My mom died two months ago tomorrow, after a long struggle with two progressively debilitating diseases. The last couple of years have been especially difficult for my family, yet during that time I continued to meet my deadlines for a trade book and numerous work-for-hire titles. I read and enjoyed books by other writers. I heard from the writers I mentored that my feedback was of great value to them.
But there was one thing I could not seem to do. The part of my brain that knows how to jumpstart a new writing project—because it’s fun, because it’s my oxygen, because it’s who I am in the world—is gone. It doesn’t feel like that part of me is just taking a needed rest, or laying low until trouble has found another door to darken; it feels like it has slipped out the back door of my imagination and moved on for good.
On the chance that you ever find yourself in this position, I can tell you some of the things that haven’t worked to fix this problem. Berating or shaming myself hasn’t helped. Throwing tantrums in my writing room hasn’t helped. Altogether ignoring the part of me that identifies as “writer” hasn’t helped.
But this past couple of weeks, I finally had the energy to go looking for that lost part of myself in a more positive fashion. And as soon as I got enough outside of my own head, I started to find some breadcrumbs on a trail that—who knows?—just may be the path to recovering my writing self.
The first breadcrumb came through a lunch with Laura Purdie Salas, the other half of the Mentors for Rent team. We get together on a regular basis to talk about mentoring and writing and to just catch up on each other’s lives. Laura is one of the most focused and disciplined writers I know; she has also been extremely empathetic during this time. And she made me an offer: when I was ready to commit to some kind of deliberate practice to try to jumpstart my creative brain, she was willing to check in to see how it was going for me. I decided to set aside one hour per work day on “speculative writing”—writing for which I have no contract and no guarantee of publication. And because I knew Laura was cheering for me behind the scenes, I was able to do those five hours, plus more, for Week 1. It may not sound like a lot, but it’s a huge thing for me right now.
The second breadcrumb came in the shower. Seemingly out of nowhere, I remembered a meditative writing prompt used by Christina Baldwin when I took a class from her many years ago. It started with picturing your creative brain as a room (this is not the same prompt, but you can find a similar one here). So the other morning, I asked myself what my “room” looked like at the moment, and yes indeed, it was completely empty of anything but dust. No imprints on the floor, even, where the furniture used to be. But here’s the amazing thing: the one thing that I found in the room in abundance, other than that dust? Sunlight!
The third breadcrumb came through another lunch, this time with Rosanne Bane (yes, note to self: picking up breadcrumbs may add extra weight). Rosanne acted as my creative coach for many years, and she encouraged me to remember that (as she says here), “There are six stages in the creative process and in only one of those six stages do you have your fingers on the keyboard or pen on the page.” So while I may not be generating a huge number of words on the page as of yet, there are many other things I can do during my hour-per-day, and at other times, that still count towards “being a writer.”
I’m not at the end of this path yet. I will likely find some sections of the journey where scavengers have already eaten the breadcrumbs and the way forward is obscured. I can’t yet tell you how this story will resolve itself. But for the first time in a long time, I found myself thinking about writing this week with a sense of discovery instead of a sense of loss.