“I'd like to know how all of you manage to write during difficult times. I stopped writing for several months after my father died, and just recently, when my mom had a stroke, I took some time off too. And yet sometimes, I find writing to be therapeutic. How about the Wenches?”
Journaling helped me survive a dysfunctional childhood. Pouring my creativity into stories prevented me from wasting it on unappreciative teachers. Researching helped me through the lonely hours when my husband was overseas. And without occupying my mind creating characters and stories, I would never have survived the years of watching my mother fight cancer. Writing is not only therapeutic, but cathartic. We can pour our loneliness, our angers, our distress into the words on the page. Beats whining any day!
This is a tough one. I think sometimes you have to acknowledge that life will get in the way of writing, though it takes everyone differently. In the last few years I've watched first my father crumble and die, and then my mother, and in each case, it affected my writing differently. When Dad started dying, I simply stopped writing. Afterwards, I sat down and wrote The Perfect Rake — a funny, lighthearted story (for the most part) and it just flowed out of me as if a dam had broken.
When my mother was dying, my desire to write dried up again but I was under contract and had to force myself. I'd started a book but it was turning grim and bleak in tone and it was a struggle, so with my editor's permission, I put it aside. I started writing a different book soon after my mother died, and it ended up sweet and heartwarming. Now I'm back to the book I put aside, starting it again from a different angle, and it's going much better.
However, while I might not have been writing fiction through the worst of times, I still wrote. I wrote emails all the time — I've always been a prolific letter writer. I also wrote in a journal, the first time I'd ever successfully kept anything resembling a diary, though it wasn't regular, and it was a wonderful thing to do. I am now a committed journal-keeper.
The other thing I discovered through keeping a journal, is how good writing by hand is for my muse. I now do a lot more handwriting than I used to. If a scene is difficult or not flowing, I'll take myself away from the computer (and its easy distractions) and head for a quiet place with pen and notebook. I'll close my eyes, think about the scene to come, visualize it and start writing by hand. Even when I wasn't writing a novel, I still wrote about things I'd noticed, or played with painting word pictures. That's another thing I intend to continue on a regular basis.
I've written through painful times and I've written through happy times, too, and much prefer happy! But there is something definitely therapeutic about writing during truly stressful times. Over the years that I've been published, I've experienced tragic family deaths, lay offs, major surgery myself… and of course lots of smaller troubles in the background or foreground of life.
I've raised three sons while writing twenty novels. I've had a house full of sick kids, kids home all day for snow or summer days, I've had more than one roaring case of the flu myself, and so on. Yet no matter what was going on, there were always chapters to write and often deadlines to meet. Whether it was big stress and lesser bumps in the road, having those deadlines forced me to focus no matter what and produce something. And that provides an escape like no other. When I'm sick, for instance, I usually feel a little better if I write than if I don't.
But I don't often use my published writing to express my own emotions, though some do. It does help relieve stress. Sometimes I've written into the books some of the tougher things that I've experienced, but not often. Once or twice I have rewritten the script on something that happened to me, but mostly I prefer to move on, and so I do, through characters whose lives are very different from my own at the time.
While the happier times are a LOT more fun and I'm a more relaxed writer then…that can be distracting in its own way, too. When things are going really well, I don't want to go to my office to shut the door and think only about my characters and my fiction. I might be enjoying time with my family or with friends, I might be traveling — and yet I still have to make myself sit down and write. Somehow all the books get written, and we can find ourselves stronger for it, perhaps even better writers, with another chapter or two or another book tucked away despite all.
The really short answer from me is "I can't!" The longer and more civil answer is:
I find it extremely hard to keep writing during difficult times. I do see writing as therapeutic sometimes; if I am tired or low or need a break I take great pleasure in writing something different, a short descriptive piece about the countryside perhaps, or an article of non-fiction history. That always lifts my spirits and takes me away from everyday problems. When it comes to big, stressful situations, though, I do find that they intrude too much into my writing process to be ignored. Then I slow down to a snail's pace or, if things are really bad, stop altogether, which can be a problem with my deadlines. When I was younger I think I found it easier to lose myself in my writing. These days I find it easier to lose myself in someone else's. Reading is a great solace to me in difficult times.
I can write nonfiction under just about any conditions. The simplicity and order is a comfort to me. I set facts and conclusions in a logical sequence, and I've built a structure out of chaos. It's satisfying. I suppose writing nonfiction is a bit like cleaning the house. When I'm troubled, my kitchen floors are very clean.
Now, fiction is a whole 'nother writing beast.
As a reader, I flee to fiction when I can't face reality. I dive into the work of some favorite author and 'pull the covers up' — so to speak — and forget the real world for a while.
Mary Jo Putney:
As you can see, responses ranged from having difficult circumstances stop a writer in her tracks, to writing as therapeutic and an essential escape. The prolific romance author Kasey Michaels once told a friend of mine that she wrote her first book, a humorous traditional Regency, when one of her small sons was dying of kidney failure. (For the record, he didn’t die. Credit goes to God, modern medicine, and an incredibly devoted and effective mother.)
I think any individual’s reaction might vary depending on the nature of the trouble. If a person’s mother is dying and lives a long way off and you were never close and you have a deadline, you might lose little if any writing time. If your spouse or a child is critically ill and you’re spending every available moment at the hospital, you’ll probably be lucky to keep up with your e-mail.
There are no right or wrong answers here. We do what we must. Creativity is a delicate function, more easily derailed by disaster than more basic life requirements. If the Muse shuts down when life stresses take over, so be it. She’ll be back when life calms down.
In my experience, it’s best to concentrate on what’s essential, let the rest go, and don’t blame yourself for not being superwoman. And if you’re friends and family ask what they can do to help—take them up on the offer!
Most people love to help if they know what to do. Be specific, and the chances are they’ll come through. If you need a few hours of respite, ask for someone to take over for an afternoon. If you’re too busy to cook, ask how they are at casseroles. If you need someone to do some driving for you, chances are someone will be more than willing.
I like to help people. Most people also like to help others. I consider it very gracious to allow other people to help me, which will make them feel good. <g> A win/win.
Though the focus here has been on writing, the question is much broader. How do you cope when life goes off the rails? What kind of help would you like? Just about everyone goes through periods when life gets out of control. Just knowing that we’re not alone is a big help.
This is a topic well worth sharing our thoughts, and I’d like to know what you think.
And Cynthia, you get a copy of one of my books for asking a question used on the blog.
Mary Jo, adding a special thanks to Joanna Bourne for supplying the picture of the cheetah chewing her tail. I know exactly how that feels!