When the going gets tough – writer edition
I’ve noticed more and more independent authors complain about all the problems they’re facing. Blog articles, Facebook posts, e-mails and other avenues seem to be filling up with the dreaded negatives.
- “Amazon/my publisher/whoever isn’t paying enough.”
- “My books are selling fewer copies than they did since Kindle Unlimited came out.”
- “My readers keep on nagging me for the next book in a series, but my creativity well dried up.”
- “Life, the universe and everything are conspiring to take up all my time and stop me writing.”
- “I can’t seem to get my thoughts down on paper any more.”
I’m sympathetic to many of those cries of woe. I suffer from many of the same problems myself. However, I think there’s also far too much negativity floating around. It’s all too easy to talk ourselves into a decline. Therefore, I’d like to share the story of my last three years with you. They’ve been filled with a lot of pain, and a great many problems – but I’m still here, and as long as God gives me grace (those of you who don’t have any religious faith can substitute your own sentiment), I’ll keep on keeping on. I’m not writing these words to elicit sympathy, or praise, or whatever. I’m just trying to point out that things can always get worse – unless we choose to make them better.
I daresay most of you know my journey to becoming a fiction author: I covered it in these pages some years ago. Briefly, since my injury in 2004, I’ve been in pain 24/7/365. On a scale of 1 low to 10 high, it used to hover at 2-3 all the time, with episodes of more severe pain from time to time (including a regular spell every 10 days to 2 weeks where my injured nerve would “flare up”, giving me a severe pain day of 5-6 or higher).
The neurosurgeon had given me a lifetime restriction of not lifting more than 25 pounds, and the increasing pain caused by walking meant that I didn’t go very far except very slowly, with a walking stick. Exercise became almost impossible. As a result, my overall physical health began to deteriorate. I was a smoker, too, which didn’t help at all. I ended up with a heart attack in 2009, followed by a drug interaction problem between my heart medication and the drug regime used to manage my nerve pain. I put on well over 100 pounds in 8 months as a result. My metabolism was trashed, and I’ve found it very difficult to lose that weight.
As a result of all those complications and my weight gain, kidney stones became an issue. During 2015 I was hospitalized twice to deal with them, and found the increased pain from that source, on top of my existing nerve pain, to be almost unbearable. My writing came to a grinding halt until the kidney stones were dealt with. They remain an issue; I still have a stone in there, but the local urologist protests I really can’t be feeling pain from it, because it’s in a location where it can’t be passed. I have news for him! Basically, all I can do is remain well hydrated and keep going. I’m darned if I want them cutting open my kidney!
As you can imagine, the increased pain of kidney stones, on top of the ‘normal’ pain from my damaged back and sciatic nerve, made creative writing almost impossible for long periods of time. There may be some people who can write through pain without any effort, but I’m not one of them! My output was drastically diminished. I’ve managed to publish several books over the past three years (2015-2017), but fewer than I intended. Every one of them has had its price in pain, rather than just time or hard work. They’ve all taken longer to write than I wanted (usually two to three times as long as my first few), and they’ve all taken a lot more out of me. After finishing one, it’s been a real problem to make my “get up and go” actually get up (much less go) and start the next book.
I realized earlier this year that unless I did something to deal with the after-effects of my physical problems, I was going to die within the next two to three years. The choice was as simple as that. Following medical advice, which I’d been doing for years, simply wasn’t working. I had to get rid of my excess weight, regardless of my physical problems and circumstances, because obesity is as sure a killer in the long term as heart disease or anything else. I had no easy choices. If I exercised, I knew I’d face increased pain; but I couldn’t go back on the pain management regime I’d used before, because I knew it would produce a recurrence of the drug interaction and weight gain. I simply had to “bite the bullet” and tough it out.
I discarded my neurosurgeon’s advice, and with my wife’s help, began researching what might restore my “core strength” and get my metabolism moving again. She and I began strength training in July. We’ve both found it very beneficial indeed; we’re already stronger, with better endurance, and better able to cope with our respective injuries and disabilities – and this is just the beginning. After a couple of years of it, I’m sure we’ll be physically in far better shape. I’m already far past my neurosurgeon’s “lifetime limit” of how much weight I’m allowed to lift. I daresay he’d have a hernia if he saw me! (That’s a satisfying thought.)
Of course, this physical progress has come at a price in pain. I’d say my daily pain level is now hovering around 3-4 out of 10, with frequent (every day or two) increases to the 4-5 level, spiking higher in the evening after a long day; and my “bad pain days” every couple of weeks are still a factor. I’m using lower-level pain medication, both over-the-counter and prescription, to try to deal with it. This generally leaves my brain sufficiently “un-fogged” to write, unless I have a bad pain day when I have to take multiple doses; but it’s an uphill battle. I continue to find it very hard to concentrate, and get my creative juices flowing, when my body is screaming at me. Still, I’m persevering. I hope – nay, I intend – to “power through” this and come out on the other side.
