Mid-life Writing Crisis

I guess I hope I’m in mid-life; I’d rather be there than in three-quarter life. Wherever I am,  I am in a crisis. I used to be happiest when I was writing. I rarely experienced writer’s block. I saw stories everywhere and was never at a loss for something to write. Most often, I’d have two stories going at the same time–one in revision, one in its earliest draft. Right now, I do have two stories going and I’m excited about both, to a degree. But so much of the joy has gone out of the physical act of writing. I am tense while I’m writing; I question the point of it. I’ve become so tied up in whether a story will be published, whether I’ll be “successful” and whether my “writing career” will finally take off that it’s difficult to lose myself in the story. I’ve had many stories  published, so I don’t even know how I define success or career; I just know that I don’t feel I have either, and I don’t know what to do about this. I know that I can’t stop writing because if I could, I would have already. I’ve let other activities that once defined me drift out of my life. But writing never drifts. So, if I know nothing else; I know I’m a writer. As I work through this, I remind myself that writers often suffer. Who am I to think that it should be easy? Maybe this is my form of writer’s block and I have to do what everyone else with writer’s block has to do–just keep getting into the chair and picking up the pen or turning on the computer.  Or maybe I have to do what people in mid-life crises do–buy a sports car. But I can’t afford the sports car and I don’t think it would solve anything. Maybe I’ll buy a new pen. (More to come as I work through this.)

 

Writing Fitness

I am a writer and a fitness fanatic. I’m also a writing coach and a certified personal trainer. So, I often think of the many ways in which these two worlds intersect. Recently, I’ve been thinking about one of the latest fitness gadgets—the fitbit—and how it can be adapted to writing. You put your fitbit on as you would a watch and then you go about your day. Your fitbit counts all the steps you take, measures the distance you walk, calculates the number of calories you burn, etc.. It’s like having a personal coach following you around and encouraging you all day. And let’s say you set a goal of walking 5,000 steps one day. Maybe you find that you reached that goal without much effort or inconvenience. The next day, you set a goal of 7,000 steps.

So, here’s a simple suggestion for an extremely low-tech writer’s version. Let’s call it the Writer’s Band. Take a rubber band and put a number on it. How many words do you want to write today? 200? 500? 3,000? Write the number on your Writers’ Band and then put it on your wrist. There it is to remind and encourage you. All day. Don’t take it off until you’ve written those words. Once you’ve finished your writing, transfer the band to the other wrist—a reminder that you achieved your goal! You may find that 200 words weren’t nearly as painful as you thought they would be. So, the next day, you try for 250 words. Congratulations! You are on your way to writing fitness.

When I Was Boudicca chapters 1 & 2

WHEN I WAS BOUDICCA

by JOANN SMITH Copyright © 2004 Joann Smith. All rights reserved. ISBN: 1499529783 ISBN 13: XXXXX Library of Congress Control Number: XXXXX (If applicable) LCCN Imprint

WHEN I WAS BOUDICCA

by

JOANN SMITH

 

 

Copyright © 2004 Joann Smith.

All rights reserved.

 

ISBN: 1499529783

ISBN 13: XXXXX

Library of Congress Control Number: XXXXX (If applicable)

LCCN Imprint Name: City and State (If applicable)

 

 

 

Part One

Chapter One

48 A.D.

Iceni Territory – Southeast Britain

 

“Tallas.” Be alive, Tallas. Please be alive.

His cheek against the ground.

No, I mustn’t think that.

A short sword through his chest. His hands pressing the wound. And blood.

No. Why does my mind taunt me with such images?

His face in a grimace, streaked with dirt, and . . .

Are you crying, Tallas? Wait. I will be there. I will be there. Can you hear me coming? Can you feel me coming? Feel me.

“Tallas.” Hear me. “Tallas.”

I’m coming. Apollo-Belinus, please let him be alive. Keep him alive. Icena, protect him. Esus. Please. I will make offerings. I have not worshipped you well lately, I know; I have not offered enough. But I will. I will give you everything. Please. Please, protect him. Let him be alive.

