In my last post, I mentioned that I took what I call a Well Week last week–a period of time dedicated to refilling my creative well through artsy activities, rest, self-care, and reading. The week would have been A LOT better if I hadn’t tried to keep plugging along on my work-in-progress, a disaster of a novel that has had me incredibly stressed for two years straight. I was on my third (!) whole new attempt and failing. This brought me down, of course, (let’s be honest, I was already down and this was a whole new low) and induced a degree of panic so high that it resulted in my entire back locking up for days (think your muscles spasming and then going so tight you can’t even stand straight or sit up in bed). I’ve come to realize that my body is a total traitor: it turns on me fast if I’m refusing to deal with something in a healthy way. (Okay, so maybe this means it actually has my back because it’s watching out for me, except in this case, it had my back by the balls–if my back had balls, which it doesn’t, because that would be weird…but I digress).
The “healthy” way of dealing with my book would have been to take a damn week off for creative wellness. But I have taken many, many breaks from this book, hoping my muses would get their shit together and, being on deadline, I couldn’t afford to take any more time off. So I forced myself to write 2K words a day on a manuscript speeding down the Highway to Hell while trying to meditate and learn tarot and make mandalas. Picture a Cali Zen girl on a stress bender and you’ve got an accurate portrait of Heather Last Week. It’s like drinking green juice in the morning, then snorting coke for lunch. (Neither coke nor green juice was involved in the making of this book, though I now wonder if both might have helped).
I knew this was my brain on stupid. I’m a writing coach, dammit! I know exactly what I would tell my clients, and it’d be good advice: you have to write the book that wants to be written, the book you have to write–as in, the cosmos won’t shut up about it until you do. And it sounds like this book doesn’t want to be written…at least not by you. Sometimes books are bitches like that. I would encourage my client to put on her big girl panties and make some tough calls. Then I’d tell her to fill that creative well properly and go write the fuck out of something she can’t wait to put on the page. I’d tell her to let it go, like a bad romance (hint, hint my new book) or that shirt you love that you got a stain on and can’t wear anymore. It’s time to say Book ‘Bye.
Except. I don’t have a coach breathing down my neck, so I can do whatever I want, tralala: damn the torpedoes–full speed ahead! *cue maniacal laugh*
So here I was, supposedly trying to fill my completely dry creative well while forcing my fingers to type words I wasn’t feeling at all for several hours a day on a book that, if we met in the street, I would give zero fucks about telling it to go fuck itself. I FUCKING HATE THIS BOOK. I hate this book like Brad Pitt hates Nazis in Inglorious Basterds. This book gives me the same hopeless, impotent, rage-fueled AGGGHHH that I feel whenever I see Paul Ryan’s smarmy face. Okay, you get it: I really don’t like this goddamn book. Already you can see this is a Houston We Have A Problem situation. No one can work under such conditions. I mean, my book and I are basically staying together for the kids. It’s the most depressing thing in the world. Truth? We should have broken up ages ago. I have said goodbye to many books that I’ve put tons of time and energy and love into. But there are reasons – good reasons – why I’ve kept trying to make this work. Not ones I’m going to splash across the Internet, but if you email me I’ll tell you. That being said, those reasons don’t matter one tiny bit if the book isn’t working.
The worst part of all of this is that my failure to write this book has made me lose faith in myself, in my abilities, in my artistic vision. It’s taken the fun out of writing. Except for a new project I’m really excited about (non-fiction, thank Jesus), I have been pretty uninspired since I finished Bad Romance when I was in Bali two years ago. I’ve tried a million things in between working on this hellscape of a novel and none of them have really come to fruition. While I’ve experienced flow and word-giddyness several times working on both this book and others, my attention has necessarily been fractured because of the book’s looming deadline. This has had a domino effect on many of my other projects. There have also been some personal things and basically the entire year of 2016 and this first half of 2017 have made me want to crawl under a rock (I’m sure if I did, I’d see many other Americans under said rock, including Hillary Clinton). This certainly affected my ability to create. Like, A LOT.
(And, yet, strangely, gave me the time and capacity and desire to help other artists–go figure).
So here I was at the end of my not-so-well week, worse off than when it began. I’d signed up for a tarot for creativity workshop (amazing, I’ll tell you about it later) and I was psyched. I knew this would help, but I wasn’t sure how. Then I pick my first card. Observe:
If the illustration doesn’t freak you out enough, imagine me sitting in the workshop when the teacher holds it up and says to the class, “This card….this is a shit card. It means everything is shit.” Awesome. From what I can tell, it’s pretty much the worst one in the deck. Hey, at least the universe is keeping it real with me. Okay, so I get the Shit Card aka Ten of Swords and the Hell Book is basically looking like Voldemort’s soul at the end of HP7 and then my back temporarily breaks. Clearly, I have to make a choice here. But what to do? There are things on the line with this book that make throwing it in a drawer difficult. But I can’t write it. I’m not convinced more time is going to solve this problem (I should dedicate a whole other post to the millions of strategies I employed in trying to get this thing working–I totally brought my MFA A-Game). And yet I felt totally paralyzed.
