There is a lot going on in my house these days. We have two small children, which are a career in and of themselves. I am asked on a regular basis, to catalogue the entire contents of their rooms and recite exactly where everything is located. They are extremely picky eaters and the littlest has developed a deep love of screeching.
Shut up. It gets the job done.
I have learned to roll with most of this.
We also have the Awesome Dog who likes to sit in the window sill and report in when anything (at all) happens outside. This includes passing pedestrians, cars driving by with dogs or any number of birds that may land on our lawn and grab a free snack from my sad little garden. Since we live in front of a woodpecker sanctuary (read: swamp) there is a LOT of barking from the Awesome-Dog quarter. Additionally, he needs to go out for several walks a day or we risk having the furniture chewed into small bits.
THAT IS THE FIFTH CROW THIS MORNING. HOW CAN YOU JUST SIT THERE AND DO NOTHING?
I can now tune most of that out.
On top of that, my Aunt Rebecca also lives with us. She will be 58 in April. She came to live with us last year after it was discovered that she had third-stage breast cancer. Becky is mentally disabled. She does not drive. She barely talks with people. I am her main caretaker now. We have doctor’s appointments anywhere from three to five days a week. These appointments last from one to five hours – time which I used to spend writing.
For good or bad, this too will end eventually. Everything seems to be working out fine there though, so that’s good.
She is now done with Chemo and her tumor markers are normal again.
Between doctor’s visits, dogs walks and after-school mayhem, I try to find time to write. It is not easy. I actually had a hard time finding any time to do anything. During the summer, it started to wear me down. In the fall I found myself under a constant and pervasive feeling that I was missing out on my life because I was not getting any real work, done.
“I haven’t written anything today. I won’t be able to write tomorrow. I am wasting my time trying. Why not give it up for a year and come back to it when I have more time?”
Throughout October and November it nagged at me. Every time I contemplated that question I felt sick to my stomach.
I took Becky to her appointments because it was the right thing to do. I took care of my children because I love them and want them to become good people. I took care of the dog because he’s worth the investment of time (especially since he learned how to play dead. That shit is hilarious.) But I hadn’t been taking care of me - which led to the insidious feeling of inadequacy, always in the background.
In December, Becky went into a care crisis that required her to spend every other day in the clinic. Soon after that started, we had a fire in the kitchen which did not do much physical damage but it did spark an entire re-tooling of our family’s immediate future. Also, there was Christmas.
Every day of that month, I woke up thinking Today I will find time to write!
But I did not. Instead, I spent hours in the cancer clinic with Becky. I could not write with so much going on around me so I researched stoves and gas lines and the housing market. I spent three afternoons a week at Taekwondo with my kids. I walked the dog everywhere. We visited family. There wasn’t enough time to sit down for five minutes at a time let alone write so much as a sentence. I could barely write an email.
There came a day, a regular day I guess, certainly no different than the day before, but when I woke up on that day I realized that it was all I could do to get myself out of bed. I had to pull my clothes on before I could protest and push myself out of the house.
Later, as Becky and I drove home from the hospital, I found a rabbit hole. I had been so deep within whatever funk took me over that it suddenly became painfully clear to me how someone might see suicide as an answer to depression.
I do not believe in suicide. I never have. I think it’s a coward’s way out. I’ve always held this belief very strongly. But that day I knew what it felt like to wish so strongly for an out that one might consider it. I could feel how, if given a certain set of circumstances, someone might find suicidal thoughts comforting. I saw the beginning steps to that path and it occurred to me that if I did not get myself right, I might walk down it – just to see what it was like. Because I’m nosy like that.
And that scared the shit out of me.
I needed to get back to writing. It was my only way out. I rearranged my schedule as best I could but there were still belt tests and kitchen appliances, natural gas paperwork and a twenty hour a week obligation to my Aunt Becky’s cancer.
I felt horribly guilty asking others to take any of that on. Somehow, I had convinced myself that everyone else thinks their time is more important than mine. They would not understand. Asking for help would require me to defend my desire to sit in front of a computer and think up silly things all day long.
As a writer, you have to deal with that mind-set. Many people think writing is easy-peasy lemon squeasy. You know all the words – how friggin’ hard can it be to put them in order?
But gathering the mental fortitude to defend my choice of career (I already had a nice career going and why would I just leave that?) with nothing yet to show for it – that takes a lot of energy. Energy which I had been slowly draining away from me until I had none left. And I had no idea how to get it back.
