Hello readers and welcome back to this (very) occasional series I started for the blog three years ago with varying results. As noted way back then, this series began as a file in my Google Drive entitled “What’s a writer for?” and morphed into these posts in a somewhat organic manner. First involving my science fiction novel and then looking at other items such as failure and listening to editors, the most recent post had to do with productivity in a time of global pandemic.
As I noted in a recent website update, I was diagnosed late last year with bipolar disorder, and it has cast a wide shadow on all of my writing these past months. I wanted to share some more about this experience and show how even when tasked with such seemingly insurmountable odds writers can still overcome them. But as I am in the middle of doing so I thought I could at least catalog a bit of what it’s like to write with such a diagnosis. I took a recent writing day to get down the events of my breakdown and ended up with ten-thousand words added to a document that I hope will turn into another book someday. Getting it down helped me to own the events, some of which I will share here for the first time.
The hardest lesson for me to understand was this was a year(s)-long event, beginning in the final months of 2020 and spreading through spring of last year and exploding in the winter. I was having major issues in the relationship with my wife and made the (in retrospect) rather stupid decision to set all of my fiction writing aside for half of 2021. I also became quite controlling over the communication side of my marriage but did not realize this until about a year after the fact. Thankfully I have tons of manic inspired notes written down from that time to always make me remember how this started. But the real breakdown occurred in December of last year, when I spiraled into a series of paranoid delusions about a neighbor recording me through my phone and other devices, which then expanded to my maintenance guy and then to other entities at large. I won’t go into the details as it’s still hard for me to reckon with but suffice it to say if my wife Mary had not intervened I would have been in an even worse position. I spent almost a week at Saint Joseph’s hospital in Saint Paul, and by the end of it I was put on medication for bipolar disorder. After trying various other medications (and finding their side effects to be even worse) over the next months I wound up back in the hospital this past March and on different medications. Finally as I write this today I am back on the original meds I was put on in the first place, which seem to be the kind that now work for my life.
All of this is to say, how does one possibly work as a writer when such events occur? It’s a good question and one I’m still grappling with in my life. The diagnosis and aftermath was the most difficult period and now that I’m back on a stable medication regimen I am beginning to figure it out. I attempted to re-draft my manuscript during the worst of it (when I wasn’t sleeping very well at all) and I am quite dissatisfied with the result. I had a lot of notes from my editor and while many of them were well-founded, I did change parts of the manuscript a bit too much and wound up with a draft that is going to need more re-working this summer if I am going to be ready to submit it to agents.
I did want to delve a little into what it’s like to have this disease. Imagine having your brain running on overtime and then that it attaches itself to any little thought you might have and blows it way out of proportion. That is just a slight example of the racing thoughts that manifest themselves daily if one is not medicated. Also imagine your emotions flown way out to either end of the spectrum (either manic and feeling great, or more often, depressive and feeling horrible) and that may begin to explain how I am dealing with this every day. This is indeed the most difficult thing I’ve faced in my life as a writer, and just trying to express it here is not going as well as I’d hoped. But I wanted to explain a little bit about the diagnosis so those of you who do follow my work can know what’s going on with it.
I may be back with another update in the coming year and I hope to return to the Writing Life series overall as I have plenty of other topics to cover in the same sporadic fashion. Thanks to those of you who have read my stuff for years, and please take care of your own mental health. It really does matter.
I have tried to craft this #WritingLife essay twice. Once with the title ending “Covid” the other “George Floyd’s murder.” And then both events have merged together and represent so much more broken within our society. It’s almost quaint to think that a month ago the biggest concern with a lot of writers was “productivity.” The question of: am I creating enough during this down time? Should I be taking advantage of it more? As someone who has been laid off for a while now, I can say from a decent vantage point that none of that matters.
For some inspiration on this topic I conversed with Ed Simon, who has been running a phenomenal series on pandemic writing for The Millions.Here is part of what he had to say on the rise of “pandemic productivity:”
“Maybe they offer an alright corrective to people who feel anxiety about those things, but they sometimes do an over-correction, and are a disservice to people for whom that advice doesn't apply.“
“If I don't write, I get antsy, and I have to actively not write sometimes to recharge. I'm a recovering alcoholic, and not coincidentally my productivity shot up when I replaced getting black out drunk with actually writing. No clue if that's healthy, but it was certainly healthier, and in a very literal way I simply need to write. So the ‘You don't have to be productive’ stuff is probably good for people who DON'T have to be productive, but I kind of do.”
