Recently, I received this letter from Wendy, a fan with whom I’d been corresponding. It spoke deeply to me, and rather than answer it alone, I asked some of my writer friends to join in a series of round table blogs on the issues raised. If you’ve been there, too, I hope you’ll follow along and offer your own wisdom.
I’ve been trying to reconnect with writing friends after a hiatus from the creative life. I’ve spent the past year or so taking care of my mom and working to pay the bills. Mom passed away in October.
When your last parent passes away, it changes you in many ways. That foundation you always relied on — even as an adult — is gone for good. Whether you’re ready or not, you are truly on your own in the world and must somehow carry on without their nurturing presence. One of the most difficult aspects of my mother’s final days was the fact that she had so many regrets about life. She once had goals and dreams, but left them behind out of fear and a belief that these dreams were just not possible.
I’m 54 years old. More than half of my life is over. Writing has been a dream/goal of mine since childhood. My mom was the only one who believed in me. I don’t want to leave this world regretting the fact that I never pursued this dream to the fullest. To be honest, my writing “career” never took off. I let fear, doubt and the negativity of others keep me from my dreams. I want so much to be brave, to take risks with my creative life. I truly wish for a group of fellow writers who are willing to give me the encouragement and support I need to write with my heart and soul, to grow as a writer and a human being. And I want to be a support for others as well.
How do I get back into the writing life after leaving it on the back burner for so long?
Cynthia Felice: Filling the Giving Hole
My similar experience was long and arduous; each time I thought I was ready to pick up my writing career I discovered, painfully, I was so not ready. I went through years of bewildering anniversaries and finding ways to establish new normals for everyday life that re-establishing my writing life was always something I’d do tomorrow. It’s different for everyone, so don’t assume setbacks are failures. Your loss and mine were different, and that alone changes working through the loss. But when writing life did start working again, it was because I made myself find a listserv (actually several, but only one clicked for me) of writers who were working at their craft. Just checking in every day and lurking for a while helped me feel connected again to the familiar problems and worries writers have and need to discuss. Eventually I was “talking” again and involved, sharing my concerns and experience with other writers. No one understands writing life the way other writers do. Besides, what else are you going to do with all that tender care you’ve been giving to your loved one for years? I needed a place to put mine; maybe you do, too. Don’t let not giving daily leave a hole in you.
Similarly, I attended the Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference http://www.pikespeakwriters.com/ because it’s well known for great organization and attracting the best speakers (heh, heh, and I’d been one of those speakers years earlier) and because it takes place in my back yard! It was a wonderful long weekend spent rubbing shoulders with like-minded folk and learning what had changed in the industry while I was away. There are other fine conferences and also very good writers workshops, but I have personal experience with this one, so am content to recommend it. Research carefully if you’re tempted to plunk down the fee; not all are equal. You’ll notice that I did not recommend a specific listserv; the one I favored no longer exists, but others are out there, and if the daily passive contact appeals to you, you will find them.
Cynthia Felice writes science fiction novels, and occasionally writes short stories and articles. She was a John W. Campbell Award nominee for her novel, Godsfire. Felice is a workshop enthusiast, including being an early Clarion “grad” and a frequent Milford attendee. Her experience includes managing technical editors, writers, and designing configuration control software, as well as writing and editing technical articles, essays, and documents, one of which received the Award for Outstanding Paper from the Society for Technical Communication. Cynthia Felice grew up in Chicago, and now lives with her husband on a ridge east of Colorado Springs overlooking the Front Range.
Deborah’s note: Cynthia critiqued my very, very first attempt at a fantasy novel (1980?) with such kindness and insight that I am still writing!
Meg Mac Donald: Dear Wendy,
Your letter touched my heart in so many ways—and in so many ways, on so many levels, I could relate to what you were saying. As will always be the case, we each have our own story—that moment, that feeling, that fear, that loss that seemed to take away the dream that we had nurtured from childhood on. Those hurdles in life that seem insurmountable. We are of an age, you and I. No doubt we share many of the same memories about childhood pastimes, favorite books, iconic films, moments where planet Earth stopped turning to look to the moon… What a glorious, bright future we were promised—especially for girls. What a “brave new world” where we believed that if we dreamt it, we could achieve it. No better time to be alive. No better time to want to write science fiction and fantasy. No better time.
Maybe every generation has that hope. There’s something about our generation, though. Something about promises that weren’t kept. Something about the future not being what it looked like it should be. Where did it go? And we tried to hang onto the dreams and may have even had some luck. Found those older and wiser to nurture us and lead the charge. For all those that managed to keep going or never faced serious setbacks, there are probably far more whose lives became overwhelming. In the midst of trying to plant that creative garden and keep it blooming, we grew up and life happened and the frailty of our own lives was realized in the frailty of our aging parents—or the deaths of friends and kin, or the trauma of war, or financial hardship, or personal trauma wearing a hundred different, dark cloaks.
