Monday, March 5, 2012

Living Underwater

It last January that my mother was rushed to the hospital with multiple fatal conditions including kidney failure and internal bleeding, brought on by overenthusiastic medication by her cardiologist. Miraculously, she survived – beginning a ten-month decline ending with her death in October.

During this time life went on about us, with the ordinary joys and stresses of living with a family in a house that requires upkeep. Band recitals, fundraisers, visits to universities with the eldest – one has to show up for these things, preferably in clean clothes and with a somewhat sane demeanor. One must shovel, hammer in that loose floorboard, finally fix the bathroom floor.  Through all of that my mother was lying in a bed, suffering unknowable pain from various infections and her longstanding arthritic condition.

My mother lived her last months with few joys and with much waiting. Waiting to find out the results of the latest test, waiting for the pain medication to kick in, waiting for a visit. Carrying that with me while driving my kids to and fro, doing laundry, and sitting down to write became impossible. I turned down the knob on my emotions. It was the only way I could make it through that one-hour drive to the hospital or nursing home several times a week. The only way to write book two and undergo a dozen interviews, conversing as if life hadn’t just been revealed to me as one great pile of suffering and bullshit. As my mother once said, joking: “Is this IT? That’s all there is?” But she was funny, while I am too often humorless. I had to turn it down.

While it worked for me as a survival strategy, here is the problem. When you exist like that for too long, you become submerged,  and everything on the surface is muffled and distorted. You know how you must feel about things, but you don’t actually feel them – or only long enough to recognize and suppress them. So disconnected from yourself, the main thing you feel is frustration.

And I find that it is not the best way to write. No wonder that in writing KNIFESWORN, I felt most connected to the character who drifts through life on a steady diet of opium, emotionally removed from those around him. Now that the book is finished I have a sense that it is not emotionally honest, that it will ring false – that I have strung together a bunch of emotional reactions that seem right, but that I did not feel. (Luckily, one of the themes of the book is isolation and loneliness. )

A person can’t stay submerged for long.  Those feelings begin to simmer up from the deep, to grab you unawares.  Guilt, anger, grief, and love are all powerful emotions that can drive you before them, lost and confused, and they don’t like to be ignored. They come back with a vengeance and have amazing destructive power.

But it’s not all bad: emotions are a writer’s fuel, and negative ones are like high-octane gasoline. I wish that I could begin KNIFESWORN now, instead of a year ago. I think I’d do a better job at it. I still have book 3, and any other book I might choose to write, but I regret writing KNIFESWORN in a fog. I think that if I had known more about being a professional writer, I would have seen the problem before it was too late. Writing has to come from a true place, a raw place. You have to allow yourself to be there, to live in it, to feel. I know that now.

Writing the first book is easy. You can take your time, and not work on it when things don’t feel right or your life is difficult. With the second you have a deadline. Pressure. Less advice than you had before. It’s enough to set even the strongest of us back. I am going to mark this down as a lesson learned and keep going. There’s not much else to do: March 1, 2013 is another deadline.


  1. I think you deserve huge kudos for writing Knifesworn at all in such difficult circumstances (and turning it in on time, even!). Even in good times, it's so true that writing that second novel under deadline is a far different (and more difficult!) experience than writing the first one.

    But your worries over the emotional honesty of the novel remind me of something Madeleine L'Engle once discussed in one of her nonfiction books. She said the artist (actor, musician, writer, whatever) is always the worst judge of how their work will affect an audience. She told the story of how in her days in the theater, the extremely talented & experienced lead actress would sometimes say after a performance, "Oh dear, I was terrible tonight...everything flat and dead, I couldn't find the spark for the part" and yet the next day reviews of her performance would be absolutely glowing. Yet on other occasions, the lead actress would sweep in saying, "I had them eating out of my hand tonight, darlings!" and then the stage manager would come in and say, "Are you feeling quite all right? You seemed a bit off tonight..." Anyway, kind of a longwinded way of saying that you may find that more emotional honesty made its way into Knifesworn than you'd guessed, and you never know until a book heads out into the world just what kind of chord it will strike with its readers.

  2. First, I'm very sorry about your mother. Losing a parent is difficult -- very difficult and life-changing. I'm thinking positive thoughts for you.

    As Courtney says, "Anyway, kind of a longwinded way of saying that you may find that more emotional honesty made its way into Knifesworn than you'd guessed, and you never know until a book heads out into the world just what kind of chord it will strike with its readers." The subconcious is a funny thing. The more you think you've locked it down, the more seeps out through the cracks. Don't worry about it. This is what writers do: work with their subconcious. No matter what, you did your best during a trying time. That also is the professional writer's gig. It is amazing you finished at all, working under that much stress. I would hope I would do as well.

    Lastly, what you said about writing the second novel is dead on. I couldn't have said it better.