I thought this was a very interesting perspective and shows how a reliance on just putting words to page often backfires. You need to know what you are writing down in order to create something. I know there have been a lot of pieces on “productivity” and writing in the time of these earth-shattering events. But I’m here to tell you even if you read all of them you are not guaranteed to find the road to success cranking out your novel during this time. You may find more success doing nothing at all.
I am planning on delving into this more on the blog over the next year, but getting laid off (again) felt like an odd mirror to how this whole writing career of mine changed five years ago. And instead of thinking I must go back to wage-slave work and do another pointless job for five more years (this time with the added benefit of a pandemic), I have decided to use the little financial resources I have and (for real this time) do this as my career. I know it’s a stretch, a gamble, but it’s also the most freeing thing I could have done.
So be as productive as you want to during your quarantine. I could go on about how I’ve been re-writing my science fiction manuscript over and over in the hopes of this societal upheaval being my big break and whatever. I am more stunned to see my life from the perspective of never having to answer to anyone for my work. Ever again.
(I should add as opposed to last time when I kind of stepped aside from the journalistic side of things, in the wake of the MPD murder of George Floyd I don’t think that’s going to be an option. Those who know me might remember I used to cover City Council races and do investigations and stuff. For now it’s been more shouting on Twitter, but I may write some longer stuff at some point. The important thing is to make people aware.)
Writing in the time of...whatever it may be, don’t feel you must be productive. It’s far more important to understand what you want out of life, and then figure out how to get it. Write during all times, for all reasons. Thanks for reading.
The Writing Life: Listening to editors
Hello readers and welcome to the third in a series on this here blog I’ve been struggling with for years: shorter pieces focusing on the writing life and its challenges, daily affairs, and all it entails. That was initially what this blog was going to be all about, but it sort of got hijacked by the reading list and my “how to write a book” project. The first essay is here and the second is here if you missed them. And without further ado, here is the third installment in the Writing Life.
Listening to editors. This is another general piece of advice I have written about before but also struggled with, and I thought it was a great subject to talk about as writers are only as good as their editors. I have come to understand this through the Reading List since many of the books I had issues with could have used stronger editing. So how do we writers make ourselves listen to those voices who tell us things about our writing we may not want to hear? I reached out to one of my editors Anne Nerison of Inkstand Editorial (you may remember her excellent input from my “How to Write a Book” series) about this very situation. Here was some of her response:
“While you as the writer know your story inside and out, there is something to be said for coming at a story from an outside perspective. This fresh set of eyes can help catch issues that you may not be able to see, simply from being too close to it..”
I thought this hits the nail pretty much on the head, and helps point to what we need to think about as we work on our drafts. For however many versions of it you may go over, you’re still just seeing it with your own eyes, and your own imaginative voice. It’s not until those same words get pored over by a professional who does this for a living can they truly measure up and be ensured to flow. And I have to stress: if you find a good editor, hang onto them and listen to them! A good editor will be up front with you about whether or not to take their advice, how much to listen, and other details that form the basis of the relationship. This insight from Anne was also worth thinking about:
“An editor's loyalty is to the manuscript in front of them, which means we want it to be a strong piece of writing. Our advice, then, is to aid in that goal.”
It’s important not to think of your editor as being in an opposition role; rather, they are here to help guide your book or story into a better shape. There will be plenty of other voices out there looking to tear down your work. Stick with those who give you feedback that actually improves your writing. I know it can be difficult when we have such singular visions about our work. But the more you learn to form a collaborative relationship with your editor, the easier it becomes to see your writing from another perspective. Because that is a lot of what listening is: having the empathy to open up and see things from another’s viewpoint, a not-to-easy task in today’s oversaturated world of infotainment.
So listen to others, but especially your editor. If they are doing their job, yours should be made that much easier.
Hello readers and welcome to another series on this here blog I’ve been struggling with for years: shorter pieces focusing on the writing life and its challenges, daily affairs, and all it entails. That was initially what this blog was going to be all about, but it sort of got hijacked by the reading list and my “how to write a book” project. The first essay is here if you missed it. And without further ado, here is the second installment in the Writing Life.
Embrace the failure. I know, it sounds counterintuitive and perhaps like every other piece of writing advice you’ve encountered on the internet and elsewhere. But there is perhaps no other more important part of the writing life than this one. Because it will be all consuming, and inescapable. Forget the general people out there who may be repelled by your work, or never even find out about it; there are yet to be legions of lit mags, online outlets, editors and publishers who all will reject your work for various reasons. This is a huge part of refining our skills. I suppose I should lead all this failure announcing that I am finally going to have a short story published this October, after a half-decade of writing them and not getting anywhere (more on where to find this particular story coming soon). This represents the culmination of getting an idea, drafting a basic concept story, showing it to a few people, getting some great feedback, rewriting and rewriting it, looking it over a few more dozen times, submitting it and receiving (at least) ten rejections, from lit mags in Minnesota and beyond, until finally it will be published by an outlet that has also published my editor, Libby Copa.
