Today is my 90th day in a row of hitting writing goals. Yay me.
Let me cut to the chase, though: the past couple years have been traumatic for a lot of creative people, and checking the rearview mirror says that I’ve been one of them. Or still am, I suppose. But it seems that I’m coming out of this Deep Freeze, and if that’s true now is the time for me to write about it. I don’t think I’m alone here. I figure maybe this piece will find its way into the hands of someone who needs to know they, too, are/were not alone.
That can serve as your warning, too. If you’re not one of those people, you can probably use your time better than to read on.
To set the scene, let’s first check the record.
While I’ve had several pieces of short fiction published over the last couple years, the last time I released a book was Wakers, which saw publication in March of 2020. I had been on a bit of a roll before then—pretty much my usual. The month before, for example, I published Tomorrow in All the Worlds, a collection of short stories.
A look at my 2021 records—which are not particularly reliable, but what the hell—says I managed only about 80,000 words of new fiction—and really only 40,000 before about November. Those 40K words resulted in (I think) four short stories and one ill-fated attempt to write a book. I had a four-month span where I did not create words at all, and before that a two-month dead zone to go with a third one-month span.
You’ll notice that date, right? March 2020. What, I wonder, was going on around then? Hmmmmmm.
Well, for me, a lot, really.
That said, it would be too easy for me to point to the pandemic as that cause of my malaise (and at some point it did, indeed, become part of the problem). To be blunt in March/April 2020 the pandemic was really a small dent in my days. I had just come back from a workshop and was working at something close to full-throttled level, fiddling with a new anthology project, and focusing again on finishing my Stealing the Sun series. The pandemic was not a concern. I’m a writer, after all. Most of my life is lived online, and most of my friends are accessible that way. I don’t need to go outside.
Bottom line, in addition to the pandemic and all this worldwide unrest, I was getting ready to be hit with three new bits of life at once—or technically I suppose I’d already been hit with one, but I just didn’t fully appreciate its depths yet. So, my world was compressing even before then, starting in 2019 when my mother fell and broke her hip. It deepened that next January when she returned to the hospital, then decided to enter hospice. I posted a notice about her passing in June of 2020.
That was a tough time, of course. Very emotional. Her passing was a “good” one, though. Honorable and on her terms, even though she left behind a bit of turmoil.
What I haven’t talked about much since—and will continue to refrain from talking about much now—are two other health issues that have planted themselves directly into my path. Not mine, but family members. The specifics are not mine to tell, so I’ll not delve into them here. But the result has been that for much of the past two years I have been the only person in my nearby family who could manage the day-to-day activities of a couple households, activities that include the basics of feeding people and the medical situations of both humans and felines (hey, cats are people, too). Let’s just say that my admiration for single parents and caregivers of all types is pretty much off the charts.
Add all that to stress around the pandemic and other world events of 2020 and 2021 (and 2022 for that matter), and in my case … well … it all just shut down.
It was painful at times, to not write. Being a writer is who I am. But facts are facts, and here’s the truth: for that time-period, when I sat down at the keyboard to write fiction the stories just would not come. I mean that word “stories” directly. I could create words, but my brain just would not deal with complexities of character and setting and all those things that I know make up real stories. During this time, it was more painful to write than to not write. Hence those fallow months.
Maybe that “more painful to write than to not write” sounds strange to you.
It’s okay, really it is. I don’t think I could have comprehended the idea before sitting through it. I was not “blocked” after all. I could still throw down words. But it was like I was a potter at the wheel. I could drop clay down, but that clay wasn’t forming. Life was so intense, you know. So undecided. On the one hand I felt “safe” in that so few of us needed to brave the pandemic (and “safe” in that I am fortunate enough to be in a position where I and my family can survive with my trickle of writing income), but that just served to make me feel guilty for being overwhelmed (when I knew so many had things worse). Looking back, I can see that while everything was stagnant, nothing was stable. If I looked forward a few months, I could not make any certain statements about what life was going to be like.
That’s not how I’ve lived my life to date.
So go ahead and chuckle at me. I’m an adult (kind of), I can take it.
All I can say is that it was true for me, and if it’s true for you now then I want to convey something that might be important.
Give yourself time. It’s okay.
Focus on what matters.
Writing is not life.
Life is life.
Let yourself create where you can, though. In my case, I funneled myself into fake baseball—something that only a few weirdos like me care about, but something my brain would let keep me afloat from day-to-day. I wrote some words there because those words were fun (and weren’t stories!). I made podcasts because those were fun. It was something I could learn with, and people liked them.
Since there are relatively few fake baseball weirdos, for you it will almost certainly be something else. Maybe cooking. Or doodling. Or playing dress up with your kids (or just yourself!). Maybe you can enjoy taking photos, or…tik toks or… getting into makeup, or well…whatever it is.
I say this, though: give yourself to it. Let it carry you.
Creating something that makes you happy adds to life. If it can’t be writing (or music, or painting, or whatever it is that has you all stoppered up), then find something else.
The goal, I think, is to find something to play with. Something that is centered in joy.
As I wrote that last bit, my mind went to something a group of writers I know will sometimes say to each other when we’re off to a writing stint: “go play” we’ll say, waving and smiling. That’s a thing. Writing is hard as hell at times. Pulling stories out of thin air can be free and easy or it can be like pulling a tooth by yourself but, in the end, it’s supposed to be fun.
