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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.”

Today I would like to discuss a little known psychotic disorder which I believe afflicts only writers. Even as I write these words I realize I am generalizing: it is possible that this disorder afflicts only me, that I am a diagnosis alone unto myself, but there is sufficient evidence extant that leads me to believe there may be others.

As I research this phenomenon, I’m tentatively calling it Writer’s Psychosis. It is closely related to the more commonly known Submission Psychosis, and is characterized by paranoia, isolation, and delusional beliefs that everybody who is engaged in reading your manuscript now hates you because of the massive failure of your writing. As a case study, I present my most recent bout with the disorder.

Several days ago I finished yet another draft in the unending revision cycle of Swimming North.  With confidence and only a little trepidation (okay, maybe a lot) I sent the manuscript out to a handful of long suffering readers. All of these people have been through at least one draft already, and there are two who have been with me on this project from the beginning. I think these readers should get some special reward in writer heaven, by the way. Or Karmic blessings. Or something.  Every time I produce yet another draft I expect a collective groan and a general mutiny, although they all protest to be more than happy to read, and sometimes even pretend to be enthusiastic and excited about it.

I digress. As I said,  I finished the draft and sent it to my readers. And I was fine with that. Really. I went cheerfully about my business, relaxed a little, started messing around with my new project – a cozy mystery involving a geriatric vampire trapped in a nursing home – and just enjoyed not having Swimming North hanging over my head for a little while.

Until yesterday afternoon, when it suddenly occurred to me that my readers were conspicuously absent. Those who are usually on Twitter a lot were either not tweeting at all, or having conversations with everybody else but me.  My IM buddy was nowhere visible on IM. No emails from my email friend.

By yesterday evening I was in the grip of the disorder.  I had what seemed to be an epiphany: all of my readers hated the book and were avoiding me because they didn’t want to tell me so. The tiny voice of reason that had managed to avoid being completely strangled by my psychosis argued that this was most likely not the case, that it was Saturday, and a gorgeous spring day outside, that all of my readers are very busy people who actually have lives and responsibilities, possibly even pleasures, outside of reading my never ending revisions.

I was unable to listen to reason. As this was not my first encounter with this form of insanity, however, I took steps toward a cure.  I took the drastic measure of confessing my condition to one of my readers and asking for help. He kindly held my hand, gave me a virtual pat on the head, and reassured me that he was having a life at the moment which didn’t happen to revolve around my manuscript. He told me I was a good writer and that everything would be okay.

This was sufficient to restore me to a semblance of sanity. This morning, another reader surfaced and reassured me she had been out having fun with her family yesterday and her absence from my life had nothing to do with my book. And then, best of all, I received an email from a reader this morning saying that she loved the book and suggesting that celebrations are in order.

So, at the moment, I believe myself to be in remission and capable of functioning in the real world. But in the interest of research and finding a cure, I’d like to collect data on the experiences of other writers who have suffered from this curious malady. Unless, of course, nobody else has ever been afflicted, in which case I am seriously deranged and will check into a treatment facility forthwith.

Confession of the day: I am a coward.

Yep, it’s true. I fear many bizarre and small things in my life, including telephones and talking to people I don’t know. Considering that I’ve chosen a job which glues me to a phone and requires me to walk into jails, hospitals, and private homes, where I converse with cops and corrections officers, inmates, doctors, nurses, and people from every possible walk of life, you might think I’d learned to confront all of my fears and that I practice the Art of Courage.

You would be wrong – at least when it comes to writing.

Here I am, at the brink of completing this draft of Swimming North. I’ve been wobbling on this brink for two days now. In fact, I’m considering ordering in a lawn chair, a good book, and a case of beer. Maybe I could just sit here until I die. The view isn’t half bad, and I have my memories of the trip to sustain me. Of course, it’s an uncomfortable location in which to spend the rest of my life; rather precarious – a strong wind or a misplaced lawn chair leg could send me hurtling into the depths.

I can’t go backward; it’s too late for that. And if I move forward, one of two things is going to happen: I’m either going to discover that I have wings, or I’m going to crash on the rocks below. They are jagged, pointy rocks. I’ve survived that crash once or twice, but vital things were broken and I really don’t care to do it again.  I dream that maybe I’ve earned my wings this time, but I’m not certain, and as long as I hesitate here, on the edge of life as I know it, I can dream and imagine and avoid reality.

