48 days, day 34, integrating losses

{{ I am chronicling 48 days of writing before my July 31 travel. If you are chronicling your summer writing/days and would like to share, please link or comment so we can all cheer one another through. Strength to your sword arm! }}

So I thunked. I sent off the proposal, all 13 pages. I've already heard back from my trusted readers (it's a draft; how can I make it better?) and from my agent, who says, "let's talk." hahahahaha. You know, that's fine. We will meet in Los Angeles at the end of this month when my 48 days is up and the next travel starts, and we will hash it out. And this way, he has it in advance and can mull and stew, just like I will. I got good comments from my readers as well, and I have some ruminating to do on this project... it will be fine. I FINISHED SOMETHING. It only took me 33 days.

And that brings me to the next thing. My 48 days of chronicling my writing process ends in just 15 days. Gosh, I would have killed for 48 straight days ahead me to write when I had four kids swirling around my ankles, when I had a full time job, when I freelanced and went to school and had several part-time jobs, when I was writing and working/traveling like a maniac (which is the past 15 years, pretty much). So what gives? Why haven't I burped out War and Peace?

I'm thinking this morning (maybe because I'm operating on only a few sips of coffee) about what lies beyond our immediate consciousness when we make our decisions... why is it we can't seem to get going, or feel low, or bang our heads against the wall in frustration?

i.e. Why is my office such a mess? Why am I so reluctant to go buy the dirt, put in the window a/c unit, clean the kitchen, sweep the basement floor, fold the mounds of laundry (at least it is washed and dried), make an appointment to get my hair cut before L.A., pull weeds, cook supper... finish my Rachel revision, get Book3 off the ground, finish the essay, tackle the other writing projects that stare at me: you said you were going to pay attention to us!

Why does it take an act of congress to get me going these days?

I do believe (as we've discussed) fear is part of it. The canvas-wafting that comes with the fear is real, and I wrote about that here. I also think that sometimes we don't even know what's slowing us down until we really think about it some and examine what's going on. Sometimes it takes a friend or a partner to help us see. Sometimes it's helpful to acknowledge the sludge.

So what is it? A good friend and I had a ComeToJesus moment yesterday afternoon, after I thunked and felt so good to have SOMETHING off my plate, and then (immediately, because that's what we do) discounted how glorious that was and started talking about all that I haven't done in this 48 days and that I set out to do. There must be some sludge in there, I said.

Have you thought about the fact that you're dealing with a good deal of death and loss? she asked. Have you thought about how you've tried to be there for your children, through their loss, and you haven't really acknowledged how this loss has affected you? But that was two months ago, I said. She laughed. Two months! Two months! And you were married for how long? We weren't married for the past 15 years, I countered. You had how many children together?

I talked about that loss here, in a speech I gave at Vermont College in 2004. It's been not quite 15 years since I became so suddenly single (as I like to call it). I thought I had dealt with that. I have a wonderful life that I cherish, and I have watched my children come through the fire to claim their own good lives as well. But when someone dies... I don't know. It brings up all the ancient mariners.

I mentioned that loss here, on day 1 of the 48 days, in a perfunctory fashion, and I don't want to belabor it now, I just want to say that I am partly angry that this loss is slowing me down, and I partly feel like it's an excuse, and partly I want to be very nice to myself through this, because mostly I know I will integrate this loss and the malaise will pass.

And what about your therapist retiring? That was a real blow, wasn't it? It's only been six weeks since you said goodbye to her... someone you really came to love and do good work with. Well, yes, it is a real loss. I have felt it keenly. I cried more in her office, leading up to our last session together, than I cried in years and years. I know I was mourning All The Losses, I know that.

I have mostly tried to ignore that feeling of loss, because it saps energy and I'm trying to Get Stuff Done. But it creeps into the psyche, like any loss, asking for attention, sucking up more energy than it would if I would just acknowledge it. I didn't realize I was hiding it from myself. Now I do.

And earlier this year, there were great disappointments, remember them? And you have learned from them, worked with them... and remember all that travel from January through June? You were gone more than you were home. You went to HONG KONG for heaven's sake. And yeah, you loved it all, it was good work, it is allowing you to be home now, but be honest -- you must be exhausted! Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

It's enough to kill a horse! hahahahaha. She always says that after she makes her points. It always makes me laugh.