I got dejected. I became even more depressed. I got really snippy at everyone. I questioned whether or not I was doing the right thing. If anyone asked me what it was I did, I changed the subject because clearly, I was not a writer. You can say it a million times but unless you actually sit down and write something, you’re lying. We all know it.
If you say “I’m a writer” at a party, people tend to assume that if you don’t have a book published, you’re just spending your time fucking around on the internet. Maybe you write a paragraph one day but the rest of it is all Facebook quips, black coffee and cheese sandwiches.
But that is not what a writer does because that is not writing.
To me, writing is delving deep into your head for answers which you aren’t sure are there but had damn-well better be – because your characters aren’t going anywhere unless you explain yourself.
Writing is using every experience you have ever had to form one stupid sentence about the weather, which you will eventually cut from the final draft because it is way too purple and clouds don’t really do that.
Writing is sitting in front of your computer making faces so you figure out how eyebrows knit together or how a mouth might turn down at the corners when you’re confused.
Writing is taking dictation at three am because your brain won’t stop describing the wave patterns you saw the other day in a gravel driveway and it will not fall asleep until you get it right.
Writing is a compulsion to tell a story in the simplest way possible for the reader to understand your meaning.
Writing requires that you make everything else less important than the voices in your head.
It takes guts to stand up to people and defend this.
“Please can you take my cancer-stricken aunt to her doctor’s appointment today? I don’t have the time because I have to sit around and listen to the imaginary people in my head and then write down what they say” – is not an easy argument to make valid.
This was the reaction I expected.
Of course people helped. They wanted to help. I just needed to let them in. But that was a very hard part for me.
I don’t think I would have this problem if my artistic passion in life were something tangible, like carpentry. I’m willing to bet that a carpenter never questions why they always need time at the construction site in order to build stuff. I’m pretty sure they don’t make a habit of just trying to fit some framing in on the weekends. And I know for a fact that they don’t wait for a spare ten minutes here and there to hang drywall.
It takes a lot of work to build a house. You have to have the foundation right before you can put in the walls or everything will go all wonky. You have to have the walls right or your roof is going to have problems. If you don’t get the wiring perfect, you risk living in the dark or seeing everything go up in flames. No one faults a carpenter for taking enough time to build a house correctly (unless, of course, you are paying the bill. In which case, you may need to revisit your work ethics triangle.)
If you say “I want all three” – someone is legally allowed to punch you in the mouth.
But that endeavor, the project and the artistic passion to get everything right – requires the same amount of hard work and dedication as writing a novel. You cannot slap some trite plot lines together, plaster it over with adjectives, stick a tin roof ending on it and call it good. Even corny romance novels require a measure of talent and voice. Otherwise, you’re just writing YouTube comments.
When I started out, it took me five years to complete my first complete manuscript. That includes two other ‘starter’ manuscripts. I think of those as my birdhouse manuscripts. I learned how to make an even foundation and stuck on the walls but the roofs were always tricky. They are ugly and no bird is ever going to live in them but they were necessary for me to build in order to learn what the hell I was doing.
Unlike building a house, I have no physical product to show for my time. Sure, I could print out the pages and hand them to you – but unless you read them, it’s just a bunch of paper that can’t even keep you dry in a rainstorm.
But if you do read them, then I might not be useless. If you choose to spend your time being entertained by the silly things I spent so much time trying to make sillier, then my time is not wasted. I like entertaining people through writing even though I must constantly remind myself that I enjoy it and have to fight for every free moment. I know I’ve become one of those bad parents that allow their kids to watch cartoons until their brains gel on Saturdays just to carve out a few minutes more.
I came through the dark of my December mood with a new understanding of work. Writing is hard work. It is impossible work. I am stupid for giving up everything I had for it.
But what else can I do?
I’m still fighting this depression and yet I wake up every morning eager to work. I constantly take my work home with me. I sleep on it. Occasionally, it wakes me in the middle of the night just to make sure I’m paying attention. I take notes on everything. Every time I sit down to the keyboard, I know I won’t get up until what I write is done. Be it an essay or a blog post or a chapter of the current manuscript – because becoming a better writer is important to me. It is worth my time.
And what could be a better example to set for your children then loving what you do, every minute of the day, even if you don’t want to get out of bed and the pay is really crappy?
I hope someday they find something equally fulfilling as I find a well-written paragraph. And I really, really hope that ‘something’ is not writing.
I also hope it is not with the circus but I don’t have my fingers crossed.