Pain and Stress Inform the Work, But Not Always Right Away, and Only If You Survive

It may not seem like it at first, but this post is about coping with the tremendous, unprecedented pressure to produce and sell that all but the most established authors face these days. Specifically, it’s about coping with those pressures on top of other, even larger pressures, particularly when you’re an indie author in the early stages of your publishing career. So please bear with me: I’ll circle back around to this, I promise.

My favorite mantra for coping with pain, stress and the general asshattery and douchebaggery of others when it occurs is, "It informs the work. It informs the work. It informs the work." Sometimes I have to say it through gritted teeth, but it’s true: the most painful and troubling experiences of a writer’s life combine to fill a well of personal truth from which the writer can draw to lend authenticity and heft to his fiction. But like a fine wine or artisnal cheese, those experiences usually need to age before they’re ready for public consumption.

It’s only through the passage of time, and accumulation of new experiences and outcomes, that the writer gains distance, perspective, and a degree of objectivity that enables her to take something deeply personal and channel it into stories and characters that speak to others in a relatable way. And I’m not just talking about fictionalized memoirs here, I’m talking about dealing with the broad themes of loss, pain, denial, longing, failure and all the other negatives that challenge us as human beings, in fiction.

Writers are a sensitive lot by nature, and many of us are living through dire times. Some of you who are reading this post have recently suffered a job loss; some have been out of work for a year or longer. Some are losing—or have already lost—their homes to foreclosure. Some are coping with the loss of a loved one, divorce, a health crisis…or maybe even two or more of these major life traumas simultaneously. Some are just barely keeping the bill collectors at bay while living on a steady diet of ramen noodles and peanut butter. One day, the survivors will look back on these dark times and see them for the growth experiences they were. But not today, and not if they don’t survive.

Sometimes people ask me why I’m not producing one or two novels a year, as so many indie authors are advised to do if they wish to build up the kind of back catalog that’s necessary to truly make a living as an indie author. Some ask why I’m no longer a familiar face at writer conferences and events. Some wonder why they’re seeing more images and updates of my craft projects on Facebook than of my writing projects, and why I just generally don’t seem to be "working it" as an indie author, and haven’t been for some time. Well, I’ll tell you.

I came out of the chute like gangbusters back in 2007, when "self-publish" was still a dirty word. I got my books and myself out there, I launched and nurtured, I became active with social media, I networked, I got involved with online writer and reader communities, I spoke at writer conferences, I taught workshops, and more. I’d built up quite a head of steam and forward momentum when…

…the bottom fell out of my life.

In early 2010 I learned I had a breast tumor [I’m fine now, thanks for your concern =’) ]. Two days later my husband of 18+ years announced he was leaving me. This meant I’d also soon be unemployed since my job at the time was as Office Manager for a business my then-husband and I ran together. I’d left a career in Software Engineering some six years previous to help establish and run that business, so hopping right back into my former professional field wouldn’t be possible. Divorce also meant I might soon be losing the only home I’d ever owned, and had recently remodeled, and loved, since I most likely couldn’t afford the mortgage payment by myself.
It’s been over two years since the bombs dropped on me, and I’ve come a long way toward full recovery. But I’m not there yet. While the initial shock and emotional devastation are behind me, the fallout from these problems is still poking me with a stick on a daily basis, preventing me from establishing comfortable, secure new routines. In many ways, I’m still in survival mode. Surely all of these experiences will imbue my work with more depth and meaning than it’s ever had before. But not today. And not if I don’t survive.

Survival is job one, for all of us. If you don’t survive, you won’t be there to tell your stories when the crisis is over. If the pressures of your daily life are already pushing you to your limits as a human being, before you add the pressures of authorship, you need to step back. Give yourself permission to delay, though not abandon, your dreams. If you don’t, drive will turn into despair. Hope will turn into bitterness. The urge to create will turn into an urge to destroy.

For someone in survival mode, every bit of effort, time and money spent is a high-stakes investment, because there’s so little of those commodities available to such a person. Where entering a contest, submitting a manuscript, or publishing a new book would’ve been an event of nervous, but hopeful anticipation in the past, when you’re in survival mode these things become acts of desperate need. Rejections that would’ve been difficult, but manageable, before are crushing to someone in survival mode. Not only is it impossible to create your best work, you lack the emotional wherewithal to understand and accept it when others don’t respond well to your sub-par efforts. It becomes a downward spiral of fear, rejection and increasing desperation, all of which serves to further delay your eventual recovery and ability to come at authorship from a place of renewed strength and perspective.

Building a career as an author is a marathon, not a sprint. If you’re exhausted as you stand on the blocks, before the starting gun has even sounded, there’s no way you can hope to win that race. Do what you need to do to survive, so that someday, you can once again thrive.

This is a cross-posting from Publetariat founder and Editor in Chief April L. Hamilton‘s Indie Author Blog.

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