November is National Novel
Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. If you’ve never heard of NaNo, as it’s commonly
referred to, check it out here. The goal
is to get 50,000 words down on paper in the month of November. It’s November 20th
as I write this, and, well, let’s just say I’m not on track to hit that number.
At the rate I’m going, I’ll hit my NaNo word count maybe 12 days this month. Are you in the same sinking boat? Take heart! I’ve written a little parody to cheer up all of us NaNo-not-quites. I combined my NaNo failure with the excitement of the upcoming holidays. I present to you…
The 12 Days of NaNo (Note: In writer world, MS = manuscript.)
No, not that wall. The Wall. The one you eventually hit when you’re a creator. Or a parent. Or just adulting.
Sometimes you hit it in one part of your life and then it spreads to the others. Then it’s The WALL.
Maybe it’s the phase of the moon, or the season, or one of those seven-year cycles, but recently it feels like I know too many people up against The Wall. Family members who have lost jobs. Friends who have been betrayed by those they love. Creators who haven’t met with the success on which they pegged so many dreams. And at the start of the new school year, so many lovely people who are starting new phases of their lives and are just overwhelmed by the changes, even when many of those changes are good.
I’ll admit it: I’m one of those people.
Last week, I hit my writing Wall.[i] Rejection played a big part: I did okay with the first 20 rejections for my Middle Grade manuscript, but numbers 21 & 22 did me in. I stared at my query letter, unable to tell any longer if it needs more tweaking or just to be set aflame. I thought about whether I needed to rewrite the first chapter, or scrap it entirely. I considered whether I should turn my attention to something else for a while, and realized I didn’t even have the wherewithal to figure out a way forward on the half-dozen or so works-in-progress that linger as perpetually open tabs on my desktop and that physically clutter my office. I tried to go back to my writing goals for the year, to find a way to progress out of my funk only to realize with a distant horror I didn’t want to do any of the things necessary to move forward with any of my goals.
I felt totally, utterly defeated in a way I haven’t since I last took a microeconomics exam.
Anyone else been there? Lately? Then you know how easily it can become cyclical. You feel drained. You want to do nothing. So nothing is what you do. But, as it turns out, nothing doesn’t help.
Publishing and the writing industry can wear you down. Make you want to rock in the fetal position. It’s a constant test of patience and perseverance. So, whenever I can find a source of encouragement – anything that keeps me from setting my current manuscript on fire – I know I have to share it!
I stumbled upon Brené Brown’s Netflix special while folding some
never-ending piles of laundry and I loved it! (The special, not the laundry folding.) The
special is titled Brené Brown: The Call
to Courage and you can see some of the trailer here. A bit from her online bio…
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of
Houston where she holds the Huffington –Brown Endowed Chair. She’s spent the
past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She is
the author of five #1 New York Timesbestsellers:
The Gifts of
Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, and Dare to Lead.
If you have not seen her
Netflix special or her TedTalk, please go
watch them now. We’ll wait…
Okay, maybe you don’t have time to watch now. I’ll fill you in a little. In her Netflix special, Brené explains where she got the inspiration and title for her book Daring Greatly. To her horror, her 2010 TedTalk had gone viral and, against her better judgement, she read the comments online, which, of course, were a dumpster fire of cruelty and criticism. She tells the story – and she’s hilarious – of how she was numbing her feelings with screen time and peanut butter when she stumbled upon this quote from a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910:T
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” -Theodore Roosevelt, 1910
Brené Brown goes on to
encourage us to choose courage over comfort, knowing that criticism and failure
are inevitable. I thought about how that idea and this quote could be applied
to our creative pursuits, specifically writing.
For those of you who know me, or who have been following this blog for a while, you know I tend toward Type A-ness. I’m generally upbeat, high-energy (obnoxiously so when over-sugared/caffeinated), and goal-oriented. I don’t suffer from low esteem, nor do I tend toward mood swings (hold on, had to check with my hubby on that…he confirms that I’m generally low volatility). So why, in the wake of finally finishing 18 months’ worth of work (that I thought would take 12), having achieved my goal of wrestling my latest manuscript into sufficient shape to begin the submissions process, do I feel so…adrift?
