Re-finding Me

I’m in a strange place, mentally, and have been pretty much for the last three months, ever since a stay in the hospital and a diagnosis of heart failure. Well, at 80, what can you expect? But the place I’m in, and it’s a damned boring and uncomfortable place, isn’t part of being 80. It’s being, for the rest of my life, a heart patient, after avoiding doctors altogether for many past decades. That inevitably involves medications. Which means putting up with, working around, or refusing to accept the many side effects. It also involves meeting, on a daily basis, one’s own mortality, without the luxury of thinking about death as something that will certainly happen some day, but far enough in the future that it’s more or less an abstraction at the moment.

Believe it or not, that isn’t the real problem for me. The real problem is that I haven’t been able to write. The drugs that are helping me avoid a heart attack or stroke are sucking out the essence of what it means to be me at my best. And empowering my worst qualities. Which, if you think about it, isn’t too different from the drugs that help people with severe mental illness. It isn’t that unusual for people who are bipolar to go off their meds because the drugs kill their creativity. I won’t try to compare the fear of sinking into a cycle of depression/mania with the fear of your heart giving out on you. When you are attacked and diminished at your core, the pain and fear are the same for everyone.

What I’m working through is more complex than how do I recover my creativity and get back to writing. My concept of who I am as a writer and why I even want to write is changing. As I wrote to a friend earlier today, “I’ve given up on the idea of “making a difference,” so if I continue to write, it’s for myself and for the few who stumble on it by accident. I don’t have the talent to “write for the ages” so I have no illusions or guilt about not making more of an effort.” But the itch to write is there, unrelenting, so I have to figure out how I’m going to move on from this state of paralysis. I have to re-find myself, but accept that the self I settle into isn’t going to be exactly the old one.

Maybe that means I can be more relaxed about my writing. Maybe I can let myself choose what to write based purely on how much I’m intrigued by the story rather than how “important” it will be or whether it makes a difference — says something profound enough to change someone’s life, change the world in some small way. Yes, I’d like to “write for the ages,” but since I don’t have that kind of talent I need to leave my self-judgmental attitude behind. I don’t have enough time or energy left to waste on impossible standards. There’s no sin in writing books that don’t have a message. I just have to keep telling myself that.

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15 thoughts on “Re-finding Me

  1. I hope you find the strength to pursue the urge to write. I think all writers struggle with the questions about whether their writing is meaningful to the larger world. You’re in a position where you can’t run and hide from the questions the way most of the rest of us can–and do.

  2. If this post is anyrthing to go by, you haven’t lost your talent for writing, friend. I suspect that what has changed is what you nailed down above: the change in your attitude to it. I totally concur with your assessment, I guess because it jells so well with my own situation. I’m at the point where I write because I like writing, without any illusions as to its future.

    1. Thanks, Danielle. One thing that’s come out of the need to re-evaluate is that the evergreen question of whether you write for yourself or for an audience is extremely simplistic. It’s one of those phony “either/or” choices that we’re supposed to make.

  3. You have my sympathies. At 60 and dealing with cancer and cancer drug side effects I’ve found I’ve had to reinvent how and what I write, now in shorter bursts and even lighter topics. A bit of flash fiction can go a long way towards a little satisfaction, I’ve found. To be content with smaller efforts. To feel that every bit of writing I do is more than I thought I could do on any given day. I wish you better health and new adventures

    1. Maybe unfortunately, pigeonweather, I write long. That’s part of what’s had me discouraged lately, knowing that I have novels that may never be finished. Right now, even more thanusual, looking ahead to the work involved in completing a novel, it seems to overwhelming to deal with. But I’m determined to get past that. Good for you, finding what keeps you going. I have to wonder if the maturity that can give older writers work more depth also includes the struggle to overcome whatever illnesses — mental or physical — that come faster and harder as we age. But that’s just as true even for younger writers sometimes.

  4. It’s all their fault – the doctors and the researchers – for calling it ‘heart failure.’ Why they have to go for the biggest, fattest, most awful stereotype when they decide what to call these things is beyond me. I still haven’t gotten over ‘elderly primagravida’ as an insult, just because I was 36 when the first one popped along. Elderly, my foot. Elderlies don’t HAVE children. That’s the main point of BEING elderly – you can forget all that stuff.

