Writing Against Adversity


I’ve been in absentia again with this blog. Part of the problem was the mania attached to the presidential election. I allowed my mind to be sucked into the black hole of endless headlines, op-ed pieces, Facebook posts, and news feeds. Post election, I went into mourning, battling my anxiety and dread with hefty doses of more bad media. When I did blog in October, the post was a political one, not what I want to use this space for.

Then there was the personal front. Since May, I have been rooting my son on as he struggles with his recovery from a heroin addiction. I could write a book on all the mistakes I’ve made: my failure much of the time to “detach” and live my own life; the unrelenting worry and pressing thoughts of how I might guide his decisions. And that is just one of my distractions. There are other adult children to worry about. There is my relationship with my husband, which has suffered from our sometimes polarized views on how to deal with the tensions. There are health and money issues. And there are our own goals for the good work we want to do together.

All this has provided myriad excuses to not write. I’m fatigued; I’m stressed; my mind is fragmented and I can’t concentrate. The “shoulds” push in: I should be helping my son find resources; I should be focusing on the positives with my husband, and on our shared endeavors; I should be bringing in more money—maybe I should take a teaching job to tide myself over.

Meanwhile, my own future as a writer languishes. And like many of those who dare to wreak out a living by writing, I can’t afford to let that future unfold without some critical planning. After a dream ghostwriting gig that has lasted four years (and resulted in two books), it’s time to capitalize on what I have learned and bring my writing life to the next level. I want to move beyond the editing jobs I’ve managed to develop. I want to get back to my own creative pursuits.

Quieting the Mind

So, what is the  answer when you cede internal control of your life to external forces? One solution is to permit yourself some personal care-taking. In her column, “How to Write When Life Sucks” on Writer UnBoxed, contributing writer Cathy Yardley recommends, first, some TLC: taking the time off to re-ground; relaxing in a favorite way; turning to the “trinity of self-care—water, light exercise, and sleep”; and taking advantage of your support group.

I would add to that list engaging in an activity that feeds your sense of control over your life. Aside from walking my seven rounds in a neighborhood park, I turn to housework; I tend to my plants. Cleaning and gardening are areas where I can impose order on chaos, where the care I bestow pays back with immediate benefits. And the physicality of those tasks relieves the tension in my body without making me worry more about being completely unproductive. Then what?

Ease Back into Writing

Once you’ve stopped the spin, you can ease yourself back into writing. As Yardley suggests:

The best way to do this:  set a small goal to start.  Ridiculously small.  For some, this may be as small as one paragraph.  “How am I going to get a book written if I’m just writing a paragraph?” some of you may ask.  The thing is, you’re not trying to boost your productivity. You’re trying to train your brain. You’re reminding yourself that yes, you set goals and achieve them.  That you can do this.  Once you start getting victories under your belt, you can start to increase your goals, but always within reason.  Slow and low.

That is where I am at now. This post is my “slow and low.” But while Yardley’s advice resonates, the inescapable truth of what it is to really write stares me in the face.

No Excuses for Not Writing

I live with a scholar/author whose unassailable focus sometimes maddens me. Every morning at 7:00, without fail,  after fortifying himself with a first cup of coffee and a cigarette, Tom plants himself at his desk and writes until lunchtime. His prescription for productivity is one I have read elsewhere, but I have seen few individuals who can stick to it. This despite the brilliant simplicity of his strategy, which he attributes to the years he spent weightlifting.

  • Identify the time of day you are going to work.
  • Do not allow any excuses to disrupt that schedule.

Where I give in to the knee-jerk urge to answer my phone when it rings, Tom ignores the jangle. Where I see a “few” chores that it will take me ” just a few minutes” to attend to, he is blind to them. Where I fool myself into thinking I can just scan my news feed quickly to get my brain “warmed up,” or navigate the sucking vortex of social media before starting on a piece, Tom dives right back into his current manuscript, open on his desktop.

The key is brutally simple. THERE ARE NO LEGITIMATE EXCUSES.

