Pages per day. Word count. Butt in chair. Drop-dead due dates. These are our mantras, the rhythm of the writing life. Whether we work for ourselves or New York publishing houses, we authors are ninjas when it comes to merciless goal setting and self-flagellation.
But what do we do if our lives slam to a halt? What happens to our writing when our worlds crash down around us? It’s probably going to happen in some form, someday, to all of us. Writers are human, and the human experience includes times of disaster, loss, illness, and grief. Do you know how catastrophe might impact your writing career? Would writing become the last thing on your mind?
I was forced to answer those questions for myself a few years ago. I was minding my own business when I stepped off the proverbial curb and was hit by a metaphorical bus. A sudden and unexplained infection nearly killed me, and after complete organ failure, three months in a shock-trauma unit, more than twenty surgeries, and the amputation of my left leg, I was sent home, a shadow of my former self. I didn’t know how to function in the world. I was depleted in every way a person could be depleted, and crippled with PTSD. And…as if all that weren’t enough…doctors feared the high fever and loss of blood pressure in those first few days had left me with permanent brain damage.
So there I was – roadkill – under contract with St. Martin’s Press to finish a romantic comedy and a women’s fiction novel. Seeing as how I referred to my cell phone as the dishwasher and couldn’t figure out how to turn on my laptop, I soon realized I was well and truly f**cked. I had to start from scratch. In my first few weeks home from the hospital I would challenge myself by putting pen to paper and drawing out some of the letters I remembered. Then I’d string letters together to make words. Eventually, I learned to type one word at a time on my laptop. Later, I could type a whole sentence. In time, I could type a paragraph or two. I was driven by a fierce need to know if I was still a writer, if the blob of tapioca pudding now residing between my ears was the result of opiates, or permanent damage. Against doctors’ orders, I weaned myself off all narcotic painkillers, and slowly, so very slowly, I began to come back to life.
I’ve learned many things about myself in the years since. I’ve learned how strong I am. How resilient. And I’ve learned that writing is my primary coping mechanism--it’s how I move through this life. Writing is my way of processing information, how I can put a name to my feelings. Writing was the primary tool I used to unravel the tangled mess of grief, sorrow, and rage that my beautiful life had become. I didn’t go back to my contracted books right away, however. Instead, I wrote a blog about my ordeal, which helped me to heal and allowed me to see myself as a writer again. After that, I wrote a series of satirical dinosaur porn e-novellas, an exercise that proved my sense of humor had not been amputated along with my leg.
Before that first post-illness year ended, I’d written a proposal for a new romance/women’s fiction trilogy and went on to complete the novels and novellas. Only then did I pick up the romance and women’s fiction projects I’d been writing when the bus flattened me. It was difficult to read those stories. I wasn’t the same person who’d started writing them, and much ripping-up and starting-over ensued. St. Martin’s got those books four and five years late, respectively, but I fulfilled my contracts.
Charging ahead worked for me. It might not work for someone else. There are as many ways to deal with crisis as there are individual authors and types of crises, and each approach is legitimate. But, in general, I believe we have a few basic choices:
- We can use writing to fully grasp what happened and how it affected us, and with a lot of help and effort, we can move beyond it.
- We can delay getting back to our writing to focus on our urgent needs or the needs of loved ones.
- We can decide to step away from writing for the foreseeable future, if that’s an option financially, to eliminate that stressor from our lives.
- Or, we can begin writing again as soon as we are able –maybe even try something new – and tell a story that will remind us of who we are and what we’re made of.
Like dinosaur porn! Perhaps that was just me.
Have you had to recover from a life disaster (big or small)? Did writing help? Have any tips for us?
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Publishers Weekly calls SUSAN DONOVAN's novels "the perfect blend of romance and women's fiction." A New York Times bestselling author and former journalist, she’s been nominated for two RITA Awards and received the 2003 Best Contemporary Romance award from RT Booklovers Magazine. Publishers Weekly calls her latest release, BREATHLESS, “a deeply satisfying, genre-crossing story sure to seduce fans of Regency and contemporary romance and women’s fiction.” Susan is an author coach and developmental editor at the Adobe Cottage Writer’s Retreat in New Mexico. (And, yes, she writes satirical dino porn e-novellas under the pen name Pebbles Rocksoff.)