This is from a talk I gave at the Watkins Glen, New York Writers’ Group in October of this year:
“I get up; I walk; I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing” (Hillel) or, “I get up; I walk; I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep WRITING!
Write! Write! Write! I bang my head on the wall three times (but not too hard). Another great quote: Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. …”Why, no,” said dead-panned Red. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”
Because this is a room full of writers in varying stages of experience, I don’t want to just read material from my work in progress or from my three books. I want to warmly encourage you to not give up, but I also want to tell you to “fish or cut bait” or “put up or shut up” or in vulgar terms, “shit or get off the pot.”
This past summer I hardly saw the sun because I journeyed through the proverbial dark night of the soul. I was scheduled to travel to Ireland and was going to speak and sell books at a redhead convention. I also had a celebratory trip planned with my husband to go to Italy in October. These trips and my usual itinerary to go to the Milwaukee Irish festival to speak, as well as to Chicago to iBAM (Irish Books, and Music) I decided to cancel. I have experienced many times of discouragement and some depression in my life, especially related to my writing. I think it’s quite common for artists and writers. However, I do not wear this as a badge of pride to be in the club of being a real writer because when depression is severe, you could care less about being a so-called real writer.
We all travel through the storms of life and at a certain age, we hopefully have learned how to navigate through them to get to where we are going, becoming wiser for the challenges. But sometimes the storms are so fierce, we can’t see our way to navigate. During those times, we know we need some strong ropes cast to us from our friends, our faith, and a good therapist. It was this kind of summer. And I don’t have to remind you that the news in the world was intensely bleak, which only exacerbated my personal storms. Storms, not storm. A perfect storm of events.
“Writing is an affair of yearning for great voyages and hauling on frayed ropes.” (Israel Shenker). Before this dark night of the soul, I thought I was on a great voyage with my writing. And I was used to hauling on frayed ropes with the usual things a writer encounters, i.e. rejection, publisher problems, doubt, little money, and trying to find the balance between doing art and having to promote the art I’d already completed. I just wanted to do my art. Early on in our writing experience, we go through the stage of being purists. We like to believe that we don’t need to write for the public more than for our dream, our vision, and for ourselves. The rest will take care of itself, we think over-confidently. But we know just how damn much we need someone to read what we write, affirm us, and shout our praises through reviews, sales, and speaking engagements.
The Historical Novel Society has a reputable magazine that every writer of historical fiction wants his or her books reviewed in. My first two books were given stellar reviews years ago and two years ago my third book, Norah, was reviewed harshly. I didn’t stalk the reviewer, but I cried to my husband, and then spent time looking at every review this reviewer had written in the last year to learn that she didn’t usually give good reviews for any of the books she reviewed. My ego was assuaged, but only temporarily. Then there are the Amazon star ratings and I’d be checking the stars and Googling myself to see if there were any reviews of my books I didn’t know about. I would tell my friends that I only checked maybe once or twice a month. I was not telling the truth. I was checking every single day! Alas, I had become an addict or even a stalker of my own worth as a writer! After the second publisher took on Norah (first one went out of business), I went on a blog tour and had to write blogs, answer questions, do online interviews. And then there were about sixteen blog reviewers who read and reviewed my book. If I got a three star rating, I felt like a failure. Hadn’t I already dealt with the first book being published and feeling naked and exposed, as if people would find out that maybe I wasn’t a real writer? I thought I had. After the many giveaways of my third book with the first publisher, there were many reviews on Goodreads. Fortunately, most of them were four or five stars. Yeah! But there were maybe two or three that gave me a one or two star rating. I thought I was doing quite well not to look up their profiles and learn how they rated other books. I didn’t stalk them online to find out who they were and why they hadn’t given me a higher rating. By this time, I had more good reviews than any bad and I basked in the good reviews. But deep inside, I knew I had a problem with self-worth as a writer.
Don’t get me wrong. I had grown as a writer and a person and had a certain confidence and peace about who I was and what my writing was about. I wasn’t writing for the marketplace, but I was savvy enough to know that the marketplace was important after my writing was completed. I was writing out of that initial purist belief that writing is a calling and a passion. I knew I had chosen the road less traveled and it wouldn’t be easy.
But then the summer came and my equilibrium was thrown off by various pressures all at once. And one of these pressures was that my new publisher’s printer printed my books with sentences that had been lopped off and I didn’t know this until a reader contacted me. I had received the box of books from the publisher, but hadn’t opened them until I needed to ship books to Ireland. And the publisher wouldn’t address the problem for the entire summer. With this scenario came other personal pressures that created the perfect storm whereby I chose not to travel and do much of anything, including writing.
I would drag myself to my computer and work on my novel in progress. Once I was finally there (it seemed that there was a distance of many miles to get there each time), I was translated to another realm, another time, and to this place of writing which had to be akin to what drug addicts experience when they get high and must have more.
In The Creative Brain, Nancy C. Andreasen writes , “In order to create, many creative people slip into a state of intense concentration and focus. In psychiatric terms, this could be described as a “dissociative state.” That is, the person in a sense mentally separates himself from his surroundings and metaphorically “goes to another place.” In ordinary language, the person might be said to be “no longer in touch with reality.”
Wow, I could do it. I could time travel to the 1860s to New York City with my protagonist and other characters! But when I left that dimension and returned to reality, I was still hurting. And then one day a friend asked me how my writing was being affected. I suddenly had the image of big chains on my ankles as I dragged myself to my computer to work and how it felt as if I had to walk a tiresome distance to get there. I blurted out, “I feel like Jacob Marley!”
This image from The Christmas Carol was so vivid that later I meditated on it and realized that symbolically (which goes against the usual interpretation of Jacob Marley) this is who some writers are; we are Jacob Marleys, tormented eternally because we have insatiable greed for words, for story, for worthiness in publishing, for making a difference through our words. It is a sort of a torment, this writing life, and you’re damned if you don’t and damned if you do. “I wear the chains I forged in life,” laments the ghost of Jacob Marley. Jacob Marley visits Scrooge “captive, bound and double-ironed” with chains which are described as “long, and wound about him like a tail; it was made… of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”
Certainly there are some Scrooges out there reading our words and being affected by them. Jacob Marley had quite the effect on Scrooge (and us) in his heavy chains. Just after this image I experienced, I had a phone call early one morning. A man with a heavy French accent asked for me. A teacher in France, he was conducting a study of immigration and wanted to order my books in a large quantity for the students in his class. It occurred to me to remember way back when my first book was published and how many letters from students I received who wanted to help the hungry of this world. Could my ghostly appearance, chains and all, show up on the pages of my books to affect my readers’ lives? I believe this is so. For many, it can be so.
I need these chains occasionally, I suppose, to remind me of this affliction called writing, and that the only relief is dragging them to the computer and as Paul Valery speaks of the “une ligne donne of a poem – one line is given to the poet by God or by nature, the rest he has to discover for himself.” It is the only way to become unchained.
And thus I’ve been unchained, for out of this dark night, I’ve emerged with a real sense that nothing can take away my art. It has nothing to do with five star or one star ratings. It has everything to do with what I used to write inside the cover of my first book, “Hope dances in the darkness and believes in the Lover who casts light at our feet.”
Be glad for the chains around your writing ankles, but don’t just sit with them. Make noise as you drag them to your art and I promise you that when you are there, you’ll forget they are even there, as heavy as they might be.