I read something in a book this week that really touched a nerve with me. It talked about how, when we have a broken heart, we need to treat it like a broken arm. We need to put it into a cast and give it ample time to heal. This touched a nerve with me because I realized how much it spoke of my own personal situation right now. Yes, I am broken-hearted but also scared, feeling betrayed and confused. I’m not going into too much detail about what’s going on – I used the word “personal” for a reason – but I can only say it’s pretty bad and pretty big.
The thing of it is, though, I didn’t give my heart enough time to heal. I realized this as I sat at the desk yesterday and just burst into tears. For no reason at all. It was then that I knew I had to take some downtime. I did that time-sensitive article; everything else can be done whenever I can get it done. Right now, though, I have to turn inward and try to recover from this pain. I have started a journal to help me through this and that has helped me. A LOT. Writing has always helped me to get through the hurdles in life. But this journal isn’t going to be read by anybody except me. It’s just everything that’s in my heart and in my head. Writing them all down makes it easier for me to keep going on.
I may not post in here as I normally do. I don’t even know how much I’ll be using a computer except to make phone calls and work on my projects when I’m able to. I may post every once in a while but since this blog is not meant for non-writing-related posts it might not be too often. But who knows? Maybe I’ll gain new insights as a writer with the whole journal-writing thing.
Killing my darlings
William Faulkner may have advised writers to “kill your darlings” during the revision process, but for any writer so attached to those precious words an editor isn’t all that crazy about, this advice can be painful. When I wrote in an article this week how I had “painfully said goodbye to the well-crafted ending I’d originally written,” I wasn’t kidding. I’d spent so much time over that ending, only to have the editor at the magazine accepting my essay axe it. Any writer who read those words might chuckle with familiarity over this predicament, but the process isn’t one I can take so lightly.
Of course I HAVE found a way to cope with this. In my TIPS book, I suggest to writers who can’t seem to part with their precious words to either use them in a later work or to save them instead of throwing them out. This way, chopping them from your work isn’t so permanent. In fact, the very act of saving those words for later use is akin to setting up a VERY SPECIAL place for them, besides in that lowly article or story they’re just too good for. (Catching on to this yet?)
Another way is one I was recently reminded of. This week, my editor at SIGNews said she’d try to fit a timely article into the next issue of the paper but there was one thing I had to do first: Chop it in half. Perform editing surgery. Kill my precious darlings. I nearly screamed when I’d read I’d have to whittle away over 700 words of my article, although this request has been made before. Still, it’s very rare an editor asks me to chop my article in half; it’s normally about 50 or 100 words, but not HALF! (And then sometimes, of course, there will be the request to add more.) So as I sat there grumbling “this is great stuff!” as I deleted paragraphs, sentences and rewrote passages, I soon remembered what I could do with that whole other topic my article touched on: Put it into a new article. Develop a new story and use these deleted passages for it. What I tried to do was allow my interviewee to share a story of how her father, who had been born deaf, had grown up in a home where signing was forbidden and how, during his last years, the impact it had on him (and his wife and children) to see sign language become more acceptable in families and society. I really wanted to give this story center stage (as well as emphasis on how my interviewee was holding fundraisers to raise money for housing for deaf senior citizens), but there just wasn’t room for it without wrecking good stuff for the article’s main topic. So I decided to turn it into another article I could do for SIGNews. I only hope I’m able to find other families with similar stories.
Revision is never easy. I have written and said this soo many times: Revising your work is TORTURE! You’ve got to rewrite sentences to make them look GOOD, rearrange paragraphs so that everything flows well, make sure there aren’t any loopholes, that you’ve written what you promised your readers at the very beginning, that your title/headline catches their eye and that everything – prose and dialogue – are balanced. You’ve got to make sure you support your arguments with quotes/citations, that everybody is quoted ACCURATELY, that you don’t have any tech or whatever jargon readers will stumble over (unless it’s called for) and that you’ve given this work your very best. But the big thing about revision is the very act of killing your darlings. Stripping away those precious, muse-inspired words that sent you into a state of euphoria. (Hey, there’s some of those darlings right there.) It’s torture, but it has to be done.
If you want your writing to shine, you’ve got to take the kid gloves off. You’ve got to cop an attitude, grab the red pencil and be prepared to commit some word murder. It’s the only way to give your readers your very best. If not a way to get a timely article into the next issue of a newspaper.
Blood, sweat, tears.
