Back to Work

Yesterday I wrote a little over eight hundred words on what I think will be my next book (Number Three 😊). This feels like a big step in the right direction, because part of me has been avoiding writing, and/or struggling with it big time, for a while.

If you’ve been following the blog, you know I’ve been wrestling with pretty severe anxiety since early this summer. This is a big reason why I haven’t been writing much (when at all). It’s not the only reason for the slump, though, as I’ll explore a little bit farther along in this post.

The anxiety first. Folks who have dealt with it know how, initially, you get scared of something, most often a perceived malfunction in your body or mind. Nobody else, not doctors or therapists or family or anyone, can see or confirm the malfunction, but you can’t explain the fear away or reason yourself out of it. Then, insidiously, you get scared because you’re scared. You think things like, If something wasn’t really wrong, I wouldn’t be this scared, or The very fact that I’m scared means I’m hopelessly messed up. The fear goes around in circles, escalating and dragging you with it.

Anxiety can also leave you confused about yourself. You spend so much time hyper-vigilant, watching yourself to make sure you’re still operating okay, that you kind of forget how it feels to just be in your own skin and your own mind. You might feel like you’ve turned into a different person, or you’re not really sure who you are anymore. It can feel terribly risky to trust yourself.

6.26.19 post - Pine Creek falls (2)

That’s how anxiety has been for me, and it made writing feel frankly dangerous. I felt like had to hold on super-tight to the objectively real. Otherwise how could I be sure I was still functioning okay? I couldn’t let myself escape into a fictional world, especially one of my own creation. How could I believe it was okay to imagine things? How could I trust myself to walk that balance between the world in my mind, and the one I lived in?

I hated feeling like I couldn’t write. (Talk about not being sure who you are anymore!) The good news is – as I read when I was learning all I could about anxiety – that the mind will heal and get back to its accustomed way of working, once you figure out how to get out of its way. Hyper-vigilance doesn’t help. It only keeps the fear-cycle spinning. The best thing you can do, I read, is get on with your life as well as you can. Do the things you want to do, even if anxiety tells you that you can’t or shouldn’t.

This gets me back to writing, and to the second piece of the creativity slump. I call this piece the Why should I? phenomenon.

It was easy to say that I should write, to ground myself, to help with recovery from the anxiety, and because, when you get down to it, writing is what I love to do and the one thing I most want to do. But it was hard to get past the fear that it was somehow dangerous, and on top of that, there’s the uncertainty in the act itself. Why should I do it, when I don’t know if it’ll be any good? Why should I do it, when I have no control over whether anyone likes it, or whether anyone sees it, or whether it gets out in the world at all?

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When I found myself starting to feel like writing again, it felt like deciding to go down with my colors nailed to the mast. Maybe diving into a fictional world was the wrong thing to do, even though it never had been before. (Anxiety also likes to tell you that no matter how many times you do something with no trouble at all, next time might be different.) I figured that maybe my brain just couldn’t handle it. But I was sick of not doing it, and I found myself wanting to get back into the world of my second book, Fourteen Stones.

Well. My brain fought that idea as hard as it knew how. You can’t do that. Who knows if Fourteen Stones will ever see the light of day? How can you possibly justify writing a sequel (editor’s note: it’s actually a prequel) when nobody might want the first one? Why do you want to waste your time? That’s stupid!

But the mind does heal if you can figure out how to get out of its way. In spite of all the messages about danger and uncertainty and the possible stupidity of the whole idea, I found myself putting a toe back in that fictional world. First I was thinking vaguely about my favorite character again. Then I was going back to a period in his life that I’d dreamed up while writing Fourteen Stones, but that hadn’t needed to go on the page in that book. And then – glory be – I was back in the farmhouse where he grew up, and I could practically smell the fire on the hearth in the front room, and run my hand along the generations-old wooden beams and floorboards.

It still felt like a huge risk, for more than one reason. It still does. But I’m learning that my writer-mind is stronger than the other stuff, and for sure, if I was going down, I would want to do it with my colors nailed to the mast…except I’m not going down. I’m off to the races.

After a couple of weeks of sketching and brainstorming, I figured out where this prequel-book needs to start. Yesterday I wrote the first couple of pages of Chapter 1. When the anxiety was at its worst, I thought I might never be able to do this kind of work again, but the words are coming back, and the story is already unfolding in shapes I hadn’t considered.

Getting back to work, for me, means coming home. I’m so glad to do it. Let the new adventure begin!