I will marry you, Tallas. If you are alive, we will not wait any longer. We will not wait for Beltane, and if a winter marriage is to be a barren one as I have been taught, then let it be. What could childbirth bring anyway–my death, as it brought my mother’s, and a child whom I would never see, just as my mother never saw me? No, we will not wait for spring. On the next full moon, we will marry.

“Tallas.” Where are you? Why didn’t you tell me of your plan? Your foolish plan. Because I would have stopped you? Yes, I would have. And you might have hated me for it. But you would certainly be alive. Please be alive.

There is that flash of blue again. What is it? No, not a bird. I see now, not a bird. A man. I see him clearly. Running. Escaping? One of your men, Tallas, woaded in blue? Running. Then is it over?

Fool. You are a reckless fool. To challenge Rome? To battle Rome? Did you think you could battle Rome? They will crush you, Tallas. Ask for mercy. They can be merciful. Beg for mercy. Plead.

“Tallas.”

 

Chapter Two

“Captured.”

A good word. Not “dead.” “Captured.” A better word than “dead.”

Now finally I will see him. Tallas. Though it has only been two days since I was last with him–and I wish we could go back to that day, the day before yesterday, a day before the rebellion, a day before his capture–it has been forever. Forever spent in waiting. Waiting while Rome took him to the fort. Waiting while my father raged over news of the revolt. “I am king,” he’d roared when he heard it was Tallas who had so secretly organized it. “And your dupe. Under my nose, your Tallas plans a rebellion and defies my sovereignty, all the while with my daughter at his side. What kind of a king is that? What kind of a daughter?”

I did not tell him that I did not know. I did not say, “Father, I did not know. Father, I did not betray you.” Instead, I was silent. I let him believe that Tallas trusted me enough to tell me. I couldn’t bear at that moment to confess to him the truth, that I was excluded from Tallas’s confidence, that he did not trust me. You did not trust me, Tallas. I let my father believe I knew. I let him believe you trusted me. But you didn’t trust me.

Now there is more waiting. Waiting in this crowd because Ostorius Scapula, Roman governor of Britain, has demanded that we be gathered, that all the Iceni of the village be gathered outside the Roman fort. That my father–Melcut, our king–and his daughter–me– attend. That we be given a place close to the platform that has been built for this occasion.

But I can wait no longer. It is as though my blood will burst my veins. I will run to the fort, push my way through and find him. But on one side of me, my father stands, erect and dignified, a proud king whose set face is meant to calm his people. But it does not calm me, and yet I must stand here, pretending dignity, pretending calm. The king’s daughter. And on the other side of me are Carduc and Katha who came to my father at my birth, my mother’s death, who have been parents to me, friends to my father. It is Katha’s eyes I seek, Katha’s eyes which worry as mine do.

Katha.

She offers a glance, reaches across Carduc to squeeze my hand.

Now, there is movement. More guards from the fort. Ostorius Scapula. His man, Lucius. Soldiers. And at last, Tallas.

“Tallas.” My first glimpse of him blurs with my tears. The guards yank at his neck chains as if he is a stubborn ox. But he is just a calf, so thin in his nakedness. But a proud calf. Yes, Tallas, I see you struggle to hold your head up. “Tallas.”

Captured. But alive. Alive.

Look to me. I am here. I am here. Do you see me? Tallas, I love you.

He is brought onto the platform, he and his brother, Magon, his father, Balin. All chained. All naked. A trumpet is blown, and we obey with silence.

Scapula ascends the platform. “These men,” he indicates Tallas, Magon, Balin, “the leaders of your failed rebellion, are responsible for the punishments that will follow– punishments that all of you will bear whether you participated in their rebellion or not.”

The word leaps through the crowd. “Punishments.” An unbroken murmur of “punishments.”

“Rome was brought here to protect you because you could not protect yourselves,” Scapula continues. “The cost of that punishment has just gone up. The tributes will be raised.”

Wails erupt in waves as the news is passed to those out of range of his voice. “How will we pay?” one asks another hopelessly. “How?”

“And your people will be disarmed.”

So, we are to be at their mercy. Be merciful.

