Friday, May 30, 2014

Climbing Out of the Hole: Some Serious Advice for Writers

I feel like I’ve been living in a hole for the last year and a half.  In addition to having throat surgery to remove some precancerous tissue from a vocal cord, I’ve been sick with GI problems that have become, at times, quite severe.  I improved after cutting gluten from my diet — believe me, as sick as I was, I rolled my eyes while I was doing it because it has become such a fad.  But I have since been diagnosed with celiac disease, which forces me to maintain a gluten-free diet even at the risk of looking like an annoying hipster.  I still have some problems that need to be diagnosed, but I think the worst is over.  And the worst, for me, was not the GI distress.

For a year and a half, I had an increasingly difficult time concentrating.  At first, I thought it was simply because I felt so bad.  I can write through physical pain (as long as it’s not too intense), but nausea, vomiting, severe cramps, and frequent dashes to the bathroom make it difficult to be creative.  I soon realized it was more than that.  It wasn’t only disrupting my work, it was making it difficult to read anything or follow a movie or TV show or even hold a conversation.  My head was foggy in a way that went beyond merely feeling unwell.

I’m sure that was the result of having undiagnosed celiac disease for however long I had it, because it robs you of the nutrients you need to do things like finish a sentence or a thought.  Well after I struck gluten from my menu, lab work revealed that my sodium level was alarmingly low.  That can cause all kinds of problems, including a decrease in cognition that can range from not being able to concentrate to not being able to remember your name.

The result of this is that I have been unable to write.  And for someone who’s written every day of his life since he was a child, suddenly being unable to do it is terrifying.  Oh, I could type out a paragraph or two, but compared to my normal productivity, that was a joke, and I was unable to maintain the writing enough to tell a story.  I managed to write a couple of short stories during this time, but holy crap, was it difficult and it took a horrifyingly long time.

That has changed recently.  I’m writing again, trying to get back into a productive routine, and I’m ready to tackle projects that have been languishing while I’ve been sick, like the follow-up to Frankenstorm, finishing Poker Night for Kings Way Press, putting together a “Little Book” for Borderlands, and finishing a couple of short stories.  A lot of people have been extremely patient and supportive during this time, like Gary Goldstein at Kensington, Zach Powell at KWP, my agent Richard Curtis, Thom Monteleone at Borderlands, and my friends, who have so patiently listened to me gripe about all of this for so long.

I’ve managed to get at least one short story out of all this.  I’ve had a lot of lab work done lately, including a stool sample.  I’ve never done one of those before, and I found that it’s every bit as unpleasant as I always imagined.  A couple of days ago, I turned in a story to Jeani Rector, who’s editing a new anthology.  It’s called “The Sample” and it’s about the worst experience imaginable with a stool sample.  I may not have been able to write much lately, but life never stops providing material for stories.

I’ve learned something from this that I want to pass on to other writers, aspiring or otherwise.  This is advice commonly given to new writers by veterans, but it applies to all, no matter how much of a veteran you may think you are.  This is the advice:


Create a writing regimen and stick to it.  I did for thirty years — until last year.  Each day, I felt a little worse and started putting off even attempting to write.  This was a colossal mistake.  I should have stuck to the routine, I should have kept writing even if all I wrote was “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again.

Once you stop, time begins to pass very quickly, even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment.  Next thing you know, six months have gone by ... eight months ... a year ... and you haven’t written a goddamned thing.  And then fear starts to set in.  What if I sit down and try and find that I can't?  What if it's all practice and once you stop practicing you lose it?  What if I've lost it?  Those are dangerous thoughts to have because they can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Writing is a weird and elusive thing.  One of the most common reasons people with an interest in writing never do it is that they lack the discipline to make themselves do it every day and stick with a story or book to the end.  But I’m here to tell you that even when you have that discipline and you’ve been exercising it every day of your life for a long time, it can so easily be lost.  When you have it for a long time and do it every day, you lose your awareness of it.  It becomes your life.  And if it stops, for whatever reason ... well, if you take your writing seriously (and especially if it’s your livelihood) it can be pretty damned scary.

I’m dealing with that right now, and I’ve been scared a lot lately.  I have crawled out of the hole to warn you about it.  Guard that writing regimen with your life.  If you have the discipline to write, know that it’s a rare thing and it’s not anchored in stone.  It can be lost.

Don’t lose it.