No, not that wall. The Wall. The one you eventually hit when you’re a creator. Or a parent. Or just adulting.
Sometimes you hit it in one part of your life and then it spreads to the others. Then it’s The WALL.
Maybe it’s the phase of the moon, or the season, or one of those seven-year cycles, but recently it feels like I know too many people up against The Wall. Family members who have lost jobs. Friends who have been betrayed by those they love. Creators who haven’t met with the success on which they pegged so many dreams. And at the start of the new school year, so many lovely people who are starting new phases of their lives and are just overwhelmed by the changes, even when many of those changes are good.
I’ll admit it: I’m one of those people.
Last week, I hit my writing Wall.[i] Rejection played a big part: I did okay with the first 20 rejections for my Middle Grade manuscript, but numbers 21 & 22 did me in. I stared at my query letter, unable to tell any longer if it needs more tweaking or just to be set aflame. I thought about whether I needed to rewrite the first chapter, or scrap it entirely. I considered whether I should turn my attention to something else for a while, and realized I didn’t even have the wherewithal to figure out a way forward on the half-dozen or so works-in-progress that linger as perpetually open tabs on my desktop and that physically clutter my office. I tried to go back to my writing goals for the year, to find a way to progress out of my funk only to realize with a distant horror I didn’t want to do any of the things necessary to move forward with any of my goals.
I felt totally, utterly defeated in a way I haven’t since I last took a microeconomics exam.
Anyone else been there? Lately? Then you know how easily it can become cyclical. You feel drained. You want to do nothing. So nothing is what you do. But, as it turns out, nothing doesn’t help.
For those of you who know me, or who have been following this blog for a while, you know I tend toward Type A-ness. I’m generally upbeat, high-energy (obnoxiously so when over-sugared/caffeinated), and goal-oriented. I don’t suffer from low esteem, nor do I tend toward mood swings (hold on, had to check with my hubby on that…he confirms that I’m generally low volatility). So why, in the wake of finally finishing 18 months’ worth of work (that I thought would take 12), having achieved my goal of wrestling my latest manuscript into sufficient shape to begin the submissions process, do I feel so…adrift?
Believe it or not, I’m 100% sure this malaise has nothing to do with fear of the impending rejections. In fact, the receipt of my first rejection this week actually sort of made me feel better. It was the crossing of a threshold that at least indicates progress, like passing a mile marker on the highway. Only I still feel like I cruised past it doing 30 mph on the highway I normally zoom down. After two weeks of what can best be described as achievement apathy (goals are still being set and met, but without any of the zing), I hit the internet to find out if this experience is a thing or if it’s just me.
Good news! It’s not just me! Or even just my generation. A 1987 article from the New York Times on “post-writum depression” describes all my symptoms and let me know I’m in good company with the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Judith Krantz, and Danielle Steele. Psychology Today calls it the post-adrenaline blues and posits my present low could be chemically-based – a drop in the adrenaline that fueled me through those final revisions and frantic synopsis drafts. My body could actually be in withdrawal, like an addict, but craving the stuff I was creating through my own internal pressure – which means that given enough time, I will naturally rebalance.
I suspect a part of what is going on is good old-fashioned grief. Huffpost calls it the post-book blues – that horrible aching loneliness when you hit the end of the book where you fell in love with a character, or characters, or sometimes even a whole world (here’s looking at you, Hogwarts). Popular Science published a great article validating the mourning of the loss of a fictional character just last month. Which I have to admit, made me feel better about my tendency to take a day or two off from reading anything more than a magazine article in the wake of a powerful book. It stands to reason that grief is stronger for characters you’ve created and gotten to know on a very personal level. If I needed a few days to get over “A Gentleman in Moscow,” I’m going to need to cut myself some slack on getting past thinking about what my main characters would be doing right now, if I hadn’t just closed the book on them.
So how much time do you give yourself when you’re grieving the end of the intense relationship you’ve had with the characters you created? Stephen Pressfield advocates jumping straight into the next project to keep your momentum going. I’m sure there’s good sense in that, and clearly it works for him. For me, though, to move from the relationship I’ve developed with these characters over the last year and a half into the next relationship feels like serial dating, and I’m not yet ready for the rebound.
The research shows I’m not alone in this either. I was thrilled to find this article by writer / writing coach Lauren Sapala, and this one on Writer Unboxed by Jeane Kisacky. Still, I was left wondering what to do about it. Not writing feels wasteful. But I can’t seem to bend my will to starting another project yet. Even doing the small projects, the ones that I’ve been saying I’d get to for a while (as Kisacky mentions doing) doesn’t seem to help me feel much better. So I took to social media to see what others writers do. Some of you likely saw my questions there, and if you took the time to answer, then thank you! It means a lot to have community I can reach out to at times like this.