Now he shouts over the gasps. “Over the next days, Roman troops will come to your homes, and you will present your weapons. Those Iceni still living in the hills will be moved to the village. All are to reside here now where you can be watched, and all will participate in the building of huts for the hill people.” He pauses, and in that moment, I hear the whispered lamentations, “No weapons,” and the anxious pleadings for a “merciful Rome.”

“These men,” again Scapula waves behind him, “have brought this hardship on you. These are the men who have burdened you with the anger and retribution of Rome.”

Now Scapula beckons, and Tallas, Magon and Balin are led forward.

A shriek goes up from somewhere in the crowd. A war cry? Yes. Will they attack Scapula, defend Tallas? Yes. My sword–my hand is at the hilt. I am ready. Tallas, I am ready. I will come for you.

A stone hurtles past. Aimed for Scapula, surely. Striking Tallas on the shoulder. A bad throw. But another stone, and Tallas is hit again. Now Magon and Balin. Scapula and his guards step aside. And then it is a storm of small rocks and angry shouts, and Tallas is pelted.

These are my people, his people, turning on him. “Stop it. Stop it.”

My father grasps at my arm. Pulls me back. Was I moving forward? And on the other side, Carduc holds me.

But I will go to Tallas. “Let me go.” But they hold tighter. “Tallas.”

A trumpet blares. Another.

“Tallas.”

The guards raise their shields and climb back onto the platform. The stoning ceases. Scapula returns, sneering.

“Do not fear,” he shouts. “Rome will finish your work.”

My stomach turns. The odors around me are suddenly sickening. My own people, unclean, heavy-breathed. I despise them all, despise the stench of them. “Father.” He won’t let go of my wrist. “Father.” I sink, my arms still held, and vomit.

“But they are not alone in their blame.” Scapula keeps talking. “Your king also bears blame.”

I rise. Will they stone us, too? “Father.” His hand releases my wrist and moves to the hilt of his sword.

“A new king will be named. But first we will teach the rebels what happens when they conspire against Rome.”

The guards take them from the platform, yanking on their neck chains, and lead them to the grove. Tallas is pushed against a tree.

“These barbarians…”

Barbarians? Tallas is no barbarian.

“…have raised their swords against Rome who came on the request of your king to serve as protector. The hand that raised a sword against us will not do so again.”

“Tallas.” My voice, stifled by my fear, is only a whisper. His wrists are unchained, his sword arm raised and pressed against the bark. What is that? “Father?” What objects are those that Lucius is holding? Tallas, I cannot see you, only Lucius’s back, Lucius’s wide back, then short, sharp motions with his hand.

Lucius steps aside.

“Tallas.” He is nailed down by the sword hand to the tree. Now his eyes seek me. “Here. Tallas, I am here.” Lucius again. His back blocking me. “Tallas. I am with you. Tallas.” What is that glint? Another spike for his other hand? Lucius grabs him by the hair. A swipe.

“Tallas.”

Now Lucius stands aside.

“Tallas.” His chin against his chest. Quick blood.

“Tallas.” His neck slit. Neck that I kissed. Neck where I sought his scent. “Tallas.”

I feel myself falling. There is shouting. I am falling. Tallas. Tallas. I am grabbed. Held.

“Stand,” my father commands. “If he is yours, stand for him.”

Tallas. He is mine. I watch his blood hug his body, watch his blood run into the earth. He is mine.

“Tallas.”

 

 

Walking as Writing

As I said in a previous post, I don’t write everyday. Unfortunately, I took that ‘schedule’ to an extreme recently. I was grading papers, editing manuscripts, etc.. I kept telling myself not to worry, that when some time cleared, I’d get back to my writing. But time wasn’t clearing and I was getting anxious; when I don’t write, I start to feel jittery, cranky, doomed. So, I put some of my work aside and sat down to write. You can guess what happened: nothing. I took out one story that needed revision, wrote a few flat sentences and realized I wasn’t interested enough in that story to put the work into it. I took out another story; that one was going nowhere, too. My body started reacting: cortisol squirted into my stomach; my heartbeat quickened. I could only take in wisps of air. Panic. The fight or flight response. I’m no hero. I wasn’t staying around for this fight. I put on my sneakers and walked quickly away, putting a safe distance between my so-called writing and me.

