Writing Amidst the Misery

Ever have one of those weeks that are so miserable, so fraught with mind-numbing catastrophe, that you start to look back over your life and wonder where you went wrong? Where, exactly, did I turn left instead of right? Which decision in my past brought me to this point in time, with these people, and in these circumstances?

I find myself dealing, simultaneously, with serious illnesses in family and friends, a sick cat, unemployment, financial difficulties, and the newly-discovered betrayal of someone I trusted.

That’s a lot of crap to be juggling.

Now, we could say that the positive approach would be to see it all as grist for the creative mill. What am I, the main character here, feeling? What does the room look like? How do I eventually figure it all out?

I imagine that might work well for someone writing novels; but I write picture books. Picture books are supposed to be fun and never sad. Sad picture books may win artsy-fartsy awards, but kids don’t read them twice. I refuse to make a child associate sadness with books. That would be akin to advocating the wholesale slaughter of baby seals, complete with graphic illustrations.

So what do I do with this mess that is clogging my creative arteries with anger, resentment, worry, and overall I-really-hate-my-life angst?

Good question.

I don’t write well when I’m upset. My focus is on my problems and not my work. Hell, even the day job is suffering. My go-to when I’m stuck is to read about writing. Somehow, it’s easier for me to rekindle the desire to write than it is for me to think creatively when I’m standing in the middle of an emotional tornado. It’s that desire to write, to succeed, that gets my brain thinking in picture book terms again.

The common advice writers hear is that we should just write through the pain, even if it’s bad writing. I see that as a waste of time and (perhaps coining a new phrase here) muse abuse. Sometimes you just have to take that step back and catch your breath. Revisit what makes you love writing. Let your mind settle down, work on the personal problems at hand, and trust God.

I’ll write again. So will you.

Submission Jitters

You’ve been there. The manuscript you’ve toiled over, polished, and perfected is ready for submission. You have the name and email address of a new agent who looks like she just took off her cap and gown, and she’s accepting new clients. Her website says she loves picture books, the quirkier the better. You write quirky picture books. She’s young and fresh and surely not jaded! She’ll love you!

Nothing. Days, weeks, months.

She doesn’t love you.

You check her website and see she’s signed an author whose book you don’t think has an ounce of quirk in it. In fact, you think it sucks. You reread your manuscript and wonder why she hated it so much she didn’t even take the time to send you a rejection email. 

I’m looking at the email address of a new and very young agent. Says she loves quirky picture books. In fact, she says she has a special place in her heart for them. I have manuscripts I’d like her to read, but the jitters have settled in. I have to temporarily place my future as a writer in the hands of someone who has less life experience than the boots in my closet. I’m about to give a very young, self-proclaimed picture book junkie a chance to decide that my stories just don’t measure up to her standards. And the worst part is that she won’t even bother to tell me.

They’re In the Ether

I watched an old interview with Rod Serling (Twilight Zone) a few years ago. Someone asked him where his ideas came from. He said they were everywhere. They were in the ether.

I love that description because, as any writer will tell you, sometimes story ideas just seem to materialize out of thin air. A word, a phrase, or a story title will just introduce itself and insist on being turned into a story. Aspiring writers are told they should always carry a small notebook to record those story seeds before they’re forgotten. If you aren’t doing this, you’re wasting ideas. I guarantee you won’t remember them or what inspired them in the time it takes you to get home. Maybe there’s an “app” for that. I don’t know. I’m still using a flip phone.

I’ve collected a lot of seeds that haven’t yet made their way into a story, but they are eventually transferred from my sloppy notebook to the index cards I keep in a little purple box. There’s a section for story lines, character names (never let an interesting name pass you by), story titles (sometimes the story is built around a title), and words or phrases I can work with later. No stress. It’s all there, waiting for me to sit down, pick one, and start making stuff up.

Blocked? Grab something out of the ether today. Jot it down. Then grab something else. There’s a story in there somewhere.