According to my highly unofficial poll, very few other women writers jump straight into the next project (sorry guys, I polled an all female writers’ group). Most respondents said they take Kisacky’s route and work on some smaller projects for a while. A few indicated they take a week or so to catch up on the life they missed while they were writing, a la author Amy Wallace. All of which is good news for me, since I’m combining a bit of both approaches: trying to reacquaint myself with regular exercise while also trying my hand at some shorter stories and article submissions I kept saying I’d get to once the pressure of the novel was off my shoulders.
Discovering that this experience is so common that it has names has helped me feel at peace with where I’m at. But the amazing part of this has been the re-discovery that I’m not alone. Even though I sit here by myself on this side of the screen, so many of you out there are with me. And knowing that we’re here for each other has helped more than anything else. Thank you, All!
Thank you, Thea, for all of your awesome research – as usual. I now have a bunch more articles to go read! I think it makes sense that we need some time before jumping into an entirely new world, especially after the blood, sweat, and tears we poured into the previous world! I remember being very impatient when I finished my first manuscript. I was tapping my toes waiting for the next story to show up. (Preferably outlined and with fully-developed characters.) I remember writing snippets of inner dialogue for different characters in a spiral notebook, waiting for one of them to hand me a story! In the meantime, I guess I did many of the things Thea mentioned above, like catching up on life stuff and working on smaller projects that had been set aside. I imagine a lot of writers are nodding their heads while reading this and saying “Yes!” Thanks, Thea, for reminding us we are all in this together and experiencing so many of the same reactions!
Cara Martinisi is a writer, advocate, certified grief counselor, and mom to three little boys, one in heaven and two on Earth. She lost her 6-year-old son in a tragic accident in 2014. She blogs about her journey, sharing with others the beauty and wisdom she and her family have found in the pain they experience. Visit her blog at Christian’s Red Balloon and her new foundation Love From Heaven to support grieving families. You can also connect on Twitter at Grief’s Guiding Light @lightofgrief.
Cara, you have a beautiful blog about dealing with the loss of a child, and you’ve published other articles in a variety of blogs (including this one) besides. What is it like trying to capture your experience, your emotions, in words?
Self-expression in words has always come easy to me. In fact many times, I find myself narrating situations in my own head as they are unfolding. The physical act of writing is soothing. I love the way pen and pencil feel on paper. As my emotions leave my body and the pen glides along the page, a certain sense of calm overcomes me.
There are some emotions that are more difficult than others to put into words. When I have trouble finding words that fit my emotions, I turn to meditation. Often this works, but not always.
After Christian passed away, my ability to read was gone. The concentration and focus needed to delve into books had vanished. It pained me. It was over a year before I could pick up a book again. Now I read even more ferociously than before. The more I read, the more I am able to express myself. Reading, all different kinds of texts, has proven to be a wonderful compliment to my writing.
Were you a writer before 2014, or did the need to write arise out of your experiences?
I have always considered myself a writer. English was my favorite subject in high school and my major in college. While many students bemoan paper writing, I enjoyed it. My confidence never paved the way for me to believe that I was good enough to do much more than write school papers. Although I was employed as a Deputy Managing Editor at The Economist, it felt as though it was more my attention to punctuation and detail that landed me my job.
After we lost Christian, writing was my way to carry on his memory. I would post a photograph, accompanied with a blurb about him, each day. At one time photography was a large creative outlet for me. That outlet seems to have dimmed since losing Christian, while writing is taking center stage now.
Grief is a powerful emotion. Does it serve as a motivator or demotivator for you?
Grief is an intensely powerful emotion. Most of the time it serves as a motivator for me. Many blog posts are derived from my own real time emotions surrounding grief. It truly helps me to keep the blog flowing, as emotions are always flowing. Grief will always be a part of me. With time and growth, my relationship to it changes, but it will always be there.
There are days, and sometimes more than one strung together, when grief is a demotivator. When these dark days descend upon me, fewer than in the past thankfully, it is difficult to do anything that brings joy. There are times when focusing is difficult. Eventually the fog lifts and I find myself returning to writing.
What did you hope to achieve when you started the blog, Christian’s Red Balloon?
My goals have always centered around helping others. It is all about healing. The hope has been to help others heal as well as to continue walking my own healing journey. I have received messages from grieving parents, those who have experienced grief in the past, as well as people who have just walked through tough times telling me that my writing is relate-able and helpful. While I am aware that my blog speaks most poignantly to grieving parents, I am also aware that none of us escape the world without running into some trouble.
It has been over a year that I have been writing my blog and it has become abundantly clear that a strong message is hope. Hope for those grieving, hope for those who are sick, hope for those who are experiencing tough times. We cannot control what comes our way in life, only our reactions. We need to move through the pain, the troubles that arise, and find light. For that is the only way to live again after you have been burned by the fire.