Once upon a time I sat down to write a book. I confess that in that particular mindset I wasn’t thinking about intelligent and logical things like publication and where the book would fit into the market. I hadn’t considered comparable titles and marketing strategies. I had an idea. I was excited about it. Images, words, characters were clamoring to get onto the page and that was all that mattered.

Later, during revisions one, two, three and four, (and five? I’ve lost track) the idea of publication was on my mind, but largely as background static, a vaguely defined fear that this book wasn’t going to fit neatly anywhere in the known universe of publishing, that it wasn’t quite fantasy or magical realism or literary fiction. But it was far too late for such thoughts – the story now had a life of its own and would be what it was determined to be.

Which brings me to the present, to the business of querying and agent feedback and a semi-frenzied perusal of existing books that might be considered comparable titles. There are some – nothing perfect, mind, but things that put Swimming North in the ballpark at least.

An agent question – what would a series look like – set me off on another alarming quest, because I never see to the end of a book before I begin it, let alone a series. When I write I start with characters and a problem, and the characters interact with the problem and with each other, and things begin to happen. Random elements creep in and I allow them, because often my subconscious sees what I do not. While all of this is going on, I try to keep an eye on plot and character arcs and pacing and all of the stuff that makes for a compelling plot, but I never quite know where the story is going until I hit the end.

I am experiencing a moment of envy for those who sit down before they begin to write and plot the whole thing out, from beginning to end. But I blink, and the envy passes. The truth is, I enjoy the surprises and the unexpected detours along the way. And it’s not like I set out on a writing voyage without any landmarks at all. I have a general sense of where we are all headed, I’m just not sure of a) how we’re going to get ‘there’, and b) exactly what ‘there’ will look like when we arrive.

At the moment, the best compromise I can make is to sit down and play with ideas. If the story would go on, how would it look? What would happen with the characters? What would be the unfinished story winding through all three that would allow them to stand alone but still bind them together. I think I see. And that’s all I need to get started.

Butt in chair, fingers on keys.

I can’t even guess how many times I’ve heard those words or something like them, all meaning the same thing – my job as a writer is to show up for work, no matter what. No waiting around for inspiration, dilatory muses, or “being in the mood.”

Knowing, of course, is not the same thing as doing. Since finishing Swimming North and sending it out into the big wide world to seek its fortune, I’ve found an alarming number of reasons not to fully engage with another WIP. I’ve been sick, I’ve been busy, I’ve been working on author promotional materials, I’ve been brainstorming, I’ve been planning, I’ve been reading comparative titles just in case an agent falls in love with Swimming North and asks for such things.

But I have not been writing.

And last night I finally admitted to myself that this is largely out of fear. Yep – my name is Kerry Schafer, and I am a cowardly writer. Swimming North, much as I love it, was an ordeal at times. Some of the revisions left scars on my own psyche, I swear. I don’t want to go through that again – spending the hours creating, polishing, refining – only to realize in the end that these words, these characters that seem so beautiful, are actually harmful to the book itself and must be excised.

I’d like a little magic writing dust that would allow the perfect draft the first time through. And so, I am afraid to create anything because it may never see the light of day. I am afraid to commit to a new project because it is so much like being married, and you just never know when you dive in what the outcome will be.

Seriously. The old fashioned marriage vows might just as well be recited by every writer sitting down to write a novel. “For richer for poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.” That’s what it’s all about. None of this dabbling while the writing is easy and then setting it aside for a newer, sparkly idea. If I’m not prepared to commit to another project, I’ve got no business calling myself a writer.

Once I realized that my problem was fear, there was only one course of action – start writing. I have a personal mandate that involves tackling whatever scares me. Which is how I found myself last night, butt in chair, fingers on keys, wrapped in a blanket to calm the fever chills generated by this ungodly bug I’ve picked up from somewhere.

I didn’t expect much. My brain was foggy, I couldn’t see where the plot was going. Still. I promised myself five hundred words, any caliber of words, for better or worse. And I discovered all over again that when I sit in the chair and move my fingers over the keyboard, writing happens. Maybe not awe-inspiring prose, but progress still. And by this morning I find myself committed, the structure of this novel finally coming clear in my mind.