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Teaser 2

Thanks for visiting, as always! Today I’m sharing another teaser from a new project I’m working on: a collection of very short, fable-like stories about the experiences artists face. As a short intro, Vera is an artist, in any discipline you’d like to imagine – whatever resonates most with you. Lia is one of her three feline-shaped muses.

If you like this excerpt, you can read another in my post here.

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It’s raining today, a steady thin drizzle. Vera sits under a spreading tree, leaning back against its broad trunk. The leaves make a green cave to shelter her. Now and then, collected moisture drips off a branch here or there, splashing softly on the grass.

Vera would like to be walking again. Sometimes she welcomes the time to think and be quiet, but right now isn’t one of those times. She’s been thinking too much lately about her art. Sometimes nothing about it seems right. The quieter her mind is, the more she sees problems and mistakes, and the faster they grow.

It’s a little too wet to walk, though. Aurelia-who-is-called-Lia, sitting in the grass beside her, agrees.

“Wait for the sun to come out,” Lia says. She lifts a dainty front paw to her mouth and smooths a few hairs down with her tongue. “We should only walk when it’s nice. Much more comfortable.”

Lia is small and striking. Most of her fur is black, but with enough ginger and beige mixed in to give it a marbled look. One hind leg is orange with tabby striping. Her paws and chest are white. In sunlight, her fur has the sheen of velvet.

Vera fidgets. “When is it going to get nice again?”

Lia cocks her head. “Why are you in such a hurry?”

Vera doesn’t answer. She drums her fingers restlessly on her knee, not looking at Lia, but she can feel the grass-green eyes studying her.

Lia gets up and comes over. She climbs into Vera’s lap, pushing her uneasy fingers aside. Her claws come out, just enough to prick Vera’s leg and get her attention.

“Hey,” Lia says. “Don’t ignore me.”

Vera looks down into the small face. Lia’s ears are mostly black, mottled with a little bit of orange, but she has a mask of ginger around her eyes and a splash of white and beige on her nose. Vera can’t help smiling. “I can’t ignore you,” she says. “You won’t let me.”

Lia arches her back, purring. “That’s right. I get attention when I want.”

Vera runs her hand down Lia’s sleek side, feeling the texture of the glossy fur. The purr is a noisy rumble now as Lia presses against Vera’s hand. Then the purring stops and Lia sits back on her haunches.

“You know you’re just the way you need to be,” she says.

Vera shakes her head. She’s used to the way Lia thinks. “Maybe you are,” she says.

“Maybe?” Lia’s green eyes go wide. “There’s no maybe about it.” She lifts her chin proudly and swishes her tail, displaying the tiny white point on its tip. “Look at me,” she says. “How could anyone be prettier?”

She’s right, of course. Nobody else could look quite like her, with her mix of colors and the funny patches on her face that are somehow perfect. Vera rubs the top of the small round head. “It’s true,” she agrees. “Nobody can match you.”

Lia looks satisfied to the point of smug. “Same for you.”

Vera thinks of a lot of things she could say about that. The whole world can see Lia as lovely and delightful; Lia knows it’s her due, and anyone who doesn’t agree isn’t worth her worry. But Vera is different.

Lia rubs her face against Vera’s hand. “You’re mine,” she says. “That’s all you need to know.”

Because Lia doesn’t have time for anyone who isn’t worth it. Vera can hear that, loud and clear. She’s still not totally sure she believes it, but she smiles.

Lia curls up in her lap. The two of them sit quiet together, listening to the soft rain.

Alafair portrait
Alafair, aka Smidgen, the original Lia

 

Alafair nap
She’s not very fetching…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buried Meteor

Apologies for the lack of post last week. After Tuesday went by, I thought maybe Wednesday or Thursday I would put up a late one, but then it was the end of the week and I still hadn’t gotten my act together. 😉

But I’m glad I waited, because this week’s post probably needed the extra “mental digestion” time. This week I’m thinking about my creative work: ways I’ve avoided it, and why I’ve had such a hard time getting back to it after a rough summer.

If you’ve been following the blog, you know the summer was very challenging for me, involving lots of anxiety and panic. Naturally, doing creative work under those circumstances gets to be difficult (“I can’t sit down long enough! I can’t concentrate! I can’t…”). With the start of fall, I’d hoped and planned that things would get better. Time had passed since a couple of the events that kicked off the panic. I was on a new med. Surely, I thought, come September I’d be able to turn things around and get back to my “normal” self.