Okay. It’s a metaphor, and it’s over dramatic. Failure isn’t going to kill me. The bald facts are these: I’ve written almost to the end of Swimming North, The Fourth Re-write. And once I finish it, it will be time to look back over the manuscript and ask myself those very difficult questions. Will it work this time? Can I consider it the last of the rewrites and move on to the relative simplicity of revision and editing? Or have I failed, again, in even coming close to writing what I set out to do? If I’ve failed at that, have I succeeded in writing something else that is worth a damn? I tell myself that I will NOT rewrite this manuscript one more time, but my entire genetic code refuses to let me walk away.

What genetic code is that, you ask? The Norwegian Viking Code, that’s what. Viking warriors were shamed if they survived and their leader died. They fought until the bitter end, preferring death on the battle field to the life of shame they would lead if –

There I go again into the melodrama.  And while blogging is a Worthy and Important Activity, it is also a Means of Procrastination and Delay. I am off to take the plunge and see what happens. If I don’t come back – send all the King’s horses, and all the King’s men. I might just be in need of them.

It’s been an interesting day.

Early this morning I took my eldest offspring down to the DMV so he could take his written test.  Yes, I am going to have to cut him loose soon.  There have been moments of panic about this, usually in the middle of the night.  What if he gets in a car wreck?  What if he gets lost, or has a flat tire, or his car breaks down in the middle of nowhere at 1 am? What if?  

But here’s what I know, learned the hard way by experience: you can’t live life by the ‘what ifs,’ because what actually happens is usually something you didn’t even think to worry about.  And there’s really no control over what happens anyway.  If you locked your kid up forever in their room in order to keep them safe, there would probably be some ironic tree that would fall on your house and take them out while they slept.  Or a prince might come a long and scale the wall, by means of the princesses’ long, long hair.  My point is, life is what it is, and both the the probable and improbable will happen despite your best efforts at control. 

As I write this, people are stomping so loudly on my roof that the windows are rattling. Normally this would be cause for alarm, but since there is a roofing project in progress, I’m trying to ignore what would normally send me out the door shrieking, “are you okay?”  This was another one of those ‘sometimes you just have to do it’ projects.  There is a long story here,  involving shoddy construction by the original owner and the unfortunate consequences thereof, and the project requires literally taking off a section of the roof and replacing it.  We were going to tackle this bit of fun and excitement on Monday, but the weather was oppositional.  It sulked, it stormed, it precipitated. Consequently, the weather for today was a topic of concern and debate.  There was angst, there was hesitation.  Should we do it now, or should we wait?  The contractor won’t be available again until the end of the summer.  What if, what if, what if?  And finally the decision was reached to boldly roof, a process which has been going on all day.

As for me, weaving in and out of the kid driving, the alarming roof noises, and rescue runs to the hardware store for roofing supplies, I’ve been working on a query letter.  If you’ve been following my blog for awhile, you’ll know that this is not my first query letter, nor is it the first time this novel has ventured out into the world.

But this time there is an important difference.  The extensive and painful revision and restructuring process I undertook has paid off.  I love this book.  There used to be a little niggling doubt, a reluctance to let people read the manuscript.  Now I can’t wait to show it off.  I want to run around accosting total strangers and saying, “hey, you want to read what I just wrote?”  Consequently, when it comes to writing the query letter, the fear is deep and laced with a sense of responsibility.

There is so much to lose this time.  Don’t get me wrong: last time around I sent the novel out in good faith.  I truly believed it was ready to go. The novel wasn’t bad, the query was good enough to garner a partial read and some invaluable feedback.  But part of me really didn’t want to succeed because subconsciously I knew the novel wasn’t as good as I could make it.

Now I’m in a different place altogether.  I feel responsible to this novel – I owe it the best possible chance of making its way in the world.  Which means that so much more is at stake.  And I find myself lying in bed in the middle of the night, asking “what if, what if, what if?”

But there is no what if.  There is only what is.  Along with taking risks, and living life to the fullest, and writing the best story that is in me.

So that is what I intend to do.  (Once I get a green light from my absolutely fabulous query consultant – you know who you are.  I know you don’t want my firstborn child, or I’d be tempted to offer…)  When the query is ready, off it goes.  And I go back to writing, which means tackling Swimming North again.  Frankly, I’m looking forward to it.

Please feel free to share your ‘what ifs’ here in the comments.  Writing them for all to see kinda takes the energy out of them, I think, and opens the way for accepting both ‘what is’ and ‘what could be.’


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