    Your heart needs a little help, and these same doctors and researchers are being slow, clumsy, and stupid about getting it to you. And not concerned about YOU and the horrible effect their casually-prescribed drugs can have on you as a person (most important – zombies are not persons) and as a writer.

    Words hurt, and some words paralyze, and it’s the fault of the words, not the situation.

    I don’t know exactly what your heart is doing, or, believe me, I’d be in there with alternate wordings that didn’t treat you as a cypher. I’ve recategorized myself of ‘in need of some roto-rooting,’ which I got.

    I hope you can find better words. These aren’t helping. Use better words. Bash THEM over the head with how THEIR words cause YOU undue additional stress, and stress is bad for people and for hearts, and they should cut it out. Words can be unnecessarily scary. Shame on them for using scary words.

    Struggle is good and necessary and builds empathy – but too much of it brings you to a halt for a while. Pick at the ones you can get some traction on, ignore some of the others, and rename anything that annoys you. (Including the doctors.)

    1. Alicia, I hope you’re not as angry as you sound, because it’s a bad use of your energy. But I do agree with you totally. If I paid close attention to the medical conditions that are on my clinical summary, I’d be constantly afraid that I might not even make it to the next day. And the next. I’ve chosen not to be hemmed in by language — or by the “one size fits all” way of dealing with medications. And hey! I’ve written almost 250 words in the revision of Gift of the Ancien today. I’m killing a lot of my darlings, but the novel will be better for it.

  5. I am pleased, nay, delighted, to hear you’ve poked first the blogging and then the fiction. Whichever project gives you joy, and you want to see it next to your bed, where you can reach for it, and take it down to read, and find it just what you wanted – that’s the one that deserves your time and your energy. I hope you have several in the ‘joy’ category.

    I’m frustrated, more than angry, when study after study shows kind behavior, patient-centered, non-judgmental, and stress-free is best for healing – and they don’t even give it lip service!

    Sorry – didn’t mean to use up YOUR spoons by complaining.

    1. I don’t consider that complaining. I was more concerned about the expenditure of your energy. I would apply “joy” to any of my writing, but there’s great pleasure in seeing it, even if it’s a very small part, beginning to take on some of the ideal shape that’s in my mind’s eye. What’s frustrating about novels, I’ve come to realize is that as much satisfaction as there is in working on one, I’m also itching to get to the next one. No wonder so many people prefer to write short stories. I would like to be able to write much faster than I normally do, but have to settle, mostly, right now, for being slower.

  6. That’s where we may be different: I can focus only on the trilogy in hand – it is actually possible I may never write anything else. But I HAVE to finish this one, and the sooner, the better. Except it has to be RIGHT.

    All I did, writing-wise, yesterday, was to straighten out a timeline for a scene. And I considered it well spent time. I think the previous day all I accomplished was figuring out that the timeline had a problem! It was very satisfying to lock this one down – I’ve been waiting to write the final version for almost 20 years. Obsessed, that’s me. Now, I didn’t know exactly how I would write it, or what anyone would say, or any of those necessary bits, but I knew what had to happen, and a bit of how.

    I hate writing short stories – unless the perfect idea for one comes whole, as in a dream. They take too long. SO much has to be left out. Of my short stories, anyway. If I’m going to construct a whole universe, might as well write a big fat novel in it.

    Every writer is a world.

    1. For me, the problem with short stories is that they’re a small corner of a universe, too small to be satisfying. We can never explore, or create, an entire universe, of course, but short stories are like the view through a keyhole. They have to leave out too much.

      1. They’re fine for illuminating a universe which already has novels in it, and I think I prefer them to backstory within the novel (unless handled quickly and briefly). I hate info dumps.

        I hate stories with two timelines, one in the present and one in the past. Wally Lamb pulled that – and just as I was getting comfortable with the first set of characters, he dumped a whole different set on me – and I closed the book and swore never to read him again.

        The only book I’ve seen it done well on was Holes, and even there: I really don’t care about the past! Not in a story world, not brought in to completely stop forward progres on the story I’m reading. I’m tsure the writer has good intentions of some kind, but I don’t have to read.

        (Feeling crotchety)

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