Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 30, 2018

Writing Through Life Catastrophe

Susan Donovan

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.)

Visit Susan at:
www.susandonovan.com           www.adobecottageretreat.com

57 comments on “Writing Through Life Catastrophe”

  1. Susan, thanks so much for sharing your story. And still, in such a creative way! You are a courageous and determined individual--an inspiration.

  2. I'm so glad you've persevered, not only because I love you, but almost as much, love your writing. You're the most naturally talented writer I've ever met.

    Seriously people, you have to read one of her books . . . it won't be your last (you may not want to start with the dino porn, though).

  3. Thanks so much for sharing your story. You're an inspiration! I definitely will be reading some of your books.

  4. Thank you for sharing your inspirational story. I had to read more so I checked out your website. Love the pictures of the kids and dogs, and your story about finishing your first works and finding your agent. It's quite a story!

  5. An unbelievable moving story. I am in awe and admiration. Your post is evidence of the importance of attitude, perspective, and mindset. Thank you for willing to be vulnerable and authentic to educate and inspire the rest of us.

    1. Thanks, Jann. That's one of the things I've told myself in this journey -- it's ok to be vulnerable and authentic in my writing.

  6. I can't begin to imagine what you've had to come back from, Susan. It was great to finally meet you in Denver! Thank you for sharing your story—it's an inspiration for all of us.

  7. I have spent the last month caring for my sick mother and my writing has ground to a halt, but what option do I have? From sunup to after sundown, my job was making sure my mom was well. I even farmed my kids out to my sister so I could devote all of my time to my mom. And I don't regret it. I had to do it. I was so worried over her well-being that even trying to write was pointless. My mind was racing a million places at once, between lining up care for her when I had to come home to writing down notes of what happened over the day so her doctor could keep up with what was happening.

    I have a brief reprieve from caring for her this week (but I have to get the kids ready for their first day of school on Thursday), then head back to her house (on the other side of the country) on Friday. So still not time for me to jump back into writing, but it'll come. I have to shift priorities right now, that's all.

    In the meantime, there's been plenty of brainstorming going on inside my brain. That much I can do. And when mom is more on the mend, I'll have keys to the keyboard. It's a speed bump, and there will probably be more ahead.

    1. I am sorry to hear about your mother. Brainstorming keeps your story alive, even in times when you can't get to the keyboard. I wish you the best, Justine.

    2. Justine, I have done that caring for and worrying about a mama who is not well and it is SO HARD. Hard like nothing else before or since. I'm sorry you're going through this, but I know you wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

      Your story will be waiting for you.

    3. Justine, I too went through two years of highly stressful long-distance and up close care of my mother. I found journalling at that time to be the most helpful writing I could do to maintain my sanity. Now she's been gone four years, and I honor her memory in my writing, when I can insert her words into the mouth of a character or two. Hang in there, and God bless you for your love and care.

  8. Amazing inspiration Susan... wow 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing your story!

  9. Congratulations on your comeback!

    My FIL died one month ago. Because of the family obligations and holding everyone else together, it has put me behind on my deadline.


    1. Yes, holding everyone else together is often the most important thing on our to-do list. Very sorry to hear about your father-in-law.

  10. You are truly amazing, Susan. You prove what can be done with determination. All best to you!

    1. Yes, I got the "determined" thing down pat. 🙂 The people in my life have more colorful names for it: bull-headed, stubborn, relentless, obstinate... but it does come in handy at times.

  11. Seven years ago I started writing a novel about my husbands family escaping Budapest Hungary in 1956, (Goodbye Danube), I had health problems at the time (lungs), so it was very slow going. Then I was a put on a waiting list for a Lung transplant. The anxiety of waiting for the fateful call to come, left me unable to function as a writer.

    When I finally had the transplant, I was in the hospital for four months. During that time I was told that I nearly died. Getting a grip on that fact, forced me to realize just how short life can be, as I'm sure you did too during your recovery. I made a promise to finish what I had started. My book was published 2/18. I admire you so much for your persistence and dedication to your obligations. Congratulations, I hope I can become a writer as you have in spite of everything you've been through.

  12. Susan, I have admired your from afar through Laura for years. I admire you even more after this post. You had me from the beginning with this: "..we authors are ninjas when it comes to merciless goal setting and self-flagellation." So spot on!

    1. Admired me from afar? I haven't heard THAT in a while! LOL. Thank you, Jenny!

  13. Incredibly inspiring story. You were a prolific, wonderful writer before this accident, so it makes me wonder why this horrific experience came into your life. Maybe it was to inspire other people on a huge scale?-- to be a stellar example of the fighting spirit, not just for writing but for living? This world needs more of that, so thank you, Susan, for sharing your amazing story. I will pass it on to others who need desperately to hear something encouraging, and I will definitely read your books.

  14. Thanks for the encouragement. I felt like I was hit by lightning or a semi truck last Monday (neither happened) and have spent the past 8 days in screaming pain...not an ache, pain. I don't see my doc until later this week so I'm hopeful I can find the determination to get out of bed and write. It's now 6:61 p.m. and it's the first I've felt strong enough to sit at the computer. Praying for your continued healing.

  15. "Charging ahead worked for me." It worked for me too. I had a severe reaction to an antibiotic and almost died. Took me ages to recover. Thank you for writing this.

  16. My goodness, what a journey. But one with hope and determination and success. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    I find it difficult to write when my depression flares up - but then I find it difficult to do anything but care for my children when that happens. I'm forgiving of myself though. I can only take it one day at a time and, when I return to wellness, I return to writing.

  17. Very deep story written in such a humorous manner. Wish I had that skill. Fantastic come back. You just cant imagine the visual image I saw when I read Dinosaur Porn.
    Please check with others when you push out stray thoughts like that.

  18. Wow, I'm nowhere near that harrowing story of yours, but I'm currently recovering from acute bronchitis that laid me flat for over a week. I literally slept 17 hours yesterday, with my body desperately trying to recover. Which means writing hasn't been happening anywhere near what I want. Thanks for the inspiration here, though. I will get back in the groove, and I appreciate hearing your story. So amazing!

  19. Thanks for that inspirational story. I'm sure it will help a lot of writers who are struggling with issues that are serious, but hopefully no where as serious as yours. I had my year when chemo left me with low energy, struggling to make writing a priority, but as you demonstrated writing--no matter how little you can put in each day--can be part of one's recovery. Like you, I'm grateful each day I can sit down at my laptop and let the words roll.

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