But, some will say, what if the house catches on fire? What if a meteor crashes onto your little corner of real estate? What if, what if, what if. Such a response is a shaky step on the slippery slope, one that just opens the door to more excuses. You must nip all such thoughts in the bud.

Modeling Your Writing Practice

So, I have this great model breathing in the next room. When I am not letting small marital arguments dilute the example my husband sets, seeing how he does it inspires me. As do the examples of other writers I’ve seen who have overcome the most disruptive of hardships. I frequently mention blogger and novelist Charli Mills here. In the last year, Charli has experienced eviction, homelessness, and dislocation. She has had to battle the soul-destroying bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration in advocating for her husband, a vet with PTSD. She currently writes from her new office in an old RV perched on the edge of Zion National Park. But write she does. Not only has she punched out one eloquent column after another on schedule during the ordeals of the last year, and made headway with her two WIPs, she has continued to inspire dozens of writers with her regular flash fiction challenges at Carrot Ranch.

So, heading into the last month of an “uncommonly shitty year” that Jon Oliver has encouraged his followers to dispatch with a resounding “Fuck You,” I resolve to carry on. And though presently my plants scream for a drink, and there’s a bundle of laundry languishing on the floor of my closet, I’m planted here at my computer, relishing the writing that is never far from my mind.

And you? What is your strategy for your writing goals as we close the coffin lid on 2016?



13 thoughts on “Writing Against Adversity

  1. I thought your previous column was the best response I have read concerning the role and mentality of Trump’s female supporters, but I believe this, your latest column to be even better. It is the best written summation of someone’s “shitty year” that I have ever read. I believe this not only because of the good writing, but because of the pragmatic way you approach the necessity of having a routine, while at the same time allowing us such a peek at the your personal inner turmoil. The words convey a vivid image of emotion (sounds like an oxymoron to me, but your column proves it’s not) that tugs at my heart-strings. Jeanne, at about 96 pounds – soaking wet, you are the strongest woman I know – while simultaneously being the kindest and most thoughtful about things that relate to other people. Thank you.

    1. Kathy, thanks so much for your gracious comments here. I fear I get too personal sometimes on these posts, but I guess I don’t know how to write anything at all if I don’t contextualize it…don’t relate it to my life. As for the summation of a shitty year, I did try to restrain myself a bit in describing the challenges of 2016; after all, the meat of the post was how to transcend external events, not to catalogue them 🙂 I could and will write more on that last point about routine–I prefer the word rhythm–something I have talked about with Tom many times. I feel I catch it for stretches but struggle with maintaining it. And there are other elements to a writer’s procrastination that I didn’t touch on, such as fear of not being really being worthy. Even in that case, though, regular practice goes a long way to ameliorating negative and counter-productive behavior. Certainly you are perceptive about my tendency toward emotion. Anything worth writing about, for me, has some emotion connected to it, unless perhaps the topic is pure mechanics. We could perhaps even argue about that! By the way, you slimmed me down about 30 pounds! In weight as well as your general perception of me, I feel you are inclined to be overly generous. You are a dear.

  2. Wonderful post, Jeanne! I’m a wandering writer like you, but once I get over the chore hurdles and social media rules (self-imposed, and frequently disregarded) it’s hard to break focus until the writing goal is met. I have felt so dismayed by underachieving this year, yet it’s taken your reflection to see that even smaller goals can persevere the bigger projects. Thank you for that gift!

    As for parenting grown children, I struggle daily with wanting to hold on and be a “part” of their lives. It’s hard to be the parent sent to live in the shadows, but that’s exactly where we need to rebuild and recenter our lives, isn’t it? My heart goes out to you and your family. Your struggles are immense, but who knows what good will come of it. I still believe in goodness, and search it out in rocks and words and even fragile people.

    Middle finger promptly given to 2016!

