When the Well is Dry

At the nexus of a desire for change one can get rather weary.  Even burned-out. Jan O’Hara at Writer Unboxed compared the slowness we despise (especially in the western world) with the way children are treated when they aren’t meeting reading benchmarks imposed on them by public schools.  A lot of writers, artists, teachers–and anyone who performs a job that requires tremendous amounts of cerebral output– have a high rate of burn-out.

The onset of burn-out is incredibly debilitating.  When life is “normal”, I pride myself on my ability to gobble a book.  However, when stress sets up shop, I am lucky if I can read the same page four times and be able to remember anything I read (particularly if what I am reading happens to be on a screen).

The question I have to constantly ask myself: what is the purpose in feeding the frenzy?  Am I doing this to further my art, my career, or am I working for motives that aren’t serving the greater good?

I have returned to my previous habit of weekly swimming.  At the pool I am forced to carry nothing (other than my goggles or weird “rash guard” that I use as a drag suit to create more resistance when I’m swimming). My fellow patrons think I’m crazy to wear what looks like a t-shirt over my polka dot bikini.  We have a mixture of Czech, German and the occasional American clientele at my neighborhood schwimbad.  It is a lovely UN of languages.  Music to my ears!

It is this orchestra of human voices my mind catalogues new images:  an old man kissing his wife and her surpassed look.  After fifty years of marriage he still manages to keep things alive, I think.

I love watching how twenty of us congregate in a jacuzzi/pool intended for only fifteen and everyone just makes way without anyone having to start a fuss.  One older man winked at his wife across the way, as there wasn’t room for him on her side.  She raised her eyebrows in mock exasperation.

If I had a pen and paper with me, I would have been too busy writing to see all of these facial expressions, emotions and lovely moments.  And if I wasn’t slightly culturally isolated I wouldn’t be able to conjure my own reality from my lack of knowledge of the German and Czech languages.

When stress threatens to destabilize our hold on our art, our precious coveted passion (whatever it may be: painter, dancer, writer, etc….) I believe we can fight back or we can also re-fill the well.  We have to harness the things we love doing that maybe we haven’t enjoyed for awhile because we’ve been too busy increasing the word count in our novel, or increasing our reps at the gym, or editing the brains out of our debut novel and feeling depleted after so much effort and so little result.

On my second visit to the pool this week, I came home and dreaded making myself dinner because it was going to cut down on my writing time.  Then it occurred to me: it isn’t all about the final product,  though the final product does matter, and that’s what will eventually sell.  I am overstressed because it is the journey that I am consistently failing to enjoy.  I must celebrate all the great e-mails I get from my writing friends, the wonderful blog posts on the Word Cloud, new friends, friendships that have deepened through writing, a rekindled love of the outdoors I had lost for many years, and a realization that the greatest happiness I can acquire is through cataloguing the joy and the heartbreak I see and hear everyday.

I hope that I can continue to find the joy in the bubbles of the outdoor pool, the senior citizens cavorting in the jacuzzi, and JP asking me, “Hey, can I leave on-time today. I was really quiet for the first time.”

These are priceless moments I would have never taken notice of if I hadn’t decided to become a writer.  Stress will come and go, but if I keep filling the well, I can only hope it will become more manageable.

If your pace is slow (as mine is glacially slow at the moment, I’ve even taken to doing artistic renderings of my next short story) don’t despair. All that thinking will lead to something great.  It might not be Pulitzer prize-winning great.  However, those moments leading up to that breakthrough just might change your life.  Or, change someone else’s.  Embrace the process.  Enjoy the product as a result of the process.

And, be kind to yourself.

Artists are fundamentally inconsolable

I have been thinking a lot.  These are the haunting thoughts: the ones that stick to your insides like grits or dumplings or other food I generally don’t eat because I’m secretly programmed to eat curries and strange vegetable casseroles I make-up out of culinary laziness. (And a general lack of interest in following a recipe).  These haunting thoughts have nothing to do with food.  They have to do with inconsolable things.  This post from writer unboxed inspired me to write the following.

It’s important to define what haunts you as an artist.   The voices of ages 11-18 inspire me.  There is something this age group that is still misunderstood even though they are the subject of a lot of controversial/trashy TV shows.  They are a large part of why I started writing seriously and tend to be my target audience for 80% of what I aim to publish.  I disagree that I write because I am inconsolable, I write to find the consolation in things I still don’t understand.  Like your sixteen year old, I believe the world should be fair.  I still don’t understand why it isn’t and why people who have the ability to make it fair hoard when they could share.

The pathway of inspiration (excerpted from my writer unboxed comment):

I’ve taught “public” school for nine years. Before I became a teacher I worked in mental health as a drama therapist and research assistant for PTSD (combat trauma and stressful life events). I have always been compelled by people’s stories, their struggle and what they’ve decided to do with the tenuous hold they have on their lives.

When I started working solely with kids, I witnessed a struggle of an entirely different magnitude: children can rarely be actors unto themselves. They must adapt because they have few other choices. Their world is defined by people who often don’t have their best interests at heart. I wrestle with feeling powerless in a sea of so much need and despair: witnessing adult needs trump the necessary emotional and physical needs of children (I’m not talking about Junior having the latest gadget, game or gizmo). I try to nourish voices I don’t feel are heard in the “mainstream” into the characters in my plays, books and short stories.

I want to give my teen characters abilities and talents that free them from their oppressive climate in a way I think every child has the ability as they mature into adulthood. I fundamentally believe in hope and redemption at some level. I don’t start a story with that idea in mind, but I am beginning to believe that a story, such as my novel, The Curse of Beal Atha, that started with a girl whose Mum is abusive and father has disappeared is less about time traveling and more about finding yourself when others are trying to define you only by what you can do for them. It is possible to free oneself from the identity others have imposed on you.

Perhaps the fact I grew up in Japan in a military family and have now lived half my life abroad helps to give rise to the need for “third culture” youth voices or that I love rooting for whomever I feel is the underdog at the time. I want to feel that my characters are real people who exist somewhere; people who someday I’ll meet and feel like we’ve known each other forever. And perhaps, when that day arrives, consolation shall as well.

 What inspires you and keeps you going?  Is it a haunting story, a particular theme you enjoy or do your characters also speak to you?  Feel free to share below.

Retreats West: Amanda Saint, a great editor for writers looking to improve and/or needing manuscript reviews

I recently had the opportunity to have the first 3,000 words of my MS (manuscript) reviewed by Amanda Saint from Retreats West.  She went above and beyond what I had expected and really helped me to polish the beginning of my novel.  I’m eager to go back and get her insights on the rest of the rough and unpolished stone that my first novel still is.  I had a tracked changes document in addition to a 30 minute skype call to discuss the edits.  

If you can, I really recommend Amanda’s keen eye to anyone wanting to improve their writing, or whom want a second opinion.  

Right now she’s having a sale (details posted below as well as the URL).  Happy New Year all!


Discounts on critiques and retreats!

Happy New Year everyone! Hope 2014 is a great year for you and your writing.

To help you start as you mean to go on the Retreat West January Sale means you can get your work reviewed and spend some dedicated time with it for less money!

From 1st to 31st January everyone that books one of these critiques or a place on the Beach House retreat gets a 10% discount on the critique and 5% off the Beach House retreat.

Book them on the links below:

  • 3000 word critique with report and 30-min call to discuss just £45! Buy now!
  • 5000 word critique with report just £63! Buy now!
  • 5000 word critique with report and 30-min call to discuss just £81! Buy now!
  • Full novel review (up to 85,000 words) just £387! Buy now!
  • 5% off 3 nights at the Beach House retreat. Book here!