So I began to think about it all. Not to dwell on it (heaven forfend, because maudlin is the last thing I want to be right now -- it's hard enough as it is), but to acknowledge it. Sometimes acknowledging the sludge is the beginning of a path through it.

And not that I own these additional things, but they touch me (and should) in these 48 days: The Charleston Shootings. Claudia Rankine's NYTimes essay about same (it haunts me). Ta-Nehesi Coates's essay. Harper Lee's Watchman and the swirl accompanying it. Sometimes I think, the whole world is a mess. But it isn't. "Look for the helpers," as Fred Rogers' mother told him to do.

And it gets better. A story:

When I became so suddenly single, I didn't write another word for over two years, which is why there is a four-year gap between RUBY and LITTLE BIRD.  I called my editor, Liz Van Doren at Harcourt Brace, and told her that I couldn't write anymore, that I was too devastated to write, that I was going to have to go be a greeter at WalMart or something, because I was good at greeting but had few other marketable skills, and I needed a job.

Liz told me, "You are forgetting you are a writer. A writer writes. I want you to promise me that you will sit at your desk every day and ask yourself, what can I write? and write that." I promised. And what came of that promise was EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. I wrote it through the death of a long-years marriage, the death of my mother, the death of my father, the loss of my home of 25 years, and the loss of full-time motherhood as my youngest of four turned eighteen and graduated and we moved to Atlanta, just as I turned 50.

I hardly remember the publication of LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER and FREEDOM SUMMER in 2001, because I was too busy trying to wrap my head around what had just happened to us as a family, and to me as the one abandoned.

That loss and grief fueled the writing of LITTLE BIRD, which ended up on so many state book award lists, ended up winning the Bank Street Fiction Award and the E.B. White Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2005... none of which I even thought about as I wrote. I wrote about my grief and loss. I sent the book to Liz in chunks. She sent it back with revision notes, in chunks.

The book took a year to write -- that's all. It poured and poured out and Liz helped me shape it. And so I know I can write through my pain. I know I can write through my loss. I was concerned with my very survival in those LITTLE BIRD years, and I focused on the welfare of my children and what would happen to us.

So what to do about sludge, or malaise, which seems to rise up from a different place? It's not a place of survival. It's a place of relative safety, with a sheen of sadness over it. I don't know. I've started swimming again. Last summer I swam almost every day, and it helped in more ways than I can list. Maybe that's a help with the malaise that hangs over every project I look at this morning.

My mother would tell me I'm just feeling sorry for myself. Years ago I would have believed her and honestly, maybe there is some of that. But I don't think so. I am just a tad lost in the thicket of sadness. It will pass. I have learned that. It's hard to trust it, but it will pass.

So I am doing little things to nurture myself. I'm going to lunch with my eldest son today. Thai food! Son! Love! Lovely.

All to say that, if you are sad, if you feel as if you're walking through the sludge sometimes, come sit by me. You are not alone.


  1. You're such a good writer. This essay made me cry and released some of my own sadness. We are all carrying around so much loss and confusion, and so many do it with so much grace. A lot of the writing process is sitting with that rich sadness. We want to hurry the process, but it has to develop in its own time. Your pace is remarkable and your books have helped many of us through our own losses. As we age, there is more and more loss. I'm glad you're writing your way through it.

    1. Someone once told me, "Comparison is the thief of joy." I try to remember that when friends around have published 24 or 60 or more books, and started earlier than I did and have better focus or discipline that I do... although I *do* have those things. I just do it differently. I want to remember that different is good. I am not a good hurrier. When I hurry (especially with the writing) I make myself physically ill. Huh. Thank you for the kind words. We'll both write our way through, eh?

    2. Absolutely. And in the end, it's joyous work, no pun intended.

  2. So well said. Remember you are also writing here each day, You are writing! The daily swim sounds wonderful. I walk each evening just before dark as the evening cools. Just to clear the day. Today I am doing small tasks since I put my story away for now. Tomorrow will be a family day and Sunday will will pull up old projects to see if any of them are willing to speak with me. So small paint jobs done, pesto made and scones will be made late tonight after dark when the breezes begin to blow again. Thanks always for sharing it helps to see others process. I am off to re read Little Bird!

    1. That's true, I am writing here this month. It has been helpful to write it down, actually. I love the idea of an evening walk. We used to do that, here, sometimes even in the dark. It has just been so very, very oppressive here with the heat, humidity and no breeze. Your pesto days sound lovely. Thanks for writing.


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