Walking has always been restorative for me, especially if I’m walking in an area where there are trees. After only a few blocks, I began to notice the softness of the evening–the light, the fragrance, the birdsongs–and soon, my breathing. When I walked past someone’s backyard and heard the children shouting and the adults murmuring, I thought of what a wistful memory that evening would be for those kids–the safety and freedom of their backyard; the adults’ voices in the background, pleasant and welcome because they weren’t directed at the children; the just-perceptible chill, the last of the sunlight in the far corner. I don’t have those kinds of memories because I grew up in an apartment. But then I started thinking about co-opting such a memory, claiming it just because I wanted it. For the rest of the walk, I thought about a character who might do such a thing. By the time I returned home, I had a story going in my head.

As important as it is to sit in the chair and open the computer or pick up a pen, for me, it’s equally important to know when to get out of the chair. When I walk, my mind softens, in the way that day softened into evening. I become open and hopeful. The anxiety dissipates; the writing is no longer the threatening beast that chases me from my desk. It is a restorative walk on a spring evening.

 

Seeing Stories Everywhere

A few days ago, I was walking up the hill by my building when a snowball whizzed by me. I looked around but didn’t see any possible culprits.

Later that day, I was at my desk, staring out the window as I often do, when a boy crept up to the edge of the parking lot, looked around to make sure no one was watching, and then scooped up a mittenful of snow, packed it, and hurled it. As the parking lot is elevated, he had concealment on his side; like me, the ambushed victim would probably look around for the mischief maker but not look up.  And just to be sure he woudn’t be seen, the boy ducked.

I watched him for a while longer. He was patient. Despite the cold, he waited and waited for another target. Periodically, he’d look around to make sure no one was watching. During one of these look-outs, he spotted me. I stayed still until he looked away.

In actuality, I don’t think he really could have seen me; I was a fair distance away watching through wood-slatted blinds. But in that moment, a story was born. I was no longer myself but a character, as was this boy. And in the story, these characters’ eyes had met. So what would the boy do now that he had been discovered? Would the woman become a permanent target of his? What would the woman do? Would she want to know this boy or would she want to see him punished? Would a relationship develop between them? What if someone got seriously injured with one of his snow missiles?

Suddenly, I had a new story on my hands. I made some notes and have been letting ideas percolate since. In the meantime, thinking about those two characters helped me to think in a new way about characters from another story. All because I looked out the window. Stories are everywhere. As writers, we have to be willing to let them surprise us with their sudden appearance, and then we have to be willing to take the time away from ‘our writing’ to write them. That’s why I stare out the window; it’s why I take long walks. And I never think of this time as wasted. I don’t think of it as time when I should have or could have been writing. I think of it as writing time.

 

 

I Don’t Write Everyday and That’s Fine With Me

I confess; I’m not an everyday writer. In fact, except for this blog entry, I haven’t written at all this week. Yes, that makes me a little nervous but I’ve learned to live with it. I celebrate Christmas and so there was baking, decorating, shopping, card writing (doesn’t count as writing), cleaning, hosting, visiting, etc.. I probably could have squeezed in a few minutes of writing here and there but I chose to wait until I knew I would have a couple of hours to sink into it. I’ve learned that writing in every spare minute makes me very anxious. I feel rushed, but worse, somehow squeezing it in always makes me feel as though I never spend enough time on writing. It makes me feel as though all the other things I do are just stealing time from my writing. I don’t want to feel that way. I don’t want to feel that helping my daughter finish the family tree project she wanted to present for Christmas was time stolen from my writing. I wanted to bake. I wanted to finish knitting the scarf I started in 2012. Maybe I didn’t really “want” to push through the mobs and see the tree at Rockefeller Center but I did it anyway. I love writing but I love other things in my life, too. So, I do prioritize writing–I always have a short story going. And there are times when I’m so involved in a story that just about everything else comes second. But more times than not, I’m writing around my life. I don’t think that makes me any less commited than an everyday writer. It’s just my style.