by Lillian Csernica on March 21, 2013
For a long time I had a wrong equation in my head. I thought my time was very limited. I’m so busy with all the tasks involved in taking care of both my sons that it’s very difficult to find the time to write. Writing a novel is a serious commitment. I’ve heard it compared to marriage. Once you set out to write a novel, you’d better go into it realizing you’re going to be living with this project day in and day out for months, possibly years. I’m here to tell you that’s absolutely true. What’s painful is watching the days slip by one by one without any writing getting done. Days filled up with doctor appointments or IEP meetings or meetings with the caseworker or filling prescriptions or all the ordinary household errands that can add up into hours away from my keyboard and my writing. See, the equation I had made was very simple. I could be a mother or I could be a writer. I couldn’t do both, at least not at the same time. If I was spending time on mothering, that meant I couldn’t spend it on writing. If I was busy writing, that meant time taken away from my sons. Either way, what came out on the other side of the equals sign was guilt and frustration. No matter what I did, how hard I tried, I couldn’t win.
This was not good for my mental or physical health. In fact, it was very very bad for me. In addition to all the other difficult factors in my life, I suffer from Major Depressive Disorder. Now let me be clear: I am low serotonin. I’ve had a problem in my brain chemistry since long before my sons came along, so I don’t want anybody to think I’m drawing any kind of link between the boys and their problems and me being depressed. I could go down the whole list of my symptoms of clinical depression and how I’m an Adult Child of an Alcoholic, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Yes, I was in pain. A lot of pain, and that pain kept sucking up all the energy I had for any creative efforts.
And then a very wise LCSW I know gave me the new equation that set me free: “If your pain is stopping you from writing, maybe you need to make room in your writing for your pain.”
Wow. Scary thought! Writers are often told, “Write what you know!” I write fantasy, horror, historical romance, some science fiction. I write ESCAPIST literature. I write to get away from the pain I live with, just like I read to get away from the pain I live with. Makes sense, right? So why in the name of all that’s logical would I want to start writing about my pain? If I combine a quick list of What I Know with a quick list of What Really Hurts this is what I’d get:
1) Every day both of my sons struggle through their hours at school.
2) From 2:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. my house is full of noise and people and more activity than I can tolerate, even though I’m grateful for Michael‘s R.N.s and John’s aides.
3) My father died a month before Michael was born, and a year after I had a miscarriage and lost my first son James, so Daddy never got to see any of his grandsons.
4) I’ve reached the age where I don’t go to weddings and baby showers anymore. I treasure my friends’ birthdays because I’ve already been to too many funerals.
5) I think about all the other things I could be doing, traveling and teaching and going on writers’ retreats and meeting all kinds of fascinating people. Having conversations that don’t center around medications and diagnoses and problems with the Special Education Department and how many diapers my 16 year old son has had changed that day.
Henry James said fiction is about “The human heart in conflict with itself.” As a writer it is my business to create people on paper and give them both internal and external conflicts. The idea of giving my fictional people my own pain to cope with in the course of the story is a frightening and intimidating thought. Dorothy Parker said, “Never never dip your quill/In ink that rushes from your heart.” I’ve begun a story about a woman living with the agonies of PTSD in the wake of losing her first baby to miscarriage. I’ve been crying when I’ve been writing it and I’ve been crying when I’ve read parts of it to my writing class. It hurts like hell, but it’s real and it’s believable and it’s some of the most honest writing I’ve ever done. I want to keep improving my work, to polish my writing style and create better plots and make my characters live and breathe. If tapping into the vast reservoir of pain inside me can help me do that, then it’s time to commit the emotional alchemy that will turn this poisonous lead into curative gold.
Other writers have been where I’m going. Historian and author Anita Brookner said, “You never know what you will learn until you start writing. Then you discover truths you never knew existed. ” According to Francis Bacon, my bags are already packed: “Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.”