I stopped typing mid-sentence. The rest of the paragraph continued to unfold in my head but I just couldn’t get myself to keep typing it out. I studied my partially-written essay, rereading the same sentence that drew a major tide of hesitation from within. Do I really want to write about that? The question lingered and as I envisioned all of my old friends/enemies/acquaintances and “people I hope to never see again” reading those words. I had the same gripping fear when I wrote the TIPS book; I’d received a fair dose of teasing and bullying during my school years and dreaded over how all those, ahem, “people” reading my words and laughing over something they thought was wrong/stupid/silly, etc.
In this case, though, I dreaded even my most barest of acquaintances reading what I’d just written for a book because it was something personal. It wasn’t something THAT personal – there’s stuff I’ve been through that I could NEVER write for publication even if I was paid a million bucks to do it, because I just can’t talk about that sort of thing or open those old wounds. And while what I’d just written WAS personal, it didn’t fall into the same category as those never-to-be-published episodes. Still, it was something I just wouldn’t bring up in a conversation with someone I barely knew, let alone someone who was voluntarily reading a book I was writing now.
When I’d first mentioned this book to a friend, who is also a nonfiction author, she suggested that I keep it personal. I kept this in mind as I wrote about how I’d endured episodes of my father constantly reminding me of how hard it will be to be a deaf parent, how I’d gone through times where I couldn’t even understand my own child and how I’d cried from the frustrations of having a hand disability while trying to care for my child. But here I was now, writing about how I’d been too terrified to hold my baby the day after I’d given birth to her. It’s not because I thought she was so small and fragile (which I did), but because I was afraid I would drop her, because of my bad hand. And this isn’t something I tell just ANYONE. I mean, why would a stranger even care? They don’t know me and, unless they have a physical disability themselves, they wouldn’t really care. But I did. I cared because it’s not really something I can easily admit to.
When we write our books, we somehow manage to put a piece of ourselves into them. When I rewrote my novel, even as I wrote from several different points-of-view, I know that some parts of myself showed in my characters or even in the scenes. That stuff just has a way of getting into the books and into the stories. Even with Anne Rice, John Grisham and Michael Connelly, that can happen. We all have written our books literally with our blood, sweat and tears.
But this was nonfiction. I have control over what I’ll put of myself into this book and what I won’t. My muse may have thought it was okay to share with the world my initial fear of holding my baby or how I’d walked into my bedroom to see her hanging over her crib on a day she’d tried to climb out of it, but I was having a problem with that. I don’t have a problem sharing SOME things about my life, but other things won’t make it into print. Not by my hand, anyway.
Then I think about what that kind of writing has done for readers. So many people have written to me about the things I’d written about being deaf, thanking me for inspiring them with these stories, and that’s what keeps me driving full speed ahead. I think about what people might say about the more personal things I write about. Would all of this make me appear more “human” to my readers? Would it help them to relate to these experiences in some way? Does it give the book as a whole more staying power?
Another thing I think about is how others have commented on other authors sharing such personal snippets of their lives. When I’d read about how Jenna Glatzer was able to “talk candidly” about her rape experience, I was floored. I though, ‘My God, she was able to share THAT?! In a book??’ I wanted to write to Jenna and ask her how she’d found the strength ... and the courage to write about something so horrible, so personal. I never did (because I know she’s busy enough!) but I’m still taken aback over how she was able to do it. I know I never could.
But what did writing about it do for her, as a person? Did it help her amend her pain in some way? Did it make her realize that she has the capacity to share something like this in a medium that stretches out to the whole world? Did it help her come to terms with it? I may not be proud to admit that I was too scared to hold my baby after she was born, but it’s still something that I’d rather not discuss at length. As I reread my essay and thought about how it did warrant the mention since I was talking about my physical disabilities, after all, I realized that sharing this with readers DID serve a purpose. In this way, I would not just be making myself appear more human to them, but I’d also be sharing with them that I’ve been through the exact same thing. I’ve been there. And I got through it. If I can give one other physically disabled new parent out there the strength to overcome their fear of holding their newborn thanks to my story, then there really isn’t any harm in letting that one out of the closet.
Writing parent, part two.
What would my life be like if I had a second child? What would my writing life be like? Would I still manage to find time to write? Would two children to care for inspire new ideas? Bring new wisdom and insight? For the longest time, I wondered. What would it be like?
