As with all great events of the modern age, when it all started, so did the memes. The reminders that Shakespeare used his plague-induced isolation to write King Lear. And that Isaac Newton spent his own quarantine time creating calculus (I still haven’t forgiven him). The implication was clear: you’re isolated, you’re home, you finally have the time to do that great Something you could do if only you had the time and space. And then there was the one that was less subtle and basically said that if you don’t emerge from this with a new skill, side hustle, or knowledge, it’s not because you lacked time, but discipline.
At first I handled this all pretty well. I figured yeah, I’m home more, I’ll be better about keeping up with housework. I can’t go out anywhere, so I’ll get more work done and read more books. Maybe it won’t be so bad.
I hit a breaking point yesterday morning. Smol Human has this thing where he falls asleep, and then wakes up around 1:30 or 2am bawling and won’t go back to sleep unless I go with him. I’m also still working my normal hours, just at home, and Smol Human is home with me. While I’m fortunate to have a position where I can make this work, it’s just not sustainable in the long run. It all hit me hard after nights of broken sleep and early mornings of being climbed over and nudged and asked to get up over and over again. It hit me after days of feeling overwhelmed by how to be mom in addition to my job.
Even when things were normal I’d try to be more understanding and kinder to myself and say that I couldn’t do it all. IF I can’t do it all even under good circumstances, what makes me think I can do it all under these?
Because even in the midst of this crazy fucked up trauma (yes, this is all very traumatic) the mentality of do more and more and more and if you’re not you’re a lazy failure persists. It persists more because things have shifted. Shakespeare wasn’t balancing writing while his autistic preschooler begged him to go outside, even though it’s pouring out. And Isaac Newton? Not inventing calculus in the middle of a Zoom, while his kid is chasing one cat around the house and the other is horking up a hairball on the rug. Shakespeare’s job was writing plays. Newton’s job was studying math and science. They were doing their jobs during the plague.
The world has changed, and we need to be kind to ourselves as we try to navigate it. At the start I thought I’d read a bit more and be a more efficient editor of my manuscript, or that I’d get more crafting done. I’ve done about the same amount of all of those as I would have done if I wasn’t sheltering at home. Because even when I am done work, and I do have the time, my mind is tired. It’s not necessarily a lack of discipline as I’m just tired. It’s been a wild ride so far, and it gets tiring holding on by a thread. Holding so hard it hurts. Holding so hard that when you get distracted from holding, you snap.
So be kind to yourselves. Be understanding. Be realistic. Stay healthy, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.
When I used to teach Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, I’d include a rousing game of Pandemic (the old version) after we read it. The class would choose a disease type, symptoms, and then sit on the edge of their seats watching for it to take hold in the world. We’d watch the planes stop, watch the ships aimlessly move around due to closed ports, and groan when we didn’t manage to get Madagascar infected.
I didn’t think I’d ever live in Pandemic. I know the disease type; I know the symptoms. And now I watch as it takes hold. I hear news of closing borders (looking at you, US and Canada, and don’t think I forgot how The Handmaid’s Tale started). Orders to shelter in place, to social distance, to close businesses. We just got the remote work order last night.
I’m down to my last two antidepressant pills and it says I need doctor’s authorization to refill it. When we talk about pandemics and plagues and the zombie apocalypse we don’t really consider what it would be like to be off meds. Everyone would be raiding Walgreens for the antibiotics and stuff to treat infections in a zombie-infested world. I’d be digging for the Lexapro.
I’m trying to set up something to work on basics with Smol Human until his Google Classroom is up and running, and to maintain a sense of routine. It’s only day 2 of being off his routine, but I think it’s going to get harder for him (and for us). We’re fortunate to have a village, but he’s still a handful and needs to get out his energy. Today we ran around in circles. He asked me, “Want to run around in circles?” so that’s what we did. We also spent over an hour drawing houses with windows. He kept asking for house numbers that aren’t part of his usuals (ours, his grandparents’, our friends, etc), and I’m wondering if these are the house numbers he sees when the school bus brings him to his special needs program.
I took today as a vacation day, thinking perhaps we’d still be opened, so I’ll start remote work tomorrow. At least my parents will have the Smol Human for a couple days, so that should make it easier for me to come up with a routine and make a space for myself to work at home.
There’s plenty I can do around here; I’m not worried about that! It’s just making myself do it, and balancing Smol Human’s needs. Once I settle into something, I think we’ll be alright. It’s just the beginning. We’re all trying to figure it out.
Since my parents will have him for a couple of nights, husband and I are going to watch Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead. He hasn’t seen either. No time like the present to expose him!
So, not very much substance, and a lot of jumbled thoughts again; but when he was researching for Plague Year, Defoe read the letters and accounts of survivors from the 1665 plague that hit London. Those informed him as he saw a potential outbreak looming in the early 1700s. Ideally this won’t last a year. But regardless of how long it lasts, this is history happening, so keeping a record of how we handled it (beyond the memes, of course) is good.