Speaking of Libby, a while back she pointed me to this essential LitHub article by Kim Liao about the importance of seeking 100 rejections per year. I know that I didn’t even get close to that with this story, and that feels pretty great but doesn’t make me underestimate the amount of work required to get even more published. If the dream is having some kind of story collection ready to go by the time my other manuscripts can get shopped, I will need to get hundreds of rejections piled over a dozen stories (at least). I have come to find the necessary rotation should be around five-six stories sent out to as many places as you can, while keeping track of them through a spreadsheet or document. And while it felt odd to have to withdraw the piece from other places I’d submitted it, I didn’t mind the reason.
This essay was also inspired by some thoughtful reviews of my books on GoodReads, which is another great resource for feedback (even if they point out errors I too have gone on about at length). And as much fun as it was to see someone created a profile just to give my first novel a one-star review, it is all a part of dealing with the fact that some people just won’t like your work. It seems hard to overcome that at first, but the more you embrace it, the more you will see how it doesn’t define you but is used to make your writing better. I have a lot more confidence now that an independent party has verified that I might know what I’m doing. This will in turn help me get my current manuscript in the best shape it can be, and eventually get it published as well. So learn to embrace the failure, for your own good.
Hello there readers and welcome as I finally get to another series on this here blog I’ve been struggling with for years. After working on the initial blog post (still entitled “What’s a writer for?”) for months and seeing no end in sight (but there are gonna be tons of links!) I have decided to try something different for this series. And that is, shorter pieces focusing on the writing life and its challenges, daily affairs, and all it entails. I mean, that was initially what this blog was going to be all about, but it sort of got hijacked by the reading list and my “how to write a book” project. So without further ado, here is the first installment in the Writing Life.
I’m writing a book about climate change. It’s not like I haven’t said this before, but I think it deserves its own post because it’s pretty much all I have worked on for a solid year. And the entire thing needs to be re-written, because the perspective is wrong. By next year I might have a solid draft to show people. But until then, I can talk about it. So, why climate change?
If you somehow haven’t heard about it by now, the IPCC reports essentially spell out what is rapidly becoming the challenge of my generation: climate crisis and how little time we have to do anything about it. While this issue has waffled over my lifetime as something Americans care about, and then don’t (remember #climategate? No, I’m not going to link to that), it seems that we have reached a relative tipping point with legislation like the Green New Deal reaching massive audiences and people my age realizing this is going to affect the rest of their lives.
It’s important, and if you have been following me online for any length of time you’ll know how much I scream into the void about it to little result. This is my attempt to rectify that in what I feel is my greatest capacity: writing. Specifically, a story about climate change, how it may be manipulated into use via geo-engineering and how that may lead to an utter division of the planet. And that just scratches the surface of this beast, which also tackles AI, religion, technology, cloning, environmental catastrophe, time travel (can you see why it is kind of a mess at this point?), and other stuff. Oh yeah, journalism too. Cuz that’s what I’ve devoted a lot of my time over the years, and informs a lot of this book.
And as my editor stated, this book pushes a lot of buttons. I come from a conservative religious background that ultimately didn’t take, and I want to examine it through my fiction. But I also want to examine a culture that allows the generational selling out we’ve witnessed via the climate crisis, and how it’s up to us to do something about it. Again, in the real world we have maybe a decade to reduce emissions to the point where human survival is a possibility. In my novel, that is not quite a foregone conclusion, and for the hell of it I will give away a major plot point in the hope it may interest you. I conclude that the only thing that may wake up the populace is the sudden loss of half the landmass of Florida. Again, sitting here reading this you may not believe it. But the science tells us enough ice is melting rapidly that something like that could happen, and in my lifetime.
Speaking of my editor, she was also right to point out that this is merely one way to get involved. Contact your representatives, create your own art about it, get involved in the protest movement that is growing by the day, and try to use as little fossil fuel as possible. I know it sounds hyperbolic but this is truly the challenge of our generation, and we need all hands on deck.
Thanks for indulging me as I shine a light on my manuscript, and I hope you’ll one day be able to read it as I publish it. Some other topics I have lined up for this series include: failure and why we should seek it out, how to learn to listen to others (i.e. editors), time management, and some other things. And of course I’m still working on that (initial) blog post about what writers are for, which takes on new meaning by the hour of teh #Drumpf tweet. On that note, thanks for reading and writing.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.