    1. Well you have been literally a “wandering writer” this year, Charli. And you have hit the nail on the head as far as strategy. You stay focused on your work until your goal has been met. I’ve turned to that method as well, committing to 1000 words a day. Some writers do it by time, staying planted until their hours are met. Wonder how you set your particular goals. Whichever tack you take, you seem far from underachieving. But then I know you have your WIPs, your Carrot Ranch work, and knowing you, I’ll bet you are looking at ways to support other writers in your new area. I’ll have to go back and read one of your recent emails again–probably scanned too quickly–and catch up better. I know I am excited about the anthology, just to name yet another project.
      As for struggles, I am sure mine pale in comparison to many others. I am thankful I have a family to worry about and to challenge me to become better, both at navigating the rapids of life in our society and in moderating my own response to stress.Like you, I still believe in goodness…and joy. Today a small bird came right up to the window separating me from the patio as I had lunch with a dear work friend from the college. It perched there a full minute looking at us. What beauty and joy in that small event.
      Thanks for your comment. You are part of the goodness in my world.

  3. Jeanne, if this post is your low and slow you’re well into challenging adversity through your writing. It’s a very articulate and well composed post. I’m sorry you’ve had a difficult year – the political knocks we’ve all felt are even harder to take when you’ve so much anxiety in your personal life. It’s very stressful to stand back enough to let those you love make their home states, while still offering support. So I salute both you and Charli for your continuing dedication to your craft. Do continue to take care of yourself.

    1. Thanks for the comments Anne. Seems it’s true that “the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step.” I feel fired up again by the blogging and some other last tasks I have checked off the list this week (for the forthcoming book). By the way, you are another of my models. Your industry inspires me. You just keep writing one great review after another. More than that, like Charli, you have a steadiness of theme and purpose in your posts. Your readers know what they are getting when they visit your site. That is a topic I want to address soon in my blog. I am still experimenting here, mixing writing tips with my own creative endeavors on topics that are important to me. Not sure that works, but at least I am writing. And while 2016 may have presented some challenges on the personal and political fronts (the personal is the political), the closer connection and growth it has brought should not be overlooked. Thinking of you and Charli here, among others. I am touched by your kindness.

      1. Thank you, Jeanne, I do appreciate that generous endorsement of my writing/blogging. I recognise how lucky I am to have a relatively hassle-free life at present – it seems the biggest thing I have to worry about is my voice-activated software embarrassing me – to be able to devote time and energy to my writing.
        Wishing you a much better 2017.

        1. Ahh voice activated software. Am just experimenting with that. I have a client who sends me audio recordings of his podcasts which I transcribe and write so he can post accompanying text. Not tenable doing the transcribing the old way. Took me about 3 hours for 15 minutes of speech! Not cost effective to say the least. I will watch out for bugs!

  4. Hi Jeanne. I’m sorry to hear about your unpleasant situations and writing woes. It seems many of us have been up against adversity this past year, I’m no exception. I too have been struggling to get back to book writing these past 2 months after publishing my latest book which sucked whatever life out of me I had left. Only a writer knows another writer’s writing struggles. And I too was consumed with the election and quite concerned about the future of things to come. Let us hope for peace and start with a fresh slate of optimism in the new year. 🙂

    1. I think we’ll have a struggle ahead of us on the political and social fronts, Debby, but I remain optimistic about humanity in general. And I know that writing saves me once I am able to move beyond what is happening externally. I find your example of multiple books inspiring!

  5. Some years are much better than others. I’ve had a few I’m not so proud of…
    But the focus needs to refocus on positive things. And to live with that which we cannot change the best we can.

    Hoping the New Year brings more joy. Keep writing. And thanks for reading (over at the Carrot Ranch).

    1. Thanks for stopping by Jules! Of course I recognize your name from Carrot Ranch. Have enjoyed your flash fiction over there. You are right about keeping the focus on writing. Once I get rolling again, the clouds lift. Purpose! It’s so important. And I agree we need to adopt a philosophical approach to life, such as you suggest. Living with that which we cannot change is, after all, the path to growth and even wisdom.

      Wishing you all the best for a joyful New Year and a productive one. And I’ll see you at the ranch!

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