The hardest thing for me about writing is not the writing itself, it’s writing through everything life throws your way. Every writer I know–each one of you reading this, I imagine–is not simply a writer. We are daughters and sons, siblings, parents, grandparents, spouses. We are friends. We are pet owners. We work full time, we juggle three jobs, we are struggling to find a job. We are in college, we are going back to school. We are planning a wedding, a vacation, a birthday party, a baby shower. Our cars break down, a tree falls on our house, our basement gets flooded. We get sick, we get injured, our friends and family get sick or injured. We have serious health complications. Our loved ones have serious health complications. We endure loss, both unexpected and long-time dreaded. We are grieving. We are coping. We are exercising, we are moving to a new house, we are seeing the world, we are going home to see old friends, we are having a night out on the town, we are addicted to Breaking Bad, we are walking the dog, we are doing laundry, we are coaching little league, we are keeping up on the news, we want to sleep.
To be a writer, you have to prioritize writing above other choices, through the varied weather of your life, and you have to do that, if not consistently, often enough that you’re moving forward instead of treading water or falling behind. To be a writer, you have to choose writing.
Even in the happiest moments of your life, this is a juggling act. But what about our lowest moments?
In my post “Resolutions, I’ve Had a Few”, I mentioned 2009 was a difficult year for me. I refer to it as The Year That Shall Not Be Named. The bad stretch began with a sick dog and ended with losing my uncle to cancer after a surprising and short battle, with a lot more painful losses and grief and a lawsuit and broken appliances and car trouble and other sucky things thrown in the middle. I’ve experienced challenges and heartache in my life, but never so many difficult things in such close succession. It was the first time I really understood the metaphor of feeling like I was drowning in my own life. Wave after wave kept hitting before I had a chance to fully come up for air and rest from the last one. Once you’ve been hit by a few waves, a mental repercussion can take hold and you begin to fear the next wave, when it will happen, and how big it will be.
2009 could have been the year I gave up on writing. In the beginning, I assumed each wave would be the last, and more often than not I didn’t choose writing. Sometimes because I absolutely couldn’t, and sometimes because I thought, “I’ll just get through this tough spell. I’ll wait until this is resolved. There is enough stress right now without having to stress out over fixing a broken plot.” The problem was, that reprieve I’d been waiting for never came. I hadn’t written for weeks, then months. There were times I’d sit at my computer, determined to get back to my writing, and I’d feel so distant from where I’d last been with my story. Who were these characters again? What had I been trying to do? It was overwhelming, frustrating, daunting. How did other writers manage this? Maybe I didn’t have the capacity to be a novelist after all.
I sought out advice from anywhere I could get it. What I heard over and over was to write through the difficulties. Keep that butt in that chair. Show up and do the work. This is what professionals do. This is what writers do.
Yes, yes, I’d nod. I’d sit down and face the knotted mess of my novel, determined to get the problems unraveled and everything in order, and another wave would hit and I’d stop writing again. And sometimes there was no wave, only my despair and frustration with myself, and I’d lose myself to a Gilmore Girls binge.
I felt like a failure. I felt like a fraud calling myself a writer. I’m here on Emu’s Debuts writing this, so obviously the story has a happy ending. But I want to share this for those of you out there who are struggling to choose writing, who are dealing with that guilt, who might feel like frauds, who might feel like you’re not good enough to be part of the writer club. To any of you in that position I say:
You’re not a fraud. If you want to be a writer, you are a writer. Screw that butt-in-chair, write-every-day advice. You will get your butt in the chair when its good and ready.
In the meantime, here are the things that kept me tethered to the writing boat while the waves crashed on top of me.
- Show up and try. I didn’t show up every day. I didn’t show up every week. Sometimes I showed up but stared at a blinking cursor, or typed a paragraph and then deleted it because it was crap. But I kept showing up and I kept trying, and eventually things got better. Even if it’s been months or even years, it’s never too late to start showing up and trying.
- Surround yourself with people who will support your dreams and encourage you to choose writing. The main reason I didn’t abandon my novel is because I had family and friends who believed in my story even when I didn’t, and who believed in me as a writer when I didn’t. And the flip side of this, if a person or environment feels toxic, cut ties or distance yourself. Occasionally there are unsupportive people in our life who we can’t distance ourselves from. Accept those people for who they are and appreciate them for the other roles they play in your life. Don’t expect them to suddenly be supportive of your writing when they’ve never played that role before. Find your support elsewhere.
- Stay connected to the writing community. If you’re not currently involved in the writing community, this is actually a great time to put yourself out there. (And by “putting yourself out there” I don’t mean try to work a room. You can be an observer and learn a lot and gain a lot of inspiration from what others say and do.) The writing community can be a very healing place if you seek inspiration rather then shortcuts and connections. This is where organizations like SCBWI or Lighthouse Writers, writing friends, critique groups, and author blogs can be a godsend. (But not all organizations and critique groups and blogs are created equal. Participate in the places that leave you feeling lighter, happier–or at the very least, that don’t bring you down or add to your troubles.) I went to writing conferences, I took classes. Something I did quite often–and this is free and simple and entertaining and gives back to the writing community–is attend author readings at bookstores. So many times when I was feeling at my lowest failure/fraud point, I’d hear an author speak or read a blog post and they would say something that resonated in such a way that it gave me just enough pep to choose writing for one more day.
- Read, but read to refuel your creative tank. I read books on craft (The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes and Write Away by Elizabeth George were particularly helpful during this time). I read in my genre. I read my favorite authors in any genre. I only read books that grabbed my attention or entertained me. When life is stressful, reading should be an outlet of fun or relief. Don’t let reading turn into a burden.
- Recognize that you are writing even when you’re not “writing”. I may not have made much progress on my revisions in 2009, but I was always writing in one form or another. Anything you write–emails, blog posts, your holiday newsletter, Facebook updates, Tweets, journal entries–you’re exercising your writing muscle. Deliberate your wording, whether you’re painting the right picture, the best way to deliver a joke. Writing doesn’t have to be about daily word count goals, and it’s good to recognize that.
- Pay attention to your mental well-being. Get exercise and sleep. Talk to people when you need to. Be gentle with yourself.
Choosing writing isn’t always about typing words on the page. It’s about committing yourself to a goal and not giving up on it no matter the obstacles placed in your way.
Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is the author of the forthcoming middle-grade mystery, Book Scavenger (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt/Macmillan, 2015). Book Scavenger launches a contemporary mystery series that involves cipher-cracking, book-hunting, and a search for treasure through the streets of San Francisco. Jennifer earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College, Moraga, CA, and is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.
You can find Jennifer online at http://writerjenn.blogspot.com where she runs an interview series with children’s book authors and illustrators called “Creative Spaces.