Believe it or not, I’m 100% sure this malaise has nothing to do with fear of the impending rejections. In fact, the receipt of my first rejection this week actually sort of made me feel better. It was the crossing of a threshold that at least indicates progress, like passing a mile marker on the highway. Only I still feel like I cruised past it doing 30 mph on the highway I normally zoom down. After two weeks of what can best be described as achievement apathy (goals are still being set and met, but without any of the zing), I hit the internet to find out if this experience is a thing or if it’s just me.
Good news! It’s not just me! Or even just my generation. A 1987 article from the New York Times on “post-writum depression” describes all my symptoms and let me know I’m in good company with the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Judith Krantz, and Danielle Steele. Psychology Today calls it the post-adrenaline blues and posits my present low could be chemically-based – a drop in the adrenaline that fueled me through those final revisions and frantic synopsis drafts. My body could actually be in withdrawal, like an addict, but craving the stuff I was creating through my own internal pressure – which means that given enough time, I will naturally rebalance.
I suspect a part of what is going on is good old-fashioned grief. Huffpost calls it the post-book blues – that horrible aching loneliness when you hit the end of the book where you fell in love with a character, or characters, or sometimes even a whole world (here’s looking at you, Hogwarts). Popular Science published a great article validating the mourning of the loss of a fictional character just last month. Which I have to admit, made me feel better about my tendency to take a day or two off from reading anything more than a magazine article in the wake of a powerful book. It stands to reason that grief is stronger for characters you’ve created and gotten to know on a very personal level. If I needed a few days to get over “A Gentleman in Moscow,” I’m going to need to cut myself some slack on getting past thinking about what my main characters would be doing right now, if I hadn’t just closed the book on them.
So how much time do you give yourself when you’re grieving the end of the intense relationship you’ve had with the characters you created? Stephen Pressfield advocates jumping straight into the next project to keep your momentum going. I’m sure there’s good sense in that, and clearly it works for him. For me, though, to move from the relationship I’ve developed with these characters over the last year and a half into the next relationship feels like serial dating, and I’m not yet ready for the rebound.
The research shows I’m not alone in this either. I was thrilled to find this article by writer / writing coach Lauren Sapala, and this one on Writer Unboxed by Jeane Kisacky. Still, I was left wondering what to do about it. Not writing feels wasteful. But I can’t seem to bend my will to starting another project yet. Even doing the small projects, the ones that I’ve been saying I’d get to for a while (as Kisacky mentions doing) doesn’t seem to help me feel much better. So I took to social media to see what others writers do. Some of you likely saw my questions there, and if you took the time to answer, then thank you! It means a lot to have community I can reach out to at times like this.
According to my highly unofficial poll, very few other women writers jump straight into the next project (sorry guys, I polled an all female writers’ group). Most respondents said they take Kisacky’s route and work on some smaller projects for a while. A few indicated they take a week or so to catch up on the life they missed while they were writing, a la author Amy Wallace. All of which is good news for me, since I’m combining a bit of both approaches: trying to reacquaint myself with regular exercise while also trying my hand at some shorter stories and article submissions I kept saying I’d get to once the pressure of the novel was off my shoulders.
Discovering that this experience is so common that it has names has helped me feel at peace with where I’m at. But the amazing part of this has been the re-discovery that I’m not alone. Even though I sit here by myself on this side of the screen, so many of you out there are with me. And knowing that we’re here for each other has helped more than anything else. Thank you, All!
Thank you, Thea, for all of your awesome research – as usual. I now have a bunch more articles to go read! I think it makes sense that we need some time before jumping into an entirely new world, especially after the blood, sweat, and tears we poured into the previous world! I remember being very impatient when I finished my first manuscript. I was tapping my toes waiting for the next story to show up. (Preferably outlined and with fully-developed characters.) I remember writing snippets of inner dialogue for different characters in a spiral notebook, waiting for one of them to hand me a story! In the meantime, I guess I did many of the things Thea mentioned above, like catching up on life stuff and working on smaller projects that had been set aside. I imagine a lot of writers are nodding their heads while reading this and saying “Yes!” Thanks, Thea, for reminding us we are all in this together and experiencing so many of the same reactions!