Nancy: There Is No Light Without the Darkness

A few weeks ago, I went through a rough patch in my writing life. More accurately, I started going through the rough patch, because I haven’t yet climbed completely out of that hole of writerly despair. At least now I’m close enough to the surface to catch a glimpse of sunlight filtering down from above me.

There were reasons I fell into the hole, of course. I had too many deadlines on multiple projects converging at once. I was running a low-grade fever (precursor to a virus that towered a whole weekend and then some). I came to the realization that I couldn’t stay on course for meeting my publishing deadlines and at the same time attend an amazing writers’ conference being held in paradise this coming fall. I bailed on paradise because it was the right thing to do, but sometimes the right think sucks.

But there were deeper reasons, too. Poking a stick into a story idea that’s not baked enough yet. Coming to the point in one of my stories where I realized it’s all complete drivel (this happens at several points per story for me; YMMV). Falling into the pit of despair known as imposter syndrome. I knew talking to someone would help, but I wasn’t ready to share with other writers (which makes up about 90% of my circle of friends and acquaintances IRL) for fear of hearing well-meaning advice or platitudes, neither of which would have worked for me in that particular state. In fairness, my wonderful friends who also happen to be writers would have known not to do that, but I was stuck down in that hole, not seeing things all that clearly.

Which left me with the small number of non-writers in my life, and led to the realization that not only did I not want to discuss the trials and tribulations of the writing life with them in that moment, I didn’t want to discuss those harsh realities with them ever. I really had to ponder my own reaction. These are good eggs, kind people, of the loving and caring sort. Why did I recoil from sharing these truths with them? Maybe I was afraid – to paraphrase Col. Jessup from A Few Good Men – they couldn’t handle the truth, because most conversations with non-writers that touch on writing reveal a lot of misunderstanding about what it means to pursue the writing life.

We are the overlords of time, bending and stretching it to obey our will. This sounds great. Amazing, actually. Where do I sign up for this superpower? Because it did not arrive in my Acme Writer Starter Kit. Maybe I should demand a refund. Or, you know, deal with the truth, which is unless a writer has a really fast rocket ship and can disrupt the space-time continuum, she is bound by the same 24-hour days, 7-day weeks as everyone else on this big, round rock known as earth.

To clear up a few other misunderstandings about writers and time: no one gave me this time; I took it, fought for it, carved it out of the cold, hard edifice of life with my bare, bleeding hands. All my other time-consuming responsibilities did not evaporate; I prioritized writing above as many of those other things as I could, and still I have to juggle and re-shuffle constantly, because this life thing comes with serious demands. And there have been times when I could not prioritize writing, when it fell to the bottom of my list or got smothered at the bottom of my to-do pile. Because the limitations of 24/7 really do apply to writers, too.

We are living the dream, ergo there are unicorns and rainbows (but no unicorn poop and no downpours). Ah, the good life. I am not being facetious. For me, and I’m sure for many of you, writing – even on its worst days – is the dream. At least it’s my dream. It’s my passion, and to some extent, my obsession. There is nothing in the world that compares with finally untangling a plot problem, understanding a character’s deeper motive, finishing an exquisite passage, or making myself (and later, other readers) laugh and cry and emote with something that came from my fevered imagination and gnarled fingers.

Why shouldn’t writing also be hard? We’re baring our souls here, people. Bleeding on the page. Digging into the most painful parts of human experience to expose the emotional truths that lie at the heart of all good fiction.

I truly believe that everything that is worthwhile is hard, frustrating, sometimes even demoralizing. Raising children. Working on a long-term relationship. Caring for a sick loved one. Taking care of pets. Pursuing some other passionate calling like medicine or social work or politics. All of the wonderful things that make life worthwhile come with their own dark sides, tough days, and pits of despair. Wanting, needing, and loving something does not make it easy, it just makes the hard parts bearable.

We are carrying the hopes and dreams of all of humanity on our broad, strong, writerly shoulders. Okay, yes, I’m being dramatic. That’s something we writer types are wont to do. But when people not engaged in a creative outlet learn I’m a professional writer, they admit to being immensely impressed, slightly jealous, or – most often – both. As the New York Times reported, more than 80% of Americans ‘think they have a book in them’. That’s literally hundreds of millions of people in the US alone wanting to do the thing I get to do every day. What’s not to envy?

It’s hard to explain to someone who wants what you have that – like time – no one handed you this special gift. That you’ve had to fight for it, through it, even with it to get this writing life into some semblance of something livable. Who wants to hear that? Who asked you to rain on their parade full of unicorns? You need to smile, write that book, get it out into the world, and make it a success, damn it! Otherwise, those watching you, envying you, wanting what you have, might just lose hope in their own creative dreams.

As I pondered these myths about writing, I also dealt with the reality of my own writing life. I started finding footholds to begin the climb out of my bad writing day/week/month hole (yes, I promise I’m almost done with this tired metaphor). I eventually reached out to a few writer friends, asking for nothing but a chance to vent and some supportive pity, which they graciously provided advice-free. I posted about my stalled progress in a private online group for creative types (not all writers), and included a simple plan to get back on the writing path.

