When Real Life Interferes

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Writing fiction takes up an enormous amount of cranial space. It requires quiet, solitude (or your version of those things), and quite a bit of time just staring into space. Or mindlessly playing solitaire. Whatever, you need your version of quiet time to let your mind freewheel.

Carving out that time to write in a dedicated, ongoing, consistent manner is more difficult than any non-writer can imagine. There is always the phone, the ding of email, the person coming into the office saying, “I’m not disturbing you, I’m only…” All of which are distractions so off-putting it’s truly a wonder we get any pages written at all. And when we do, we have a right to be satisfied, even if they suck.

But then there is the other interference, and that consists of life events that vaporize our concentration.

A good friend confided in me not long ago that he was “blocked” for the first time ever in his writing, and what few sentences he wrote were hard fought and turned out to be crap. He was truly mystified. With a little discussion, it turned out that he had not one, not two, but three major events happening in other areas of his life that were of maximum stress.

You know that list of stressors? Here they are:

  • Death of a family member
  • Terminal illness (one’s own or a family member)
  • Physical incapacitation, chronic pain, or chronic illness
  • Drug or alcohol abuse (self, family member, partner)
  • Divorce
  • Marriage
  • Loss of job or job change
  • Moving house
  • Primary relationship problems
  • Severe financial problems

There are more, of course, but these are the big dogs. Most, if not all of these happen to all of us at one time or another, because that is the stuff of life. That is the human experience. We should welcome these events, even when they stress us out, because that’s how we learn about ourselves—how we react in stressful situations. Need I mention that it is all grist for the mill? We need new experiences to feed our fiction machine.

However, when we work so hard to carve out the time to write (and we can’t give that up, no matter what), and one or more of these situations takes up all of our cranial space to the point where we’re either “blocked” or all we come up with is hard-fought crap, then it is time to reevaluate our priorities.

Sometimes we just need to sit down and deal with what is in front of us. Sometimes writing is not and should not be the number one priority. We have bigger issues to deal with. As writers, though, our fiction-writing minds are busy focusing on future scenarios and how what it is that we’re bothered by is likely to turn out. It almost never turns out the way we imagine, but we can’t help ourselves. Plotting is what we do.

We’d rather feel guilty about not writing.

We’d rather deny the stress, as if confessing to it makes us less of a person, less of a writer, when in fact it not only makes us more of a person, it makes us more of a writer.

And then there’s comparing ourselves with others. We all know that so-and-so pumped out four books last year despite a divorce, the death of a child, and moving to Europe. Well, maybe, and maybe not. Nothing is exactly as it appears. Besides, that person’s career is not your career and not your life. Certainly not a life you would trade yours for, not really.

So if you find yourself “blocked” (I put that word in quotation marks because I don’t believe in writer’s block—but that’s a blog post for another day), or all you can write is hard-won crap, take a look at your life and see if you have one or two or three of these major stressors. If you do, use your solitude and writing time to puzzle out not the plot of your new book, but the way to peace and serenity with the situation that life has handed to you.

The job of a writer is to articulate the human condition. To do that, you must experience it.

Embrace it, live it, journal about it, and when it passes, as it always does, you will write about it, and your life and your work will be all the richer.

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3 thoughts on “When Real Life Interferes

  1. This hits a cord with me, that’s for sure! Any stress — even because of a positive change — distracts. For May, I had to let the writing go. And even into June. I’m starting to feel antsy again — that’s always the sign … 🙂

  2. Well, this certainly hits the mark. With my spouse recently almost dying, and the same week starting a new job, I still tried to write a short story. what kind of insanity is that? Trying to distract myself, I think, but it didn’t work (both the distraction and the story…). Thanks for reminding us we are human….

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