Pulled in Too Many Directions

Duck family near Arnhem, The Netherlands

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt, from page 304, follows closely on the last one. I was struggling to complete any writing at all while I watched my daughter becoming dangerously ill. But my publishing house and I were trying to complete work on The Walls Have Eyes. I had deadlines. The work had to get done. To this day, I can’t reread The Walls Have Eyes without feeling nightmarish amounts of anxiety and guilt.

Elena and I sat and chatted and swapped favorite songs and YouTube videos for half a happy hour or so. Then she gave a yawn. “I’m going to go lie down,” she said. “I’ve been up since four, studying.”

“How about letting me fix you a little lunch,” I offered. But I already knew what the answer would be.

“Nah, not right now. Later.”

Later . . .

That meant never.

“I could do with a break,” I said, following her across the living room. “How about a Sherlock Holmes?”

Elena and I both adored Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. As far as we were concerned, he had been genetically engineered to play that role.

“Okay,” she said. “But I get to pick which one.”

“Caramel corn?” I offered, turning back to the kitchen.

“Yeah!” she answered.

Yes! I thought. A win! And I sprinkled the caramel corn into two bowls with a generous hand—even though I knew I would be the only one to finish mine.

Sometime later, my daughter finally headed off to bed, and I returned with the stacked bowls to the kitchen. I snacked on the rest of her caramel corn while I opened up my laptop again. Martin’s story was going through final edits, under deadline. I had to do my writing!

I opened up the file again, stared at the black letters against white, and waited for my imagination to bring me the right film. I waited while it flitted through scenes of YouTube kittens and the Sherlock Holmes episode. He was brilliant! That nervous twitch, the sudden turn of the head away from the villain . . .

Now I was seeing the interior of the pantry. Was there anything in there that maybe Elena would eat later tonight?

I closed my eyes and took a long, calming breath.

Finally, the turbulent rush of images stilled, and I could focus on the text again. I was in a dusty room. Martin had a lump in his throat. He was hugging his dog . . .

“Mom!” Elena yelled from her bedroom. “The cat peed in here again, all over my pillows!”

And poof! Martin was gone.

“You’ve got to keep your door shut!” I called back.

“I do keep my door shut! They sneak in!” Which was certainly true. And they were my cats, after all.

I set aside my laptop to go retrieve the pillows and wash them. That’s a good use of time, too, I thought, perking up. I’ll separate the laundry. It’s starting to pile up. I’ll wait to work on this file until the house quiets down tonight.

Anything to put it off. Anything to keep from living through Martin’s sadness as well as my own.

“Close the door,” Elena murmured as I carried the offending pillows out of her room.

Lately, Joe and I had been discussing a plan with our Georgia kids. Clint was scheduled to go into Air Force basic training in the spring. Valerie’s lease would be up in March. We’d offered to bring Valerie out here to live with us while Clint was going through his training. But this thought awakened a new swarm of worries in my mind. So much needed to get done—

Specifically, Martin’s book needed to get done.

Joe knew this, too. At dinner, he asked, “So, how much writing did you get done?”

“Not too much,” I said, thinking with guilty misery about the neglected file. “I don’t know where the time went.”

Where had my time gone today? What had I accomplished? A few pages of edits, a bowl and a half of caramel corn, and three loads of laundry.

Joe didn’t comment, but I could see the disappointment on his face, and that disappointment hurt. I just wasn’t very good at balancing my priorities, I thought. I didn’t have the knack of pleasing everybody at once.

Joe and I washed the dinner dishes. Okay, no more commitments now. I would get to that file—very soon. But first, I would practice piano, just for a few minutes, just to clear my head. That would take my mind off my worries.

Or would it?

Lately, even the piano made me feel guilty and unhappy. Week after week now, I didn’t seem to get any practicing done. Each time I saw the piano teacher, my old friend, I felt her patience with my lack of progress. But it hurt. I was failing even at my hobby.

Now, I ran through last week’s song over and over. My hands were so clumsy! They never seemed to be where my brain told them to be. But slowly, the plaintive melody formed under my fingers. It was a little piece in D minor. It sounded like a Russian folk tune.

As I played, my mind filled with scenes of snow. Then a city floated up among the snow drifts, all gray columns and gray stone, with a white, frozen river threading through it.


There was a broad window with light shining out, golden light that sparkled like champagne. Tall men in black evening dress floated past the golden window, clasping pale women in flowing ball gowns.


A peasant clumped by beneath the window, out on the icy street. His long brown beard was snowy, and his feet were wrapped in rags.


Elena was at my elbow.

“Can’t you do that later?” she begged. “I was up all night studying for my exam.”

In my mind, I reached for the snow-filled city again. “But I can’t keep putting it off,” I said. “I never practice anymore!”

“You can practice while I’m at school.”

“But I don’t. That’s when I write.” Try to write, I corrected myself.

“You can write while I’m asleep.”

“But I don’t! It’s too late in the day by then!”

“Mom, please.”

The city was gone. Elena’s face was all I could see now. It was exhausted. No, not just exhausted—drawn and pale.

Remorse and worry shot through me. She’s sick again, I thought. She just got over being sick, and now she’s sick again!

“Please?” Elena said again.

So I stopped.

I need to drop these piano lessons anyway, I thought. We’ll have a baby in the house soon. And I’ve got deadlines. I need to save up my time for writing. And speaking of writing, I need to get back to Martin.

The edits wouldn’t go well, I realized with gloomy certainty. They were going to be . . .


But they had to get done. They had to get done!

Anyway, it was good that Martin was facing these kinds of scenes. He needed to learn that life wasn’t going to be all that I had hoped for him. I had wanted him to have reader friends, but that wasn’t going to happen now. He would have to get used to loneliness and neglect.

Even my characters wanted things I couldn’t give them.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of a duck family near Arnhem, The Netherlands, copyright 2015 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

This entry was posted in Anorexia nervosa, Characters, Daily life, Hope and Other Luxuries, Writing craft, Writing distractions. Bookmark the permalink.

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