I don’t know that I’ll write this stuff every day, especially as the days begin to blend and the new normal becomes just plain normal. But for now, this is what’s going on. How are you handling things?
For writers with manuscripts out to agents, editors, or other high-stakes readers, waiting for feedback–whether it represents a publisher’s acceptance… is not only hard, it is also a twenty-four hour job requiring your undivided attention. When you are waiting, you must concentrate all your energy on not calling the feedback provider to “touch base.”
Joni B. Cole, Toxic Feedback
I’ve done a lot of waiting over the last several months. In a few of my other blog posts I’d alluded to Sneakthief ‘sneaking around’, and now that it’s resolved, I can talk about it a bit more in detail. But this post isn’t really about that, so much as it’s about what I’ve learned through the process.
Back in May, a sci-fi/fantasy publisher held an open call for submissions. They asked for the first three chapters, a synopsis, and an introductory letter. Since I had Sneakthief pretty much done, I decided to submit. One, I had nothing to lose, and two, I just needed to do something with it, if nothing else, to say I did. The publishers said they’d have gone through the submissions by the end of July.
Having that time frame was fine, because I didn’t have any expectations, and I had a bunch of other things to do. Turncoat wasn’t behaving, we were in the process of getting Smol Human’s diagnosis, work was crazy, and a couple months just wasn’t a big deal. But when August first rolled around and I got an email requesting a full manuscript, that’s when the waiting game kicked in.
I’ve never been good at waiting. My parents tell me a story about when I was very young, and they said we’d be going somewhere “this weekend” or something like that. Apparently I was a terror asking if it was the weekend yet. I don’t like surprises; I have a hard time with the anticipation, and like to know what to expect. I helped my parents plan my own 30th birthday bash ten years ago, to the surprise of the party planner at the venue. When we found out a Smol Human would be joining us, I needed to know the sex, needed to get everything in order in his room, had to have the name picked out. I think a lot of this stems from my anxiety; I have a need to control things because then I know what to expect and can deal with it. When I don’t have a plan and a few contingencies, I’m uncomfortable. One thing I love about my job now is that, even though there are surprises here and there, we have a LOT of SOPs, templates, processes, etc. We have a great CRM program and Outlook, so I have my tasks and everything laid out. While there are still adventures, it’s predictable to an extent and I like that.
While my autumn was pretty full and I was working with a lot of different things that kept me occupied, it was always in the back of my mind: what’s going on with the book? Do they like it? Are they laughing at it? Shit, I should have fixed this plot point (side note, the more I got into the Turncoat rewrite, the more I started to think of things that needed to be reworked in Sneakthief and that made me anxious too). Dammit, I missed that typo! All sorts of little things nagged at me. I didn’t realize just what a constant nagging feeling it was. Or I did, maybe I just didn’t realize how much it was impacting me.
My initial reaction, when they’d asked for the full, was to wait on the edge of my seat, heart skipping and blood pressure spiking whenever I saw a tweet from the publisher or an email come through. It did take time for me to realize that was an unsustainable way to exist, so I had to learn to wait.
Publishing is a business, and it’s a business that takes time. Editors have their regular list and clients to work with, and Sneakthief is about 100,000 words. They have lives and families outside of publishing. Sneakthief may have consumed me, but I cannot expect it to consume others because that’s unrealistic and unfair. So I had to figure out what to do in order to manage the waiting game.
Turncoat’s rewrite helped quite a bit; I tried doing some work for NaNoWriMo, and that helped a little because I was still writing. I played through GreedFall, and wrote fanfic for that, which helped a lot–I got great feedback on it when I posted it, and it felt good to have story feel like it was flowing, when Turncoat was being so obstinate. The holidays were looming, so that definitely helped! I did a lot of sewing and bingeing Netflix and Prime Video (Good Omens, She Ra, and Dragon Prince are favorites), which helped let me creative mind wander. And on December 18th, I got the email that they’d like to take Sneakthief to the next step: an acquisitions meeting in early 2020.
If I was anxious before, it was in high gear now. This time I had a timeframe, which helped: end of January. Which of course has meant that the first month of the year was anxiety-inducing and kind of messy. I had NEVER expected my book to get to a point like this, and if I’d been panicked about emails before, now was exponentially worse. I’d managed to finish a Turncoat draft I was happy with by December 31st, so I tried diving into Scapegoat. Still working on that one. I played games: Skyrim is always familiar and good for mindless play, wandering around, etc. I did another no-kill Dishonored run, which was fun.
With something this big on the line, it’s hard: I’d be lying if I said a huge part of me was hoping for the best: an acquisition and contract. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid of the worst: nothing, and they hated the book. I started sniffing a LOT of lavender.
What did end up happening is somewhere in the middle: the final answer was a no, but not because they didn’t like my story or my writing! It was a timing issue, which I know is a reality of publishing. It’s a business and they have lists and clients and a lot of moving pieces, and the ultimate decision isn’t a personal judgment of me or my writing. Some other good came out of it, so overall, I call the journey a win.
