It last January that my mother was rushed to the hospital with multiple fatal conditions including kidney failure and internal bleeding, brought on by overenthusiastic medication by her cardiologist. Miraculously, she survived – beginning a ten-month decline ending with her death in October.
During this time life went on about us, with the ordinary joys and stresses of living with a family in a house that requires upkeep. Band recitals, fundraisers, visits to universities with the eldest – one has to show up for these things, preferably in clean clothes and with a somewhat sane demeanor. One must shovel, hammer in that loose floorboard, finally fix the bathroom floor. Through all of that my mother was lying in a bed, suffering unknowable pain from various infections and her longstanding arthritic condition.
My mother lived her last months with few joys and with much waiting. Waiting to find out the results of the latest test, waiting for the pain medication to kick in, waiting for a visit. Carrying that with me while driving my kids to and fro, doing laundry, and sitting down to write became impossible. I turned down the knob on my emotions. It was the only way I could make it through that one-hour drive to the hospital or nursing home several times a week. The only way to write book two and undergo a dozen interviews, conversing as if life hadn’t just been revealed to me as one great pile of suffering and bullshit. As my mother once said, joking: “Is this IT? That’s all there is?” But she was funny, while I am too often humorless. I had to turn it down.
While it worked for me as a survival strategy, here is the problem. When you exist like that for too long, you become submerged, and everything on the surface is muffled and distorted. You know how you must feel about things, but you don’t actually feel them – or only long enough to recognize and suppress them. So disconnected from yourself, the main thing you feel is frustration.
And I find that it is not the best way to write. No wonder that in writing KNIFESWORN, I felt most connected to the character who drifts through life on a steady diet of opium, emotionally removed from those around him. Now that the book is finished I have a sense that it is not emotionally honest, that it will ring false – that I have strung together a bunch of emotional reactions that seem right, but that I did not feel. (Luckily, one of the themes of the book is isolation and loneliness. )
A person can’t stay submerged for long. Those feelings begin to simmer up from the deep, to grab you unawares. Guilt, anger, grief, and love are all powerful emotions that can drive you before them, lost and confused, and they don’t like to be ignored. They come back with a vengeance and have amazing destructive power.
But it’s not all bad: emotions are a writer’s fuel, and negative ones are like high-octane gasoline. I wish that I could begin KNIFESWORN now, instead of a year ago. I think I’d do a better job at it. I still have book 3, and any other book I might choose to write, but I regret writing KNIFESWORN in a fog. I think that if I had known more about being a professional writer, I would have seen the problem before it was too late. Writing has to come from a true place, a raw place. You have to allow yourself to be there, to live in it, to feel. I know that now.
Writing the first book is easy. You can take your time, and not work on it when things don’t feel right or your life is difficult. With the second you have a deadline. Pressure. Less advice than you had before. It’s enough to set even the strongest of us back. I am going to mark this down as a lesson learned and keep going. There’s not much else to do: March 1, 2013 is another deadline.