The process of re-normalizing has been a lot slower than I’d hoped. Over the summer, I spent a lot of time avoiding any thoughts of my writing or what I want to do with it. More recently, I’ve been thinking about it again, and sometimes actually getting some words on the page…but it always seems like the anxiety is hovering in the background, ready to knock me down again. You’re trying that? You must be crazy. And then I’ll find something else to do instead: laundry, random errands, unnecessary baking (which has its benefits, I admit), or any other kind of busy work to get away from what scares me.

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Avoidance is normal and part of the artistic life. We all know what it’s like to feel intimidated by that project we want to work on, but aren’t sure we can really do “well enough.” For me, though, it’s gone a little deeper than the usual resistance I know. It’s like when you’re clearing a piece of ground in your yard to put in a garden. You dig down and your shovel hits a stone that doesn’t look like much at first, so you try to find the edge of it so you can flip it out of the hole…but you keep digging, and digging, and your shovel keeps hitting it, and it turns out this thing is huge. It’s as if there’s a buried meteor down there, and you can’t put your garden in on top of it, and you don’t know how you’re going to get it out.

In my case,  the buried meteor – the biggest source of my resistance to digging into my creative work, getting back to that so-important piece of life – is my own view of myself. I’ve always known I had some, let’s call them self-esteem challenges. The past few months have shown me exactly how big they are.

waterfall pic

If you were reading the blog during the summer, you know that in June, I had a string of tough writing-related news that culminated in a rejection of my novel Fourteen Stones by an agent we’ll call Agent X. I’d liked Agent X a lot; they’d spent quite a bit of time with the book, I knew that folks on their team really liked it, and they’d been respectful and communicative throughout the submission and review process. Unfortunately, as can easily happen in this process, the book turned out to be not quite the right fit for them. Instead of saying to myself, “Hey, you got really close with Agent X, they were really nice and they did like the book a lot, so you just need to keep trying and you’ll find the right agent for you,” I let my disappointment turn into crashing shame. All the time I’d spent working on Fourteen Stones suddenly seemed like a total waste. It was no good. I was no good.

This might seem unreasonable if you’re not familiar with the process, and especially if you don’t happen to look at the world through the truth-distorting lens of anxiety and depression. Even I knew it was over the top, but I couldn’t seem to control it. I spent the rest of the summer and well into the fall wondering what was wrong with me, why my head felt so messed up, not knowing how I could ever get myself back to a productive place. Sometimes I got more angry than scared, and sometimes – despite how nice they’d been – I got really pissed at Agent X. More than once I wanted to sit down and write them a furious email about how my whole summer had been ruined, four months of my life I’d never see again, because they just couldn’t give me the answer I wanted and it wasn’t fair!

Of course this isn’t an ideal career move. 😉 More importantly, though, very lately I’ve come to understand something else: really understand it, rather than just being aware of it. Of course it isn’t Agent X’s fault that my book wasn’t the right match for them. And it wasn’t their fault that I had so much trouble with that rejection: that I let it take me into such a bad place, and that I then stayed there. The problem, which I knew in my head but had never internalized, was that I was giving away my power.

Let’s say Agent X had wanted the book. I’d have been thrilled, of course. It would have felt like a huge validation…and that’s exactly the problem. I would have decided that Fourteen Stones had been worth every hour I’d spent on it. Not because I’d created something that never existed before; not because that creation was exciting and beautiful and I was proud of it; not because all those hours of work on it had been filled with delight and joy. Fourteen Stones would have had worth, in my eyes, not because of what knew about it, but only because someone else found it acceptable. 

Dangerous, right? And that’s my buried meteor: the belief, lodged somewhere deep in my hindbrain, that I have no worth until someone else gives it to me. The more I dig at it, the more I understand how that belief has affected everything I do.

Having that deeply-internalized self-image has meant that I’m reluctant to take risks. I’m scared to put my work out there, so even though I do it, I do it in a small and limited way. I’m always waiting for rejection, not because it’s statistically likely in this business – which it is – but because I believe that’s what I deserve. When it comes, I take that as a confirmation of my belief that I’m “not good enough.” I’m scared to start new projects because I’m firmly convinced I can’t succeed. And then I avoid work entirely because I’m scared of being scared.

Agent X’s rejection – though I don’t like to admit it 😉 – was actually a gift. I just turned forty years old a few weeks ago, and I’m finally starting to get a good look at the buried meteor that’s been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I want to build a garden in that spot. I know it can be beautiful, but that rock has to come out first.

It’ll take a lot of work. It’s hard for me to imagine really dragging it out into the light and getting rid of it. I can see it, though, and I know what needs to happen next. That’s a start.

waterfall