Writing (or not) After Loss

This post is going to be difficult for me to write. Difficult, because that’s what all writing has been for me lately–difficult. And for a very good reason. . . .

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For many people, writing comes as a solace during difficult times. When someone experiences the loss of a loved one, for instance—like I did this summer—writing can be a way to either escape or process emotions. I actually felt like something was wrong with me because I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t even journal. The thoughts and feelings running through me were stuck inside my body and refused to exit onto the page. Fortunately, I had friends who were there to tell me this was okay, and not at all abnormal. They told me to take a break, take all the time I needed, and when I was ready to write again, I’d know it. And now I’m here to tell this to you, along with some other things that surprised me about writing after loss.

When I did eventually get back to writing (sporadically) about a month ago, I found I had a completely new perspective on my story and my characters. Interestingly, my main character’s father has died a month or two before the story begins, and oddly, it’s in a similar(ish) way to how my own dad died. This was not something that I added to the story after my own loss. Nope, it’s been that way since I first started writing it almost a year ago. Complete coincidence. However, I’ve been in my character’s shoes now, and I’ve realized the way my main character felt and acted in that first draft no longer resonates with me. It isn’t realistic anymore. So in the rewrite, I’ve been fixing that. And it’s (I hope) making my character so much richer. I wouldn’t say I’m thrilled about having this new perspective. If I could have gained it any other way, I would have preferred that. But I am grateful that I’m able to take this horrible experience and use it in a positive way. Silver linings and all that, I guess.

You may also find you’ve gained a new perspective toward your characters. You may find yourself adjusting things in ways you never would have thought to before. You may even find the story you’re currently working on doesn’t fit you at all anymore. That’s okay. Run with it. Fix it. Set it aside, if that’s what you need to do. My last finished novel—one I’ve queried and debated going Indie with, no longer fits me. At least, not right now. I’ve outgrown it, I guess you could say. As I see things now, I’m not likely to ever publish it. Or maybe someday, if I’m up to it, I’ll go back over it and make some major changes. And either way, that’s perfectly fine.

One more thing that has surprised me is how much less I’m censoring myself as I write. And by that, I mean I worry less about how my writing will be received by agents and publishers, and just write what I want to write. I write more for me now than I ever have before, and though I’m not completely oblivious to my future plans for this story, I’m pushing those concerns aside for dealing with when I actually get there. And what’s funny is, I thought I’d been doing this all along, but now I can clearly see that I hadn’t been. I’d been far too occupied with the dream of being published when I wrote my previous stories, that I’d become an anxious drafter, which made writing less fun and less satisfying. Now, the anxiety is gone. I’m not going to get into the psychology behind this, because I don’t completely understand why this has changed. But it has, and I’m good with that.

I’m telling you all of these things, not to give you any kind of road map or template for “when you experience loss, this is exactly how your writing will change,” because everyone experiences loss differently, and everyone writes differently. I’m telling you these things because they surprised me, and you may have some surprising experiences too. But whatever your experiences are, they are normal for you. And you may need to adjust some things, and that is perfectly okay.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

On Getting Unstuck

What do you do when you’re stuck in your writing? When you know you have a beautiful swan of a story, but there are messy, muddy parts you don’t know how to fix, or maybe even how to finish? What then?

There are excellent compilations of quotes by world-famous writers on overcoming writer’s block, but for this post (and for a panel I was asked to be on at a recent workshop), I wanted fresh material. So I turned to some of my equally wise and wonderful author friends, who’ve written everything from the hilarious to the serious, fiction and non-fiction and poetry, kid favorites and even a Newbery Honor. Here’s what they had to say:

Ruth McNally Barshaw: Take a walk. Look through magazines. Make a zillion lists. Exercise. Go someplace you haven’t been before. Go to an art gallery or museum and look at art. Commune with nature — walk in the woods. Talk with someone who inspires. Read a good book. DRAW.
Edith Thornton Cohn: Usually if I’m stuck, I’ve taken a wrong turn in the manuscript. So I back up & rethink it.
Anna Staniszewski: I second what Edith said. I go back to where the story was working and try to figure out went wrong. I also close the document and brainstorm on paper.
Janet Sumner Johnson: A blogging friend of mine once suggested making a bullet list for what comes next and go from there. That’s always really helped me. But I agree with all the other suggestions too!
Cynthia Levinson: For me, it’s insufficient research. But I’m a NF writer. Yet…it might still apply.
Kristin Wolden Nitz: I often make forward progress when writing by hand in accordance with Natalie Goldberg’s strategy she put forth in WRITING DOWN THE BONES. The short version is that you “rent” a table at a coffee shop for office space. Then you sit down and start writing without stopping for the next hour or more. No editing. Sometimes I call this Thinking with a pen…I used to get my best ideas when I was mowing the lawn or shoveling snow when I lived in Michigan. There was something about the long straight lines of snow or grass.
Kami Kinard: Usually I switch projects for a while… hours or days… or I read. So far, those two methods haven’t failed me.
Maggie Moris: A couple of things: I just got the book, “Around the Writer’s Block. Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance,” by Roseanne Bane. Several writers recommended it. Also, if you physically move your body for a short series of exercises where the left hand taps the right shoulder/side/knee/toes – pick one, and vice a versa, this apparently lights up the brain’s cross wiring. I also agree with painting, or playing with modeling clay, or other forms of making art.
Margarita Engle: Scribble! Don’t expect perfection. Just let the pen flow, knowing that you can make corrections later.
Susan Hill Long: Setting a timer and writing till it goes off. Over and over. On the rough days, that’s what it takes for me. I love my timer.
Peggy Harkins: Take a walk. Somehow when my body gets moving, my brain does, too.
Tracy Holczer: Usually I get writer’s block when I’ve made a wrong turn somewhere in the narrative. It’s my brain’s way of telling me I’ve hit a dead end. The only way for me to break through is to go back and figure out where I went wrong. Sometimes that means taking a break from the writing and doing research, reading craft books or brainstorming with writing friends. The answer always comes and then the writing flows again.

Louise Galveston: I get blocked when I’m dreading a scene, especially if it involves a new world with lots of description. So I focus on dialogue on the first pass. Also I use the same playlist for a project so my brain hears the music and is conditioned to be productive-helps me, anyway.
As always, I’m overwhelmed by the wisdom and generosity of my fellow writers. Thanks to all who contributed to this post. And readers, what advice would you add?

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Elaine Vickers is the author of LOST AND FOUND (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂 
 

Hitting Refresh

My favorite thing about starting a new year is that clean-slate feeling: the sense that anything might happen. 2015 is a blank page, just waiting for new words, new ideas, new inspirations.

Of course, I know that’s somewhat arbitrary: I could designate any day of the week as my day to start afresh, to set new goals. But the new year carries more cultural and calendrical (I just made that up) weight, and so I’m going to enjoy the feeling (even if it’s more than a bit imaginary).

I think there’s something inherent to our psyche that not only relishes the idea of a new start, but needs it. After a particularly traumatic day or week, I need to get away–to escape physically on vacation, or mentally into a book or television show. And after a year of ups and downs, I need to believe that I can hit refresh on my life and do better this year than  did last year.

Sometimes we need the same release with our writing.

Sometimes we need to be able to step away from something that isn’t working and open a new document.

Sometimes we need to give our characters opportunities to change, to start over, to become someone new. In my most recent MS, one of the characters evolved nearly 180* over the course of the first draft and he’s now one of my favorites.

And sometimes we may need to step away from writing to fill our inspirational wells elsewhere.

I’ve been struggling for the last month or so to start something new. Querying took a lot of energy, and then I was working on revisions for my agent. I’ve brainstormed (and outlined) three new novels in the last three weeks, but I have less than 10,000 words among those stories.

One night, instead of trying to force ideas that wouldn’t come, I shut the computer down and my husband and I went to see the conclusion to the Hobbit trilogy. I loved it–the epic sweep, the reunion with beloved characters, the emotional heart-ache (it was a bit too long, but I’m not complaining). And by the time I finished dropping off the baby-sitter, my fingers were tingling with new ideas to flesh out the plotline of one of my shiny new projects. Stepping away that night was one of the best things I could have done.

So in the midst of all the goal-setting and planning this year, I want to also emphasize that sometimes it’s okay to shut down, to step away, even to take a break from the business that drives us. As Tasha put so well on Wednesday, being centered can help fuel us in ways that the most rigid schedule can’t do.

What helps you hit “refresh”–in writing and in life?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.