“What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.”

I have drained the well.

I know better. And yet, when I stop to measure the charge left in my physical, emotional, and spiritual batteries there’s not much more than a flicker. Just enough to drag through another day, so long as nothing big comes along, so long as I am not called upon for any acts of will and discernment.

Yeah right.

Life isn’t going to stop for me. My job isn’t going to stop presenting me with difficult challenges and decisions. The kid still needs to get ready for college and I have a house to run and a family to love. The cat is sick. Second Son lost his glasses. The newsletter I edit for the DMHP association is coming up due again.

Meanwhile, I have new writing goals and plans. So much to do. So little time.

It’s not my fault, this time, but it is still my responsibility to seek the cure.

I know perfectly well what I need.  Daily yoga. Long walks in the woods. Good books. Naps. Journal writing. Art. Time away from people. A whole day home alone in my jammies. I figure a month ought to do it.

This is where the daydream breaks up in hysterical laughter. A month? Not gonna happen. Maybe a day, if I’m lucky.

And so, I look for healing and refilling in the little things, in the odd moments scattered throughout the day. A picture that I love, hung where I see it every time I walk by. A hummingbird watching me hang out the laundry. A purring cat. A hug. Reading a great book. Talking to friends. Even just taking a moment to stand on my front porch barefoot, eyes closed, soaking in the energy from the world around me with every pore.

Not surprising that it’s been difficult to get words down on the page. There’s temptation to just hammer away, and although sometimes this is the right approach – butt in chair, hands on keys, right? –  I know it’s the wrong one now. There is a time for everything under the sun, and sometimes that means just being kind to yourself and giving the creativity well a chance to refill.

In her lovely book The Right to Write, Julia Cameron likens the writing life to the life of an athlete. For every fast mile, nine slow ones, she says. As a maintenance solution to the problem of draining the well she suggests weekly adventures, alone – dates with your creativity. This is a great idea, but it’s too late for that. For now I don’t need new adventures, I need time to process the old.

And so, I’m cutting myself some slack, setting aside the writing deadlines I’d set for myself to explore, gently, the writing that is talking to me. If I am kind to myself, I know that soon I will recharge and be ready once again to take on the world. And more importantly, to listen to the story that wants to manifest through me, and write it down.

I am sitting in a coffee shop, staring out at the ocean and reflecting on life and writing and the nature of things. The reason I am so far from my natural habitat is the life changing event of launching my eldest child into independence. He is hanging out on a college campus getting initiated and registered, while I am face to face with reality once again.

Once upon a time this young man did not exist. Even after he made his appearance in this world he was, for a space of time, still an extension of me: under my control, subject to my rules, knowing only the things I allowed him to be exposed to. Now, he is a fully autonomous being, about to go his own way in the big wide world. He is a creator of songs, stories, and original ideas. The world will be different because he is in it.

At fifteen, his younger brother is also an autonomous being who thinks his own thoughts and creates his own chain of events. But, like a work in progress, he is still subject to revision and polish.

In the synchronous way of things, my writing is at the same stage of life as my kids. Once upon a time, none of my books  had existence.

If you write, you know how it is. A moment of chemistry, the meeting of ideas on the right day at the right moment, and a story is born. In the beginning of a new novel things are under my control – to write, or not to write. To allow this character to live and breathe, or to shut her up. And then, somewhere in the writing, the book takes on a life of its own. It insists on certain things, refuses others. My job becomes one of listening and shaping. Sure, I could insist on full control, but this stunts the writing just as it stunts a growing child.

Swimming North is complete, and has somehow taken on a life of its own, much like my eldest child going off to college. I can sign him up and help him pay his way, but what happens from this point is entirely up to him.  The book is crafted, shaped, completed. Queries have launched it out into a larger world, to succeed or not to succeed, while I look on and try to catch my breath.

The current WIP, like my second son, still at home, has a personality and a will of its own and is no longer fully under my control. It is my responsibility to work with it – to see its strengths and weaknesses, to shape and polish and redirect and prevent it from going down paths I know lead to disaster. And when it is complete, to let it go out into the world as well.

I have no intentions of creating any more children. Books are a different story, so I guess I’d better get used to this.

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