At the end of my shift, as I was walking out, I thought, I need to make this right so it’s not super awkward next week. So I stopped to shake her hand again as I left, and said the most inane thing I probably could have. “Sorry I’m so awkward, but I’m seeing a psychiatrist about it.”

I’m sure that helped matters. First impressions and all that.

My husband surprised me with a night away at a hotel and planned a night at a casino. He said I seemed overwhelmed and needed a break, which was true. The hotel part was awesome but the casino was crowded and smoky and I had to take frequent breaks from the people. I wrote part of my new book out on my phone while my husband played games, so I didn’t have to interact with anyone. The next day was release day for When Knowing Comes, and as I’d decided to go low-key and stress-free as possible, I’d planned a live video in my FB readers group for the event. We came home twenty minutes before the video was to start. My laptop decided to do updates at the last second, which left me in a panic. The FB app on my phone wouldn’t work for no apparent reason. Finally I grabbed my husband’s phone, downloaded FB, and started my live video twenty minutes late, which left me out of breath, anxious, and shaky.

I find I just really need a lot of preparation before I do anything. Time to work up courage. I hate feeling this way. It isn’t what I’m used to and I get frustrated with myself for not being able to get back to “normal.” Which, okay, with me is still pretty weird but even so. I used to be able to roll with the punches when plans changed. I want that part of me back.

Some days, I am anxious all day for no apparent reason. It feels like that sensation when you tip over the top of a rollercoaster hill, all day. All night. And I can’t link it to anything in particular, so I can’t fix the problem and by the time evening comes, all I can think about is going to bed so I can escape that feeling. Going to bed because you’re tired is a very different thing than going to bed because you can’t stand being awake anymore. Either way, though, I wake up over and over and over. I can’t remember what a solid night of sleep feels like.

But on the upside, I’m having less nightmares about my family and pets dying in front of me. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

I’ve pulled back more on social media. I’ve unfollowed or left all the groups I was in except my own readers group. Weekly, I cull more “friends.” I’ll continue paring down until I get to what I feel is a manageable number. I understand it hurts people’s feelings, but right now all I can do is try to take care of my brain the best I can. My focus has narrowed to my household, my mom, my job, and writing.

And speaking of writing.

I’m writing. A lot. For so many months, I couldn’t write anything, and that was painful for me. Now, I can’t seem to stop. I’m nearly finished writing the third Windy Springs book, and my mind races with ideas for the fourth.

A lot of the time I feel like all I’m doing is treading water. But hey, at least I’m not drowning anymore.

One step forward. Three-hundred-sixty-four steps back.

But still, a step forward is a step forward. And even one step is better than none.

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Everything else, Writing

Blocked.

 

 

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Writers block isn’t real.

It’s just an excuse to be lazy.

Real writers write. Every day.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard some version of these statements. I’m not sure what the people offering this non-advice hope to achieve, but personally, I think such words are extraordinarily detrimental.

For one thing, nobody gets to tell an artist how to do their art. Some people naturally create more in certain seasons. Some artists work a day job (or two, or three) and only get to be creative on weekends. Or every third Thursday. Some artists are single parents, and the idea of creating on a daily basis is so laughable as to be fiction.

Beyond these things, though, is the harmful notion that a struggling person just isn’t trying hard enough. There are all sorts of reasons a creator might be blocked. Maybe they’ve been ill. Maybe there’s been a death in their family. A divorce. Maybe the season of life they are in has them caring for elderly parents around the clock. Depression. Anxiety. Insomnia. Maybe there’s no reason other than that they need a break, and their brain is trying to get that message through to them.

Real writers write. That’s true. You’ve got to write something. You don’t need to write every day, unless that’s the way you work. Pressing unrealistic expectations on someone already barely keeping their head above water isn’t helpful. Despite the overwhelming amount of advice suggesting writers are machines, meant to work every day, all day, without regard to physical or mental health or other difficult outside factors –

You know what? We’re not.

We’re just people. And sometimes being a person is hard. Sometimes the difficulties in life kill our creativity. That doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. That doesn’t mean we’re no longer writers. It means we’re human beings who need a break. And that’s okay.

Take it. Rest. Go outside. Deal with the things you need to deal with. Read. Learn something new. Spend time with your family. Your friends. Laugh. Cry. Heal.

And come back to it. Your story isn’t going to run away because you left it alone for a little while.

