January 19th I had the pleasure of guest posting on Writers In the Storm and since this subject keeps coming up, I thought I’d share it here as well.
My house is quiet and I’m nursing a hot cup of coffee (my third actually) while staring at the screen and wondering what else I have left in me to write today. I don’t think there’s much. You see, last night I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning working on some chapters that literally yanked my heart out of my chest and I haven’t quite recovered. Which isn’t a good thing because the story isn’t complete and I am on a tight deadline.
This is only my sixth novel where I’ve experienced this (out of countless others) but I’ve learned something about the process I wish I had known back when I wrote my first book. I’m sure the more I write the more I’ll learn and I may discover a better way to experience the heartache but for now, it’s a process.
What process? Of realizing when to write those scenes that destroy me and when not to.
You’d think it would be simple right? It was when I wasn’t on a deadline, when I could write or not write whenever I wanted. If I needed to take time off from writing the next chapter, then okay … whatever it took. I heard of authors who took a year or more to write a novel so it must be okay. My first novel took six months to write. Now I average less than three months, although this one I’m working on now has been less than that thanks to poor planning on my part and the holidays just being here. (edited to add…I’m not in the revision part of this book and the emotions continue to hit me as I go deeper into the story).
I’ve learned that I can’t write those scenes that are dark or painful while my kids are around. So that means on weekends or holidays or even at night before they go to bed. And if I wait until everyone is in bed and stay up for hours (like last night) then I need to make sure my family will not be home the following day either.
There’s a reason for this.
When I write a story about a woman whose marriage is falling apart because she can’t handle her grief, or about a woman so lost in her own mind that she can’t tell truth from reality, or if I touch on subjects dealing with abuse…I become those women. I am those characters in that moment while I’m writing about them. It’s my marriage that is falling apart, it’s my child that I’ve just lost, it’s my husband that was killed and my baby who died in my arms, I am the one reliving the memory of being raped…it’s hard for me to walk away, to close the screen and go back to my every day life as if what I’d just wrote didn’t matter. (I will always remember hearing Jodi Picoult tell an audience that she is able to do this and wondered what I was doing wrong because I couldn’t).
So you can image I’m an emotional wreck. I’m low, quiet, needing space, alone time in order to regroup. My husband once asked me if it was worth it – if the emotional toil was normal and worthy of my energy. Normal? I’m really not sure (if it is, and you go through this as well – I’d love to know how you handle it!) but worthy of my energy – absolutely. Writing these type of stories…it’s what fuels me. I face my fears as a woman, a mother, as a wife in these stories. It’s my happy place (as odd as that sounds) – when I feel the most fulfilled and energized and excited! Worth it? When I read reviews from people who believe that I must have gone through these experiences, that I write them as if I know first hand what it feels like…yes, it’s worth it to me as a writer. I’m always afraid that one day he’s going to ask me if it’s worth our marriage. I hope that day never comes.
There is an emotional toll, make no mistake about it. In order to write a story that comes from your heart (and every story should if you want to touch your readers hearts) then you have to be willing to go to that level. How everyone reacts will be different. I would love to be able to walk away after a scene and be fine – to be able to distance myself from my characters and not have it affect me so much. Maybe one day I will. But maybe by then, I’ll realize that I don’t want to. That this is the process that works for me.
In the meantime, I sit here, sipping my coffee (I should get a refill) and waiting for that boost of energy to open up my laptop where my story is stored (yes, I have a ‘writing’ laptop and a desktop computer where I do all my ‘other’ work – helps me to ‘switch gears’ when I need to.) If I wasn’t under such a tight deadline, I’d take a few days breather, enjoy the slightly warm weather, maybe make a cake for dessert tonight and just enjoy life. But I can’t – and so with my choice of profession comes discipline, and that means pressing on. Or as my mother would say suck it up buttercup.
Tell me…how do you handle dealing with those dark places?