I stopped writing at one point. I loved writing. I loved editing. I loved books and reading and reading to my children. I had a huge library in an old farm house. I had aspirations to be a novelist. You set things aside when you have to. You set them aside because life requires you to prioritize and since I wasn’t making any sort of real living with writing and I was so overwhelmed… I let it go. In the past, I always knew I could start again. It will always be there, after all. But I stopped believing I was ever going to get anywhere. I just didn’t have the energy with three young children, two of which we had adopted from foster care and whose mental illnesses were far beyond anything we were prepared for. There simply was no time for me, taking care of them, their older sister, my husband, a farm… I remember very clearly the day I put one of of the novels I’d been working on for years into a backpack, zipped it up, and placed it on the floor of my office. I closed the door. I rarely went into the room after that. It became a place to put things to keep them safe. I did not write for almost ten years.
In the midst of this, my father, the person that always believed in me and in whose eyes I saw my potential, died. What you said, about feeling alone in the world? Though I still had my mom (and we are now closer than we ever were), I remember that feeling. Like being adrift, without my daddy. Without the shining beacon of his exquisite blue eyes. The same year, my husband was diagnosed with a chronic illness that we have done battle with—but can never win—for the last ten years. And the situation with the kids grew worse. I now know more about childhood mental illness and psychiatric hospitals than I ever knew. I know more about kidney disease and dialysis and emergency rooms and doctors and hospitals in general than I ever wanted to know. I have struggled with how the trauma of living with mentally ill siblings impacts a neurotypical child. I have waited for surgeons to tell me that my husband was not going to die, when he should have several times over. I have fallen on my knees, prayed, cried, wondered how will I ever go on and can I ever reconnect with the thing that gave me such joy. And then I get up.
I had sacrificed my joy because, in a way, I had sacrificed myself to take care of everything and everyone else. It seemed necessary. It was (and sadly, is) an overwhelming situation. My husband is still ill and we have waited ten years for a kidney transplant. The troubled small children are now extremely troubled teens. My in-laws both passed away. One of my best friends died. We lost our farm. My mother, now almost 85, has dementia. I spend a lot of time on my knees. Sometimes I cry such buckets of tears that I feel like they would fill an ocean. But I am coping better since I started writing again about five years ago. It was as if… as if I woke up. I was marching along, struggling, carrying the weight of the world when it wasn’t mine to carry at all. And I had a gift all that time that could have helped me make sense of it. Because that’s what our writing, our creativity, our dreams are—they are gifts. And gifts are meant to be cherished. To be nurtured. To be shared. For all the right reasons, I very nearly put out the candle that had been given to me to light the way.
I started small. I wrote a novella. It was the best thing I had ever written. I wrote some short stories. They are some of my best work, ever. I started making notes about long lost stories. I started looking for things and uncovered gems that still sparkled in the darkness. I wrote things that amused me at first because I was really quite terrified and I didn’t ever, ever want to stop writing again. I wrote Doctor Who fiction and started editing that book—the one I’d zipped up in the backpack years before. The one I had been so proud of. The one that I am currently tearing to shreds, rewriting, and loving every moment of. I tried to reconnect with people that I knew from Before, but either couldn’t find them or their lives had gone in other directions. Writing is a solitary process, but having people around you that like to write and who understand and can encourage you is essential. Having them even like what you write is a bonus. But it isn’t necessary as long as you can nurture one another. I made new connections. I started helping “younger” writers again, something I had always loved (back in the day, I edited a semi-pro SF/F magazine and enjoyed those years).
My journey back hasn’t been meteoric. With my complicated life, I can’t devote the amount of time I would like to writing. I go in fits and spurts, staying up late, finding time between Looking back, it was probably the worst choice I could have made because it only added to an already impossibly sad situation. But I made a promise to myself—and to the One who gave me the gift to begin with. I will not set it aside again. I will not put out that light.
Wendy, rekindle the light. Just a tiny candle in the darkness. Know that your dreams are a gift and that gift is valuable and precious and worth fighting for. You gave of yourself and you cared for your mum. Now, take care of Wendy. Allow yourself to be happy again. Allow yourself to experience the joy. Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to go on. Do that. Go. Live. Connect. Write. Take one little step forward and don’t be afraid of the shadows. Where there’s a shadow, there’s a light. Where there is light, there is hope—and dreams, you know, never die.
Ad Astra, my friend. And Deep Peace.
After a number of years away from writing, Meg Mac Donald set pen to page again in 2011. Delightful chaos ensued. She shares her home in Michigan with her husband, children, a Norwegian Elkhound and a clowder of cats (yes, it actually is bigger on the inside). She would like to own horses again, sell a novel (how about a series? Any takers?) and has, sadly, never been to the Moon. Meg’s sold stories to two previous Darkover anthologies (when she was very young but no less silly). You can follow her on Twitter @kyrrimar, but she doesn’t really go anywhere. Her author page on Facebook is rubbish.