If you aren’t a writer but you know one, and they’ve shared with you that they are blocked, telling them they are making up excuses or being lazy isn’t helpful. Instead, encourage them. Remind them they deserve rest like anyone else.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Writing

The Books that Grew Me

 

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I can’t recall I time I wasn’t a voracious reader. As far back as my memory allows me to go, I had a book (or two) in my hand. And a spare one in the car. And probably another one hidden somewhere for just in case.

I read all the books that were popular in that time frame, of course. Sweet Valley High. R.L. Stine. Babysitter’s Club (always envisioned myself as Claudia). There was an author by the name of Zilpha Keatley Snyder (isn’t that a fantastic name?) whose books I loved. But the ones that caught my attention and held it for years and years were the books by L.M. Montgomery.

I think I started reading the Anne of Green Gables series around sixth or seventh grade. I had a group of girlfriends who read along with me, and we would discuss the stories at length in the school cafeteria. I’ve thought about what it was about these books in particular that captured my adoration so swiftly, and it took me a long while before I came to the conclusion it was Anne herself. Even at a young age, I identified with her inner struggle – she wanted to conform, do what was expected of her, make everyone happy. But she simply couldn’t be anyone other than Anne. She saw the world in a different way than everyone else, and I felt that right through to my marrow, even before I had the ability to articulate it.

My copy of the first book in the series has been read so many times the spine is cracked, the cover gave up the ghost decades ago, and the top corners of all the pages curl in. It’s beautiful. I kept them all – all the Anne books, all the Emily of New Moon books, all the off shoot books – in the hopes that one day my children would fall in love with them the way I did. That didn’t happen, though. Still, I keep them. I like knowing right where they are. Those books were such a huge part of my growing up years. I haven’t read them in probably close to two decades. Maybe longer. Yet I remember sentences from the books.

“Well now,” said Matthew. “Well now.”

“I wouldn’t give a dog I liked to that Blewett woman,” Matthew said.

“People laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas, you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you?” (oh, how I identified with poor Anne in this regard.)

“The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.”

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

I’ve never watched the shows that sprung from this series. I couldn’t. In general, I can keep the two mediums separate. And I realize it would be unfair to expect a show to exactly reflect the scenes that I’ve held in my mind all these years like personal little treasures. So I avoided them altogether.

The years I first fell in love with the Anne books were the same years I first started messing around with writing, so the two experiences are forever tangled together in my mind. I had always loved words, but those books showed me how the perfect phrase could conjure a clear picture in the imagination of the reader. How a fictional character could stay with a person for years after they’d read about them. They taught me about the impact words could have on a life. To have known and loved these books so long ago – and still – is a gift. I cannot imagine being a writer now if I had never stumbled on those books back then.

It’s mind blowing to think the words of a woman who died more than thirty years before I was born had such a powerful influence on my life. But isn’t that what good art does? Its reach surpasses things like time. It connects us, generation after generation.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

Can’t Go Over It. Can’t Go Under It.

 

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It seems simplistic to say that life is often like the children’s song, “Going on a Bear Hunt.” But like many things, I guess, we learned as children, it’s become a solid truth in adulthood.

With life comes much joy. We drink it up. We hold it tight.

With life comes much pain. We want to avoid it. We shrink away from it. We try to numb it in any number of ways. But the reality is, we have to go through it. Even when we know what we have to do, we run from the pain. It doesn’t work, though.

There’s no way over it. There’s no way under it. No way around it. I’ve watched people numb the pain. Avoid dealing with it. What happens is, they get stuck. No matter how you numb yourself, at some point, you’ll start to feel again. Then you have to decide whether you’re going to numb yourself again, or deal with the pain. Those that keep it numb are just spinning their wheels. They never fully go through it, so they can never get to the other side. Years can pass. A lifetime can pass. And still, there they are, trapped in a bubble of agony while the world goes on without them.

It’s scary to face it. I know it is. Standing in the void, peering into a dark, empty place. Unsure if there  might be sun on the other side. Unsure if it’s worth it to try to find out.

The ground is tilted. Your soul is crooked. It seems like pushing through the darkness will be too much. It might be safer to remain in the void, with your crooked soul and tilted earth. You know how to exist there. It might be cold and lonely, but you’ve gotten used to it. Reaching for a light you aren’t sure will be there is a gamble.

What if you get all the way through and find it isn’t there? Then what?