So I’m not getting Sneakthief published yet–so why a win? Because I learned about how to wait: how to occupy my time and my mind, how to focus on the present and not worry about an unknown future, and to not pause my work because I’m waiting. If I’d waited to move forward with any of my work in those few months, I wouldn’t have what I do now. So much other good came of it: community, and the opportunity to work with people I respect. I couldn’t put my life on hold, going day to day without doing anything else. I’m rereading Joni Cole’s Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive for the creative writing class I’m rebuilding, and that quote about not using all your energy really hit me.
Things take time, and waiting is hard. We’re in an instant culture where we get search results in fractions of seconds, and Instant Pots can cook a roast in minutes instead of hours (I love my Instant Pot, don’t @ me). Continuing to create, to push forward even when what’s forward is unknown is hard, but so worth it. And when all else fails, sniffing some lavender doesn’t hurt.
Needless to say, a huge burden feels lifted. I wonder how I would have managed finishing the course rebuild, and then teaching it, while having to revise a 100k word manuscript on a deadline. I wonder how I could have managed a lot of other things, and think that just maybe the timing was off for more than just this particular publisher. I don’t feel anxious (well, about that) anymore. I can breathe. I can focus on the next adventure, which has already started, and feel really good about it.
Time can have a funny way of getting away from you. I feel like I blinked and two weeks went by and suddenly it’s September, and I wonder where the last of August went.
I have depression and anxiety disorder, and sometimes I wonder if there’s some ADD there as well, though it may be my other disorders mimicking similar symptoms. That can be part of where time goes. Another part is work; I love my job, and we’re at a point in the term where things are picking up to get ready for fall term.
Looking back at the last two weeks of August in retrospect I can plot out how things have gone since my last blog. So this is what’s been happening…
I read a book. On the recommendation of a good friend, I read Witchmark by C.L. Polk. PLEASE READ IT. It blew my mind with how intricate the world was, and how fantastically plotted and paced it was. I loved the characters and just how when I thought I figured it out, there was yet another turn. It wasn’t a long book, just over 300 pages or so, but as a result it packed even more of a punch, because everything in those 300 pages counted. This leads to the next thing.
I’ve been in a rewrite of Turncoat while waiting for Sneakthief to do some sneaking. I’ve been slogging through, having some trouble figuring out what needs to stay or go, and what needs to change completely and after reading Witchmark, something unlocked in my mind and I’ve been writing furiously. I have probably close to 10,000 words of brand new material that really makes the book so much better than any of the other drafts and I’ve been writing every day. Except yesterday, but more on that later.
Last week I had a persistent anxiety attack that just wouldn’t go away. I’ve had anxiety/depression (officially diagnosed) for the last 15 years. I’m medicated, I do well with the medication, and with being able to trace my triggers. This week I just couldn’t. I had to do some serious soul searching to figure out what was up.
I figured out that I’d been avoiding building my fall course shell for my class starting later this month. I’d been putting off some other things so I just sucked it up and got them done. And I felt way better! Also, Smol Human had his initial referral for special ed in our town. He was diagnosed with Autism earlier this spring, and is still in preschool, so we have time to get his services in order before he enters public school next year (side note thank all deities that I have a background in education, because even this is still kind of overwhelming, so I can’t imagine what it would be like if I didn’t know what I already do).
In the midst of all that I’d been channeling the anxious energy into the Turncoat rewrite. And then yesterday I didn’t write. I’d caught up on my other projects. Smol’s meeting went very well. I’d been going almost nonstop, with the story waking me up at night and getting me up early. I’d thought I’d spend some time yesterday writing. Instead?
It was beautiful. Smol and I went to the park and then walked around it for over an hour. We went to play at a play place in town. Then I went shopping with my sister-in-law, and we had a big dinner all together. Then I hung out watching some Good Omens (yes I’m behind, I’m getting caught up!). But I didn’t write. I thought about the story; it’s impossible not to. But I enjoyed a lovely day with my Smol and my family, and I took a much needed break from everything that had been building.
Last month at Readercon I went to a panel titled “Periods of Not Writing”. It was good to hear published writers discuss when they knew they needed breaks, and that it’s important to take breaks. PAX East this past spring also had a panel about avoiding burnout in creative professions. Where I can get super focused on my pursuits, it’s important to remember that not only can I take breaks, but I should.
So yesterday I did, and today is looking like a break day as well as I’m vising at my parents’ with the Smol. Maybe I’ll get some writing in later, maybe I won’t, and I’m not going to feel badly about either one. I’m giving myself permission to rest, to take a break, to relax and recharge so I don’t get caught in an anxiety loop again. Turncoat will get written, and Scapegoat after that. I’m committed to this, and taking a breaks to regroup is just another part of the process.
I guess the bottom line is be kind to yourself. Recognize when you need to pull back, when you need to push ahead, when you need support. Be reasonable and be realistic. Don’t settle, but don’t burn out, either. I took a break. And I’m glad I did.