Six months ago I just stopped writing. I stopped tweeting. I stopped updating my blog. I stopped managing my writing career in any way. I stopped even responding to most writing-related emails and comments on my blog. I stopped listening to all writing podcasts. I haven’t even collected checks for book sales that I know are waiting for me at some indie book stores.
When I first stopped, I told myself I was just taking a short break. Two weeks maybe. I had just finished and published the fourth novel in my Derivatives of Displacement series. Getting that novel done had been a grind because since November 2015, I had been working almost full time at a demanding job. Getting that novel done had required writing every night, editing madly in the car while my children played big soccer games, and making sure a day did not pass without pushing out my 1000 words.
Immediately after finishing that novel, I switched gears and started writing one of my pen name novels, which was half finished and currently untouched now for 6 months at 26,000 words. I was tired. I had been pushing hard with indie publishing since September 2013 and writing during every conceivable moment since 2007. I just needed a little break.
Two weeks turned into two months, and then four and now six. I dabbled in writing. I had two short stories for anthologies due during that time. I wrote half of one halfheartedly and finished the other. But the thrill was gone. I thought about blog posts—semi-colons are fascinating aren’t they? I thought about novels I could write. I thought about finishing one of the many quarter and half finished novels on my laptop. I imagined taking my writing career in a totally different direction—writing thrillers, mysteries, or sweet romances. I mentored other writers. I read a myriad of novels. All writers should read, shouldn’t they?
Reading often just made me angry. I realized how picky I am as a reader. How many novels strike me as self-indulgent, phoned in, or just not my style. I found some new writers I loved, like Blake Crouch, Kimberly Belle, and Gill Paul, and revisited the work of some that I had loved before, like Patrick DeWitt. I tried to analyze what it was about the novels that I really liked.
My break was going on much longer than I planned, and the longer it went on, the more paralyzed I became about returning to the screen. When they say writing is a habit, it is no lie. Like exercise, when you stop writing, it is very hard to start again. During the time slots that I could have been writing, I mindlessly surfed Facebook, not even reading posts, just scrolling through, completely wasting my time. I read countless self-help books, none of which were any help. I started watching TV at night—Scandal, Riverdale, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency…
Everything to do with writing became like that project for that class that you didn’t start early enough, the one that is due in two days where there is so much to do piled up that you ignore it and don’t do anything, but it hangs over you always. The kind of thing that I have nightmares about.
So why? Why did I stop writing? I wrestled with the many possible reasons.
1) My mother died last January
I had just started a new job and had a novel due in the spring. I pushed through and continued working because I had to. I miss her terribly. Was my break some sort of deferred grief?
2) I get paid handsomely by the hour for my job.
I can always do more hours. I took over managing our family finances in December 2015 and discovered that we really really needed my income to make ends meet. Each hour of work that I did became like a little hit of security. It was a straight feedback loop. I work, I get paid. Compare that to writing where you work your ass off and may or may not get paid at all, ever. In one of my last blog posts, I had calculated the number of hours that went in to writing a novel. I had also calculated how much I would have earned if I had just worked for those hours. It was depressing. Had I become addicted to the work and get paid algorithm? The hits I used to get by selling a book or getting a good review were replaced by straight dollars in the bank account hits.
3) I have teenagers.
My house is a tip and they are always hungry. It is possible that teenagers are messier than toddlers and they don’t respond well to the “everybody clean up” song. It is possible that I spend more time cleaning up and shopping for Mr. Noodles than I did when they were young (well a lot more time on the Mr. Noodles front as I never envisioned even considering allowing my children to eat Mr. Noodles, but I digress).
4) I read a book called Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything?
It was a good book and it is not really mostly about Gwyneth at all. It is more about the cult of celebrity, how we listen to celebrities (even though we really shouldn’t) and how we all secretly want to be celebrities (even though our chances are slim to none). The author, Timothy Caulfield, devotes many chapters to precisely how unlikely it is that you or your children will ever make it as a singer, writer, or actor (he even provided stats). He is a failed singer himself and a damn good researcher. His research was compelling and totally depressing.
5) I was developing deep-seated professional envy and confusion.
Despite Caulfield’s argument, I know people who are making it as writers in the indie and traditional writing world. Some of them are really good writers. Some of them are only okay. Once you pass a certain bar in terms of quality, there seems to be no correlation between success and the quality of your writing. Each time one of my friends “made it,” I would wonder, what is it that they are doing differently? Are they marketing more, are they doing it full time, are they writing in a hotter genre, are they just more outgoing and shameless self-promoters? The indie world is rife with advice on how to succeed. You could make yourself absolutely crazy reading blog posts and listening to podcasts containing often contradictory advice, trying to figure out what to implement in your limited marketing time. It’s paralyzing and I just had to shut it off.
6) I was becoming addicted to Facebook.
I would literally waste an hour or two a day scrolling mindlessly through Facebook, not reading much, following a few links, watching cat videos (which is a total waste of time even though I really like cats) and reading scary headlines about Trump. I wasn’t even liking or commenting on things or building my online community, like you are supposed to do as a writer.
7) There are so many other writers…so many.
There are so many other books. There are so many other blog posts. Mindlessly surfing Facebook reminds me of this every day. It makes putting pen to paper seem fruitless. How can I possibly break through the noise? How can I possibly write something worth reading when so many other people are also trying to do so?
8) The U.S. election results really threw me.
I was so depressed after Trump’s election that I couldn’t do anything for a few weeks. This was partly because I was afraid that the world would be ending soon, and partly because the divisiveness of American politics and the difficulty of sorting through what is fake news and what is not makes my heart catch in my throat and stay there. I am worried for so many people in the U.S. who may soon be without health care or jobs. I am worried about the violence and war occurring in many other parts of the world. I am worried about climate change. Writing, especially writing sweet romances about rich or upper middle class people, seems trite against the backdrop of what is unfolding all around me. And yet writing gritty real-world novels about what is happening does not appeal to me either. They seem too dark at a time when we need hope. So, what does one write in this world that is uplifting and yet real?
9) My job is stressful and meaningful.
I work as an evaluator of health care projects. I spend a lot of time talking to patients who are experiencing something terrible and who are trying to hang on to hope. It is important work and work that I hope will help make our health care system better. It is work that drains me and requires that I pour a lot of creativity into it. It is work that leaves me with a lot less to give to writing. It is work that pays the bills and makes me feel like I am making a difference in the world.
So, what to do? What is it really holding me back—is it #2, #6, #9, all of the above? Should I quit my job? Should I read another self-help book?
I will not lie. I have entertained giving up writing forever. Simply working my day job and collecting my paycheck, watching TV and going on holidays without a deadline hanging over me, without that constant pressure to be writing, seems appealing. However even though I have told myself I can do that, that it would be okay, that my life would not be wasted if I did, six months later the “you should be writing” specter will not leave my side. Perhaps it is with me always. No matter how fulfilling my job is, it is not writing. Once a writer, always a writer.
So I am writing. I started a new novel a couple of weeks ago. It is a psychological thriller about a woman who discovers her husband has another family. I have set a conservative word count target of 500 words a day four days a week. I have promised myself I will start blogging again. Thanks for reading. My next post will be about proper and inventive uses of semi-colons and commas, I promise.