It’s hard enough to write sometimes when everything is going smoothly in life, hard enough to keep a cheerful face with the everyday responsibilities and pressures of paying bills, being a mom, and running a household. So what about in times of great stress or sadness?
Discipline to sit down and write is one thing, trying not to run screaming through the house is another. We have a infinite amount of strength, I believe that, but that doesn’t mean it’s all available at once, we must dole our strength out, share it, conserve it, and use it to the best of our ability. Once drained, we have to recharge, and sometimes the world asks too much of us when we just don’t have anything else to give.
Lately I’ve had more than my share of both stress and sorrow. The stress level has to do with something I’ll talk about later, but the sadness is something each of us must sometimes face, the death of a beloved family member.
Paul was my husband’s uncle, a man of great commitment, love and joy. The night before Thanksgiving, at a restaurant in Arizona, he suffered a pulmonary aneurism, aspirated food into his lungs, and despite the best efforts of a EMT who happened to on the scene and the emergency medics, a hour later he was in a coma, packed in ice, with the doctors telling us the chance of severe brain damage was 80%.
My husband left immediately for Arizona, where he kept a vigil over his uncle, as they waited, hoped, despaired, hoped again, until finally, the news—no brain activity. Then began the cruel wait for his otherwise healthy body to die.
Meanwhile, I owe a book. Producing something from the ether is not like working in a bank, or building furniture. Those things can both be very creative and challenging, but they can also, in times of stress, really be helpful when there is only the excruciating tension of waiting. We can fill our hours with productive busy work, tasks that demand just enough focus to take our mind off of what troubles us, at least for a little while. Creating from scratch requires a clear mind, that’s not something you get when you are waiting for the phone to ring to find out if a heart has stopped beating.
The truth is that if I can find my way in, living in the book and characters I’m creating is a gigantic relief, but the entrance gets clouded and the door slams open and shut in the prevailing evil wind. Sometimes I just don’t have enough emotional strength left to take even one more step towards that house I’m building.
So I sit down in the drive and cry. I let the feelings flow through me, have their way with me, lift me, crush me, drown me. It is the only way through to the other side.
And then, I drag my sorry self up and shake myself off. I do something positive. For me, this means making someone else happy. So I may make some cookies for the kids at school, or buy some toys for the children at the hospital. I don’t yet have the strength to deal with others’ hysteria, it’s all I can do to maintain on my own. And then, finally, I can sit down and look at my work, maybe it will let me in, maybe the door is slammed again, it comes and goes. This frustrating process takes patience, and I know only this—if I force my writing, it will not be good.
For me, it comes down to strength. I had an amazing voice teacher years ago, who, I am pretty sure, was very ill with AIDS. This was pre-cocktail treatment, so his outlook was grim. When I showed up late one day, stressed and overwrought, he said, “Sometimes when you’re too exhausted and beaten to do anything, you just have to do something!” And then he proceeded to turn that into a vocal exercise, “And so we begin!” we sang, over and over, sliding up and then down the scales, we shouted it until we were laughing. What a great man. So positive in the face of immanent darkness.
So while we can survive those nerve fraying hours by filling them with something, it is, I think, impossible to put aside your real life emotions and take up those of the characters you are writing unless you can understand what moves you. Like a harassed parent snapping at a child, it won’t be about the child, but about the parent. So sometimes, we have to step back, sit down, and just feel helpless for a little while. Wrap ourselves in a blanket and read comics, watch the sunset, cry, and be human!! It’s okay. I forgive you, I forgive myself for not being ‘up to par’ when every cell in my body is weighed down with sorrow.
As a great artist I once knew said, “Every experience will make you a better actress!” And the same is true for writing, if you feel it, take it in, give it rein, it will inform you and enrich you. If you can embrace the pain, if you can step back and watch yourself go through it, your life—and your work—will be the better for it.
This week, I will write again. I will pause to cry, to laugh, to remember with honor and joy a man who brought so much to my life, and my family. And one day, Paul and his kindness and quirks will find their way into a story. Maybe this one. He will always be a part of mine.
With a heart heavy with love, Shari, December 8th, 2014