Writing Becomes Difficult

Tangled tree limbs in the National Tropical Botanical Garden, Poipu, Kauai

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.

The stress of dealing with my daughters’ acute mental illness exhausted my emotional energy and seemed to damage my imagination. Eventually, this led to crippling writer’s block. We see it coming on in the following two excerpts, starting on pages 226 and 240. They describe my attempts to write The Walls Have Eyes, which was a sequel to The Sky Inside.

That afternoon, I drove Elena to the high school so she could attend senior-class orientation. I was supposed to be working on a sequel to the book about Martin and his computerized dog, but for weeks, I’d done no writing because of all the hospital time. Now I was playing soccer mom.

Poor Martin! I thought while I sat in the car, and in my mind, I could see him standing there, waiting for me to join him on an adventure. His scowl was a good match for Elena’s hostile expression. Thirteen-year-old boys don’t like to wait.

I’m coming, Martin! I promised in a rush of guilt. Next week, I promise!

As the months rolled by, our days fell into a very unhealthy pattern. Dead tired, Elena dragged herself out of bed and outlined a day with far too many commitments. If I tried to persuade her to slow down or skip something, she chewed me out. For everyone else, she had a smile or a laugh—even for her father. Only to me did she show her constant exhaustion, misery, and bitterness.

I am the stepping-stone she pushes off to keep from getting stuck in the mud, I thought. Her anger toward me keeps her going.

But it brought me almost to a standstill.

Martin’s new story wasn’t going well. I didn’t know why. I was fond of him and his bright, affectionate dog, and I liked the colorful, dangerous world he lived in. But I couldn’t keep up with Martin on his adventures anymore. He would take off to go do something, and I would be left behind, asking myself, Why did he do that? Where did he go? Do I even know Martin anymore?

But this story was already sold. We already had the money in savings. I couldn’t back out on it now.

Guilt and worry started to needle me. I began to set word counts. Never before had I needed to force myself to write. But the next day, when I read what I had written, half of it would turn out to be garbage. I could tell that I’d written it only to fill up the word count.

So I began to set a timer: twenty minutes to start with. Any more than that, and I couldn’t stay focused.

Maybe it’s Alzheimer’s, I thought. Maybe it’s incipient dementia. Martin’s world is hazy now, and I can’t figure out what he’s doing. I can barely even spell anymore!

As the weeks passed, I developed elaborate writing rituals. First, I had to brew the perfect cup of tea. Then, I had to check my email. Then, I had to check three news sites, always in the same order. Then, I had to set my timer. Then, I had to play a game of FreeCell. (And the longer I took on my FreeCell game, the less time I would have to write.)

Finished with my game, I would check the tea temperature. Was it too cold? I would get up and warm it in the microwave. Then I would have to check my email again. Then the news sites, one—two—three.

Sometimes, this ritual ate up the whole twenty minutes.

Even when I did manage to get some pages done, it didn’t seem to matter. “Do you want to read what I wrote today?” I asked at dinner. But, as it turned out, nobody did.

“You know I don’t have time,” Elena said. “I have an essay plus thirty study questions to get through by Friday, and I promised Jason I’d help him with his college application.”

“Sure,” Joe said absently. “Why don’t you email it to me? I’ll read it at lunch.”

But I didn’t want Joe to read it at lunch. I wanted him to read it here, right in front of me, the way he used to do, while I peeked over his shoulder and read it along with him.

I didn’t want to send my story off in an email. I wanted to share it.

“Never mind,” I said. “It doesn’t matter.”

But it did matter. It mattered a great deal. The next time I sat down and opened my laptop, poor Martin wouldn’t get anything done. Why go on a journey, he would tell me, if nobody cares what I do?

They’ll kill you if they catch you, I would remind him.

I’m dead anyway. Who cares?

At which point, I would notice that my tea had gotten cold. I would get up and reheat it. And then I would check my email. And the news sites.

And repeat.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of tangled tree limbs in the National Tropical Botanical Garden, Poipu, Kauai, copyright 2016 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, Creativity, Hope and Other Luxuries, Story creation, Writer's block, Writing craft, Writing distractions. Bookmark the permalink.

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