And then I followed my simple plan, removing word, scene, and chapter count goals from my daily to-do list, and focusing instead on spending an hour – just one hour – on whatever project needed my attention the most that day. I also took comfort in some very timely articles about dealing with the dark times by writer Kim Bullock over at Writer Unboxed, and writing mentor extraordinaire Lisa Cron over at Writers Helping Writers. 

And through my brief journey to the dark side, an unexpected thing has happened. I’ve made peace with the fact that there are some things that non-writers just don’t get, that they’ll never get unless and until they really do write that book they’re sure they have inside themselves, if only they can learn to bend time and tame unicorns and grow broad shoulders.

But you and I will look back at all the deep, dark holes littering our writing path, and we will know the truth.

8 thoughts on “Nancy: There Is No Light Without the Darkness

  1. Oh, Nancy, hugs!

    Imposter syndrome is very real. The platitude is: if you write, you are a writer. The comeback: well, I’m not fucking writing, am I? The rebuttal: you write all the time. Blogs, comments, stuff for work. The jerk-brain speaks: But that doesn’t coooouuuuunnnt. That’s not reeeaaal writing.

    Sensible people tend to throw up their hands at that point. There’s no reasoning with jerk-brain. There’s only medication or trickery.

    I really like this plan you’ve got. Although, an hour seems like too much for me. Twenty minutes (maybe two twenty-minute sessions?) to do whatever needs/wants to be done. That sounds reasonable.

    I just watched something on YouTube with Richard Ayoade; he talked about how you really can’t plan things. They never work out, he said, and I was left with the impression of how all the Future Plans just feel like a huge burden. He had just finished making a film, and was in the process of writing his next, and I think he was saying the only thing a creative can do is just stay in the moment of creation. Only, of course, Richard Ayoade would never state it in such cliché and banal terms. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iew5GoyqsoM

    And if that doesn’t cheer you up, here’s Antonio Banderas teaching Spanish slang. LOL, I watch entirely too much YouTube, but after I saw this, I was reminded of how much I love Banderas, and how he could be my muse for a very charming hero. Very un-Jack, but equally attractive. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZ0vxQ3uJCU

    The thing is to grab some moments (wrest them out of the hands of my YouTube addiction!), and be in them, writing. I’ve got enough inspiration to carry me through 20 minutes. I know I do! Thanks for the pep talk!

    • It’s always fun to compare and contrast our creative approaches to others. Frex, a 20-minute container would feel stifling to me, and I’d never start because I’d be convinced I can’t get enough done in 20 minutes! An hour is about the smallest container I can approach without feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to speed through the writing. And as for planning, those are moments of creation for me, so I don’t look at it the same way as Ayoade at all. Different brains make the creative world go ’round!

      • A very large part of me thinks twenty minutes is absolutely nothing, as well. Just enough time to settle down with a large drink, write three sentences, and then have to turn the switch back to real time again.

        But Bujold said when she was starting out (and had small children? this may be pre-children), she’d write during her lunch hour on the job. That’s the time she had. So, a small part of me says, “Why can’t you pull a Bujold? Three sentences are better than no sentences!”

        I think Ayoade does a lot of planning as well, but he finds that once he engages with the writing, it all falls to pieces anyway. I don’t know; there are a lot of ways to define planning and writing. I do find it hard to keep the big picture in my brain when I’m actually writing. I go and write something clever, and then have to go back and adjust the big picture so I don’t kill my darlings. One can’t kill ALL of one’s darlings, can one?

        Thinking on the keyboard; I’m just not sure.

  2. Oh, Nancy, I’m so sorry! Those dark holes will get you every time. I’m glad to hear that you’ve found a ladder out and a way to get back to a writing life you enjoy.

    • If not a ladder, at least some hand- and foot-holds to scale my way out. One of the upsides to the down time is that I’ve only been writing the scenes I really want to write, which are probably the only ones the stories actually need, anyway. And maybe some of the pain was growing pain, forcing me to come at the writing in a new way, now that it’s my primary job. Onward and upward!

  3. Hang in there, Nancy. This writing gig isn’t for wussies. I spent a month wrestling with one chapter after getting comments back from beta readers and I felt so guilty for it…like I should have been able to pin that bad boy to the ground a la Crocodile Dundee. But it didn’t happen. However, I’m over that hump and dedicated to spending time every day doing SOMETHING related to writing, whether working on the next chapter or entering contests or writing my blog post…doesn’t matter. And right now, with hubby out of town and me single parenting, that’ll have to do.

    • Comments, from critiquers, betas, or (as is my case this month) an editor, always require some time for me to process them. I have two different editing letters I received in the past week or so, and I’m cogitating while working on other pieces. I thought about writing a blog post about how I’m approaching them, but thus far have only come up with, “Dang, this is hard!”

      I’m glad to hear you’re over the hump. Agreed, finding something writing-related to do regularly can keep our heads in the game, and sometimes that’s the best we can do.

  4. Pingback: Nancy: May Accountability Thread – Eight Ladies Writing

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