I recently had a chance to find out when I had another little one to care for in addition to my 3-year-old. My 7-month-old niece, Laurie, got to spend a week with us and I was reintroduced to diaper changes, formula-making and baby-food-feeding schedules. Oh, and let us not forget the peace and relief when the baby settles down for a nap, or the frustrations of when she is teething (which she is pretty badly, by the way). But one other thing I was reintroduced to was a lack of sleep because the baby didn’t sleep very long at night. The amazing thing is that, no matter how much she screamed or cried after she woke up, she never woke up my sleeping toddler in the same room.
But the traditional downsides of parenting weren’t the only things I coped with during that week. I also had to put off eating something when I got hungry because I was too busy with the kids (or keeping the house clean!), let alone having to hold it anytime I had to go to the bathroom. Then there was how I’d have to go back and forth between the two children feeding them, cleaning them, changing diapers/clothes, getting them a bottle/cup of juice, soothing one child while getting another off the kitchen counter and constantly reminding one older child to be quiet because the other younger child was sleeping. I also had to negotiate time when I could take my daughter outside to play since I have to go out there to watch her and because we had some cold, rainy weather that I wouldn’t take the baby out in.
I also realized something else: Having an extra adult in the house to help out is a sanity saver. For the most part, I was on my own. But on those occasions Jason was here, the help he gave with our child really, really made things easier on me. I didn’t have to keep one eye on one child and another on the other child, at least.
So did I find the time to write? I wish I could say I did. I wish I could say that I managed to get the little darlings into bed by 8 p.m. then spent several hours happily writing my heart out. Or that I managed to wake up very early in the morning to write before they woke up. But one thing about babies is that their sleeping schedule is NOT a predictable one. Not at night, anyway. Sure I managed to get Laurie to sleep before 10 p.m., but my toddler was another story. There was rarely a night she finally conked out before 1 a.m. and by that time, I was too exhausted to even think straight. (The job of caring for two small children is a BIG one!!) So of course the writing suffered. I spent more time frantically sweeping and vacuuming every speck of dust in this house and keeping the floor free of any baby dangers than doing anything else. I rarely got a chance to read, too. And any time that Laurie was taking her nap I spent making up the lost time with my daughter, as well as cleaning the house.
There is one time I did something writing-related, though. I had an unexpected interview with a source for a SIGNews article, who asked me to call her for the interview. I explained I had young children to care for and mentioned what times would be best for me to call her. She gave me a time and Jason watched the kids while I conducted an hour-long interview without incident. Sure my daughter occasionally ran up to me for something but I pointed out that “mommy is on the phone” and steered her towards her father for help. Oh, sure, I got the occasional dark look and mutterings of “hurry up,” but I pulled off the interview and got some great stuff for my article.
But I really think that, given enough time, I would’ve found the time to write. It’s really a matter of trial and error, just like when my daughter was an infant. I had to try so many different schedules before I realized that you CAN’T schedule time to write; you have to steal it. You have to look for those little moments where the children are playing or watching a show to quietly scribble something or speak into a tape recorder.
The one thing I kept thinking about during the time I had two children to care for instead of one was a statement I’d used when I had more writing work on my plate than I had time: “Something’s gotta give.” In the past, I’d go without food, sleep, showers, outings, sunshine and a social life if it meant I’d get an article or book done on time. And I wasn’t exactly a cheerful person to be around, either. Well, for the most part, I’d be deeply “in the zone” and wouldn’t be much of a conversationalist, anyway. But anytime someone tried to come to me with their problems or ask me for some money, that scream I’d throw their way pretty much indicated that NOW wasn’t exactly a good time. So this is why I pretty much neglected answering non-writing E-mails, dabbling in other writing projects and put off querying for extra work. I didn’t watch TV, either. Nor did I frequent a writer’s message board as often as I used to. Any free time I had went towards writing. I didn’t get a whole lot done, but I managed a tiny bit and that’s good enough for me. At least I tried. You can’t blame me for not trying, because I did.
Had Laurie been with us longer, I know I would’ve found a way to write. I can’t NOT write; I’d start climbing the walls if that desire to write is ignored for too long. I HAVE to write, but I HAVE to take care of my family, too. If anything, the number one thing a writer must learn to do is adapt. In the face of crunching deadlines, disappearing sources, ignored E-mails and lost phone numbers, our power to overcome obstacles to get the job done is the key to surviving as a working writer. It is also the key to survival when you’re a parent writer, too.