I’m also tackling weight loss through so-called ‘water fasting’ and intermittent fasting, which seems to work for me (albeit slowly) where regular dieting doesn’t (my faulty metabolism gloms on to every calorie that strays within reach, and won’t let go of it). This is causing difficulties for my exercise program, because (as our coaches quite correctly point out) strength training is designed to increase one’s strength, which means increasing one’s muscle mass. To try to lose weight while putting on muscle is a contradiction in terms! Nevertheless, I have to do both at the same time. It’s a medical necessity. Therefore, I’ve deliberately scaled back my strength training to a far slower rate of progress than others at my level would normally be able to accommodate. That means I can follow my dietary restrictions, which inevitably impact my muscles as well as my adipose tissue. I’ll get stronger and fitter more slowly, but hopefully also lighter at the same time. Some coaches say it won’t work. I say, given the amount of weight I need to lose, I have no choice. We’ll see who’s right.
I’m noticing mixed effects from the increased pain on my creative writing. For a long time, it’s been a struggle to write well. I continue to find that in tackling legacy series; my military science fiction Maxwell Saga (where I’m busy with Volume 6) and Laredo Trilogy (where the third and final volume is overdue), and my Ames Archives western series (where the publisher is waiting for the third book). I also have a short story overdue, another one planned, two potential collaborative novel projects (one of which has been really chafing at me for a number of reasons not altogether related to my pain levels, and the other waiting on publisher and co-author input), and a book proposal for another publisher. The amount of work lined up is enough to keep me busy for the next couple of years… if only I could cudgel my pain-soaked brain into producing it!
In desperation, less than two weeks ago, I tried something new. Back in 2014, I was stuck on Maxwell Volume 3, “Adapt and Overcome“. I just couldn’t make it work, and my creative stream had dwindled to a trickle. In sheer frustration, I sat down one day and decided to write whatever came into my head – a stream-of-consciousness pantser effort that was completely unplanned and unforeseen. To my astonishment, thirty days later, I completed “War to the Knife“, the first volume of my Laredo Trilogy. I had no idea where it had come from (although it drew heavily on parts of my own military background). It was written out of frustration, and somehow it worked.
I decided to try the same thing again. Last week, on Monday, November 27th, I sat down and started writing with no idea at all what I wanted to say. I’d just had enough of being blocked! Well, would you believe it? Lightning can strike twice in the same place! I’m currently almost 50,000 words into what looks like it’ll be the first book in another mil-SF trilogy. It’s flowing like mad, characters and situations and events keep popping up all over my fictional landscape, and I’m haring after them shouting “Stop! Where did you come from? Who are you, and what are you doing in my story? Come back with that plot line!” I’m having a lot of fun, and for once, I’m able to write through the pain (which is no less than usual). I suspect someone up there may have decided I needed a distraction.
Despite the pain and other problems, I remain grateful for my blessings. They are many. There are many people who’ve suffered injuries similar to mine, who are now in wheelchairs or bed-bound. I’ve been spared that, and by God’s grace and hard work, I’ll stay on my feet as long as I can. I have an income, albeit currently a rather reduced one, from my writing. I have a wife whom I love, and who loves me. She has a job that brings in enough money (allied to my disability and writing income) to pay our bills, cope with emergencies, and plan to pay off our house in a decade, instead of the 15-year mortgage for which we contracted. We’re in a part of the world where the weather is generally good. We have friends for whom we’re extremely grateful, some in the same town, others within a few hours’ drive, others several days’ travel from here – but all of them are important to us. We’ve helped to build up a small support network where a number of writers help each other, creatively and otherwise.
There’s so much to be thankful for that I simply refuse to be negative. Every time I find myself hurting too much, or blocked creatively, or moping about something in my life that could be better, I remind myself that things could be a whole lot worse. There’s always something, somewhere, for which I can give thanks. I highly recommend that approach to you, if you’re struggling with life, the universe and everything. Don’t give up – give thanks. Be grateful for all the good in your life.
- If you can’t think of much good to be thankful for, start with your next meal – because right now, in large parts of the Third World, people are dying of hunger. I know they are. I’ve traveled there, and seen it for myself at first hand.
- If that’s not enough, give thanks that you’re not addicted to harmful drugs, shooting yourself up in back alleys, facing an early death through fentanyl-laced heroin or assault from another addict or pusher.
- Give thanks for positives just as much as negatives. You have friends? Be grateful for them. You have a partner or significant other? Be glad.
- Turn around the negatives. You’re not getting out of your job/marriage/writing what you expect or want? Then ask yourself, “What am I putting into my job/marriage/writing?” The Biblical injunctions, “As you sow, so shall you reap” and “By their fruits you will know them” aren’t just pious platitudes. They’re recipes for life… so, what are we sowing, much less reaping? What fruits are we producing? If they’re bad or negative, whose choice, whose fault is that, if not our own?
Don’t let the bad times, or the problems of a writing life, or the ups and downs of the world, get you down. They’re normal. They’ll be with us until we die. Instead, be their master, not their slave. Things could always be worse – so why not choose to make them better instead?
(If worse comes to worst, remember the sage advice of the old-timers in South Africa when I was growing up. “Is the bottom falling out of your world? Take a laxative – then the world will fall out of your bottom!”)