Clearly, it was time to get into coach mode. Heather, what is this book trying to teach you? I’ve been thinking a bit lately about how each book teaches us something, usually about ourselves, but of course about writing and navigating the artist’s life. I always say that no word is wasted because, as Anne Lamott says, each word has to be written to get to the ones you’re ultimately going to keep. You don’t just get all the good and right words at once. Each book–whether is succeeds and you get the National Book Award or it ends up in the drawer–is there to teach you something. I firmly believe this. So: what was this book teaching me?
As I was walking my dog, pondering this, a single word comes to me: surrender. This word tastes nourishing, like honey or coconut milk or a good cup of tea. It feels right.
And I suddenly got it: this book is showing me how to let go. To trust that the stories that want me to write them are out there and that I am capable of writing them because I am a motherfucking writer and pretty decent at stringing words together (if I do say so myself). This book isn’t teaching me that I can’t write and it’s not the Fraud Police. It’s teaching me that control is an illusion. If I’ve put in the blood, sweat, and tears that any writer worth her salt should put into her work and it’s not working, then this shit is not my problem. I showed up. My muses…did not. They were off doing fuck-all who-knows-where. What is my problem is my refusal to let go of the death grip I’ve had on my future.
It is entirely possible that this story is no longer mine. That maybe it hasn’t been for a long, long time. (I’m thinking here about how Liz Gilbert talks in Big Magic about her story idea being psychically sent to Anne Patchett.) But right now, my job isn’t to worry about if it is or isn’t my story. The whole thing about surrendering is relinquishing all attempts to control or determine the outcome. Saying, I’m not writing this book or I am writing this book isn’t going to serve me in the practice of surrendering.
For my word nerds:
1.cease resistance to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority.“over 140 rebels surrendered to the authorities”
synonyms: capitulate, give in, give (oneself) up, give way, yield, concede (defeat), submit, climb down, back down, cave in, relent, crumble; More antonyms: resist
give up or hand over (a person, right, or possession), typically on compulsion or demand.“in 1815 Denmark surrendered Norway to Sweden”
synonyms: give up, relinquish, renounce, forgo, forswear; More antonyms: seize
(in a sports contest) lose (a point, game, or advantage).“she surrendered only twenty games in her five qualifying matches”
abandon oneself entirely to (a powerful emotion or influence); give in to.“he was surprised that Miriam should surrender to this sort of jealousy”
(of an insured person) cancel (a life insurance policy) and receive back a proportion of the premiums paid.
1.the action of surrendering.
synonyms: capitulation, submission, yielding, succumbing, acquiescence; More
Instead of trying to control all possible outcomes and account for all possible bad shit that can happen, I’ve decided to let the universe take over. Okay, so here it gets esoteric or woo or whatever, but you’ll just have to roll with it–I am a Californian you know. Generally, I am not a Give It Over To The Universe kind of girl. Nuh-uh. No. Freaking. Way. But I finally recognized that I had worked myself up into such a tizzy that I couldn’t write the book anyway, so I might as well just acknowledge where I’m at and stop worrying about it for the rest of the summer. Maybe inspiration will finally strike, but I doubt it. I think this book is dead. And if it’s dead, then I have to believe that something better will come along. I think I’m in the shit part of the Hero’s Journey, or perhaps the Doldrums in Phantom Tollbooth.
But in any good story, the hero prevails and has a boon to bring back to their community, so I have to trust that I will get my boon. Hopefully sooner rather than later. That might be in the form of a great new story idea, other ideas I already have beginning to pan out, or this book itself suddenly getting all Lazarus on me. Or maybe it’s just a fantastic anecdote to help my blocked clients. Who knows?
I did this guided meditation (from chapter six in Gabby Bernstein’s The Universe Has Your Back–a book I have mixed feelings about, but would generally recommend). By the end, I was smiling for the first time in a while. You might even say I was blissed-out. It’s this beautiful visualization that involves a golden basket and an angel – just trust me, it’s delicious. The whole thing was about letting go and surrendering whatever your issue is to the universe. Let it work its magic while you do your thing.
What my “thing” is….I have no idea. I wrote this blog. That’s a start. But I’m going to have to get back on the fiction horse soon. (You know, like how Maverick has to get back in the air after Goose dies…come on, you know I had to bring Top Gun into this). I have no freaking idea what that will be. I am currently struggling to create magnetic poetry on my fridge, so the thought of embarking on a new fiction project is a little daunting. But I miss being in flow and loving a world and characters I’ve created and so I know I’ll be back in the saddle soon.
I am chock-full of so many thoughts about what going through this means about living the artist’s life, the lessons I’ve learned throughout this whole journey, and how I had to come to terms with the financial ramifications of a being a full-time artist who is blocked…I promise I’ll get there on the blog at some point.
For those of you who find yourselves in similar situations, I recommend a real well-week, some honest-to-goodness soul searching, and lots of meditation. If you’re a lady writer (18 and up), come join the Pneuma Facebook Group to have a supportive writing community–I haven’t done this alone, and neither should you. I am still deep in shit, but I can say that this simple act of surrender has lifted an enormous load off my shoulders. Whatever happens, I’m honoring my role in the creative process and holding space for myself so that when the right book comes along, I can write the hell out of it.
What about you, friends? Comment below about blocks you’ve had, books you’ve said goodbye to, surrendering, etc. I’d love to hear what other writers are dealing with.
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