I’ve come across two opposed quotes which most clearly explain the dilemma I have faced since early November of this year:
“Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.”
― Gustave Flaubert
“A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.”
[Letter to Max Brod, July 5, 1922]
― Franz Kafka
I have not written a single word of fiction since November 12, 2013, or nearly seven weeks. This is among the longest continuous hiatuses I have taken from writing fiction in the past twenty years. The other two hiatuses of note were in 1997, when I broke my leg and my marriage in quick succession and wrote nothing but a pair of brief poems and one short story over an eight month period; the other was in 2005, following Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of much of New Orleans and the upending of my life, during which I was able to write only nonfiction for about five months.
I agree completely with the Flaubert quote. I need an ordered life, a schedule, most especially, to permit me to write. I need a modicum of serenity in order to enter the minds of the characters I have set into motion and to hear their thoughts and statements. I need to be rested and reasonably at ease.
I have been none of these things during the past seven weeks. On Sunday, November 10, I called a dear friend of mine who had suffered a stroke and who needed friendly listeners to allow him to practice his slowly returning power of speech. I was awe-struck by his courage and optimism, especially given that he is a man who has always made his living through words, and a large percentage of his words were now stubbornly out of reach. I told him that, should I ever suffer a similar fate, I would pray to see it through with even a portion of the courage he was displaying.
The very next day, I suffered the first full-scale panic attack I had ever experienced. Within days, I was suffering symptoms comparable to those of a mild stroke. At times, I sensed a “lead mucous” gathering at the top of my head and draining into my neck, shoulders, and back, reducing me to a somnolent zombie. Other times, I experienced muscle stiffening in my neck, shoulders, back, and arms so painful that it reduced me to partial paralysis and made it impossible for me to walk any faster than a slow shuffle. At times, I found myself unable to speak in any sentences containing pronouns or articles, like the character Rorschach in the graphic novel Watchmen. The terror, disorientation, and pain I suffered was akin to a car wreck continuously experienced over a period of several weeks, rather than thirty seconds.
The primary cause of my panic attacks was directly experiencing one of my son Levi’s most violent anxiety fits for over an hour, soon after learning that he had been subjected at his public elementary school to, at best, inappropriate restraint, and at worst, emotional abuse and the potential for physical abuse through negligence. A secondary cause was the emotional stress of an extended estrangement from my mother and stepfather and the strain of keeping the full truth of this estrangement from my children, out of fear of damaging any future relationship they might enjoy with their grandparents. Yet I had also been making my personal stress and anxiety levels worse by pushing myself beyond my physical limits to squeeze as much writing and editing time into each work day. I was seeking to ameliorate what I perceived as a failure in my chosen second career of traditionally publishing commercial fiction by going the route of self-publishing, with the editorial and formatting assistance of my wife, Dara. Together, we founded MonstraCity Press, and I set a very ambitious publishing schedule for our first year, to incorporate both some of the eight unpublished novels I have sitting on my computer’s hard drive and newly written novels. I was aiming at a first year’s output of four or five books, both in ebook format and in trade paperback. My extended writing and work schedule involved me getting out of bed at 5 AM and often not getting home until 8 PM.
All this stress resulted in my worst mental and physical setback since I broke my ankle and suffered a broken marriage in 1997. The only writing I’ve been able to accomplish since early December has been maintaining this blog, which has become a journal of my recovery and a highly valued lifeline and source of healing. But until now, fiction — the act of entering and inhabiting another person’s head for extended periods of time — has been beyond me.
Yet I have sensed myself getting stronger each day. An analogy for my overall recovery has been my increasing ability to drive my car. As of two weeks ago, my friends and relatives were driving me everywhere I needed to go. However, driving with my mother-in-law was such a nerve-wracking experience that I ended up hurrying my return to the wheel. At first, I found it impossible to split my attention between the road and any conversation in the car. I directed my kids to never ask me any questions while the car was in motion. The only music I could stand listening to was Lou Donaldson. Lately, however, I have regained the vital ability to split my attention between the road and conversations in the car. I’ve also been willing to listen to music which does more than simply sedate me; I’ve been listening to the Talking Heads and David Bowie and Bruce Springstein’s The Rising, music I listen to when I want to make myself feel things. Until very, very recently, my mind and nervous system have been enmeshed in a storm of uncontrollable emotions, and I would do anything to avoid additional emotional stimulations of any kind. If I’m now listening to The Rising again, it means I am beginning to thaw from my paralysis.
I need to reflect on the second quote above, Kafka’s quote: “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” I also agree 100% with this sentiment. For over twenty years, daily or near-daily sessions of fiction writing have been a vital part of my mental health regimen. For the past seven weeks, the blogging has taken up some of this role. But blogging or non-fiction cannot take the place of creating a world and the voices which inhabit that unique world. So I plan to return to writing fiction the day I return to my day job, Thursday, January 2, 2014.
It is instructive for me to reflect upon my experiences following my last two fiction-writing hiatuses. In 1997, various chance meetings and associations resulted in my coming up with the idea for Fat White Vampire Blues, my breakup recovery novel. Although the book had little to do with a divorce, it centered on a protagonist who had fallen into an extremely comfortable and comforting rut, and who’d then had that rut plowed under, in the process being forced to become a very different sort of man/vampire. It was a very emotional work, and possibly for this reason, it has been my most commercially successful work to date, by far.
Following the Katrina disaster, all I wanted to write about was the impact of the storm on New Orleans and upon my friends and family. I began a non-fiction book, The Janus-Faced City. I also began writing, in parallel, a fantasy novel about the storm and its supernatural accelerants — The Bad Luck Spirits’ Social Aid and Pleasure Club. All the right emotions were there for both projects: I was filled with a passion to write and to explain. But the subject matter proved too vast for me to handle at that point in my writing career. I simply found myself with too much material for any single book. I exacerbated my difficulties by insisting that my Miasma Club, the confederation of bad luck spirits responsible for the storm’s onslaught, be made up of thirteen ethnically distinct trickster or bad luck entities. This required me to come up with back stories and side plots for thirteen supernatural characters, in addition to a large mortal cast, and the original manuscript ballooned in size to over 225,000 words, too long to be commercially published (or so I was told back in 2006). I had to endure the writer’s agony of five complete rewrites to slim the book down to a manageable 130,000 words.
Today, I have seven and a half additional novels strung from my writer’s belt, and I feel much more confident in my ability to plan out a manageable plot of reasonable length. I feel I have much better control of the material I am currently working on. Just as in 2005, I find myself suffused with new and powerful emotions and desires to work on new projects, both fiction and non-fiction. In fact, the non-fiction book I have in mind, to be called The Super-Mensch Syndrome, has its roots in the longest segment I wrote for my never published book of essays The Janus-Faced City, a long section on my leadership of the New Year Coalition, the New Orleans-based educational and public safety campaign against holiday gunfire.
I have no wish to become one of Kafka’s non-writing writer-monsters. January 2 can hardly come quickly enough. But I know I will need to recognize my emotional and physical limitations and pace myself much more reasonably than I’d been doing during the half a year leading up to my breakdown. As much as I may want to be one, I am not a Super-Mensch. The books I have in mind will not fade from my brain, and with time and patience, and the modern miracles of self-publishing technology, all of them will eventually see print and find an audience. I just need to focus on time and patience.