Facing the darkness, facing the pain, will be worth it. It will hurt, and it’s normal to want to run from that. But refusing to deal with it keeps the wound open. It can’t heal until it’s dealt with head on.

You can do this. Brace up. Stare into the inky blackness. Know you are worth finding the sun again.

Can’t go over it. Can’t go under it. Can’t go around it.

Just dive in.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

The Gift of a Song

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On occasion, I’ve experienced things that defy any simple explanation. I don’t understand how they happened, but I’m positive that they did. Cosmic mysteries, I guess, or whatever you want to call them.

My sister loved the song Wagon Wheel by Darius Rucker. If it came on the radio, she’d immediately start  smiling and singing along. When she was on Hospice, her son would sing it to her often. The night she passed, that same son sang Wagon Wheel as she took her final breaths.

We made a CD to play during the funeral viewings and service. Of course, Wagon Wheel was included.

She’d been gone just a little over four years when we learned my brother had cancer. He asked me to help him take his son on a promised trip to Nashville. Within weeks, we’d thrown a fundraiser, gotten time off work, and packed up our Yukon, Nashville bound. My nephew loves country music, and my brother had promised to take him to see the Grand Ole Opry. It took us two days to drive from Michigan to Nashville. My brother was quite ill at that point, and we had to stop often for him to get a drink or to rest. We had purchased tickets ahead of time for the Opry, for the same night we rolled into town. After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we headed out. We had a wheelchair we’d intended to bring with us, but we couldn’t fit it in the vehicle, not with five adults and all the suitcases and bags. After literally hours of trying to get the chair into the Yukon, we left without it, as time was unfortunately of the essence. When we arrived at the Opry, we realized we had a problem: the parking lot was enormous and crowded. There was no way my brother could walk that distance, so my husband let the four of us out at the gates, and went to find a parking spot. If you’ve ever been to the Opry, you know how beautiful it is. The giant guitars, the plants and flowers, the lights. It’s utterly enchanting. And there is always country music blaring outside to welcome visitors.

It took quite some time for my husband to make it back up to where we were. Tickets in hand, our group entered the gates.

That’s when I heard it. Darius Rucker singing Wagon Wheel. It started playing just as we walked through. I nudged my sister-in-law. “Do you hear that?” I asked her. “It’s Charlotte’s song.” We all kind of stood still for a second, listening. A weird little shiver went up my spine and my eyes watered. How I’d wished she could have been there with us, and out of nowhere came her favorite song.

Which could always be a coincidence. But it meant something to me. It really struck my heart.

The show was fantastic. It felt good to know we had accomplished the biggest goal for the trip. We’d gotten my brother and nephew to the Opry. Anything over and above that was gravy. We hit a lot of touristy spots while we were in town. The wax museum, where my brother posed with his favorite singer, Reba McIntyre. We bought cowboy boots at a western shop. We laughed a lot. One day we drove right into the heart of the city, intent on taking my nephew to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Here in Michigan, I live in a town so small we don’t even get mailboxes. My brother and his family lived a couple of hours north of us, in another small town. You ever see the Uncle Kracker video for Smile? That was filmed in their town. Suffice to say, downtown Nashville was a bit of a shock to our systems. The noise, the crowds, the hella busy streets. First we had to find a rental place to get a wheelchair, which took time. Then we had to locate a parking lot, which was confusing. And by the time we had the wheelchair and had gotten parked, we weren’t sure which direction we were even walking. We went down one sidewalk, backtracked, tried another one. Finally, my husband told us to stop and he took out his iPhone.

“Siri, I need directions to the Country Music Hall of Fame,” he said, loud and clear.

Instead, his phone pulled up YouTube. And without him touching a button, Darius Rucker’s Wagon Wheel came blaring out of his phone.

That time, I did cry. In fact, my insides shook. The five of us stilled on the sidewalk, stunned. Staring at the phone in my husband’s upturned palm.

When the song ended and we looked up to try to figure out where we were, there it was: the Country Music Hall of Fame. Right across the street.

Another coincidence?

It feels like more than that to me. It feels like it was a gift, just for us. Two weeks later, my brother was gone. But the memory of that moment the five of us – or maybe the six of us – stood together on that sidewalk, listening to Wagon Wheel, has been a balm to my soul ever since.

I will treasure that fraction of time forever. Because I was given a precious gift.

The gift of a song.

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