Telling a story that was difficult to piece together can bring a sense of satisfaction that’s about as great as anything I can ever imagine. Telling one that flows unfettered is the closest thing there is to flying.
Here’s something else I want to say to people who might be feeling the pain of Deep Freeze.
I hope it passes. If you give it that time to settle, I think it will.
But who am I to tell?
Your difficulty is yours, and I won’t presume to be some kind of perfect wise guy on the hill.
All I can say is that after giving it space, for me it has passed. That in October of this past year I sat down feeling a story even though I had no idea what it was, and a few days later I had “Machine,” which is caustic and biting and carries everything I’ve had boiling in my gut for some time (and which saw recent publication in Boundary Shock Quarterly).
Finishing that story felt so good. I thought for certain I had broken through—that the Deep Freeze was over. I was back, baby! I was back!
Now I could go back to my normal self, crunching out stories and having fun.
Alas, while the Deep Freeze had thawed a touch, it was not over. Two weeks later, while telling myself I was focusing again on my Stealing the Sun series, I’d barely pecked out any new words.
So, here’s another thing I want to say.
When it comes back, that spark you feel might need a little nurturing. My case was one of letting myself re-learn how to step into characters. It’s easy to create words, you see, but hard to create stories—because story comes from character, and characters are deep. For me, anyway, it takes practice to become another person. I needed to let myself relearn how to do that.
I also needed to get into the practice of coming to the keyboard with focus again. Being a type-A person at heart, I needed to reteach myself how to hit targets.
Two things worked for me. Maybe something like them will work for you.
Thing One: 250 words a day (that I loved).
That’s about a page. I figured that should be doable, so, my goal each day as I came back was simply to make 250 words I loved, even if they weren’t “good.” Key words there are, of course: “that I loved.” If I’m focused at all, I can do 250 words in ten or fifteen minutes, and recursively, I can allow myself to focus for ten or fifteen minutes. It’s that focus that shifts the work. For me, that’s the difference between creating words and writing.
The “hardest” part of setting this goal was that I had to be happy with myself if I got ‘only” 250 words.
I’m a “real writer,” I thought. “Real writers” do a couple thousand words a day.
Bah. I picked that number because I’d seen another writer who I admire profess to being gunked up, too, and that they’d decided to focus on doing 250 words a day (I’ve since read another talking about 200). If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me.
So, yeah, I got happy with getting just 250 words that I loved a day—which my logs say I did for just short of a week. Then, (duh), once I got happy with that, I found myself doing 400 a day, then 600, then 800, and a thousand…and beyond. There is a muscle here, after all. And my creative muscle had atrophied with misuse. So, I built it back up. Today I’m doing a couple thousand words a day as needed, but the goal is still only 250.
A difference now is that since I’ve branched my day’s work back out into doing all sorts of publishing things, on occasion that 250 words (that I love) has now become a reward for finishing a few other tasks that maybe I need to do but are not quite so joyous.
Thing Two: I found a project that would make me hit some deadlines.
For me this became reviewing the WMG Holiday Spectacular, which is a project that released a short story a day. The process was as simple as it was fun. Step 1 – read the short story. Step 2 – write a few hundred words about that story. Step 3 – publish those words on my website.
You can see how it went today by scrolling through the days from late November 2021, through New Years Day.
It was a blast. I mean, a total blast. I read stories by people I’d read before, and met new writers I had been unaware of. I learned a lot about myself in the process, and equally important I trained myself to make things happen. I couldn’t let a day go without “working.”
I loved writing about how other people’s work made me feel. And, as a result I brought that feeling of joy into my own work. By the end of 2021 (in tandem with getting those milestones hit) I had completed another short story, made seriously good progress on STARGAMES (which is now to be book seven of Stealing the Sun), done production work on three collections of short stories that should be out this spring(ish), and even developed a new non-fiction project that is my ode to the Short Story (and that I hope to publish this summer sometime).
The first two months of 2022 have seen me write three short stories, and complete both of those books. I’m chomping at the bit to write STARDUST, which I expect to be book eight of the STS series. And I have lots of stuff lining my mind. Ideas, you know. Things I want to do.
Of course, everything is not all-of-a-sudden perfect. I’m still stressed about certain things. Despite all these relaxations of restrictions, the pandemic isn’t over. The world isn’t really much cleaner than it was two years ago. And my family health situation remains at least partially unchanged. But I’m creating words again, and those words are creating stories. Stories that say things I care about.
It’s a beautiful thing, coming out of the Deep Freeze.
It’s hard, though, and made harder by the idea that it was all my own fault that I was in it to begin with—like there was something inherently wrong with me. But there is no fault. That’s something I want to say to you, too. There is cause and there is effect, and I need to understand that I’m responsible to not lie to myself, but, in these moments I’ve been in there is no fault. There are only things I can manage and things I cannot.
Life is like this. Sometimes my brain says “enough.”
If yours has done that, too, I want you to know you’re not alone. I want you to know it’s okay to step away. Take your time. Find your thing until your thing becomes you.
Life is life. And joy begets joy.
That’s my story, anyway. And I’m sticking to it.