Chasing Fireflies: The View From Rock Bottom
I haven’t written a blog for over three months because I’ve been too busy chasing fireflies: ideas, and feelings, and revelations, and experiences that have flitted across my inner landscape, glowing bright in the darkness. I’ve had to catch them—quick!—before they disappeared. It’s not often you see the same firefly twice.
In May I got back from YallWest, weary. It’d been a tough six months. Nothing I’d produced (two romance novels, one fantasy novel, an impassioned pitch, and over fifty thousand words of other stories) was working. For the first time since I sold my debut novel in the summer of 2012 I was coming up dry. I experienced the horror of turning in a book that I knew wasn’t working but because I was on deadline it was all I had to turn in. Ideas weren’t sticking around long enough for me to flesh them out, I suddenly forgot how to plot, how to develop authentic, rounded characters. Worse, there wasn’t anything I was burning to write. And everything on the page was unreadable.
I was empty.
This emptiness manifested itself in my life in various ways. Depression, my lifelong companion, decided to rear its ugly head. Of course. My Brooklyn apartment and the entirety of New York City started getting on my nerves more than usual: there wasn’t space to breathe, to think, to grow. I’d go to cafes to write and just sit there, lost in a horrible labyrinth of plots that were dumb and characters that I didn’t want to hang out with. I couldn’t wrap my mind around difficult story problems.
For the first time in years, I was avoiding writing. Suddenly it became very important to read every novel JoJo Moyes had ever written (a treat, to be sure, but eating up hours of my own time to be creative). And I somehow managed to watch all of Gossip Girl and Downton Abbey. I bought an adult coloring book and colored pencils and went at that for a bit--I knew I had to fill my creative well, I just didn't know how. I collaged, but felt as though it was pointless when before it had always been a deep, soul searching activity. I went ice-skating for the first time in over four years and it felt good, but I was still empty. I drank more than I probably should have.
The good part of all of this (well, except for maybe the drinking) is that I recognized on some level that I needed to rest and play. And now, looking back, I can see how necessary it was for me to lose half an hour playing with the dog ("lose"--no. Wrong word, right? Nothing was lost--fun and peace and joy was gained). I can see how all those times I denied myself the joy of sitting and reading for an entire evening had accumulated like old gift cards and I was cashing in--and falling in love with a writer I'd only just discovered. Even the TV watching had its purpose--I allowed myself to just chill the fuck out.
But I still felt empty creativly.
When a story idea I had pitched to one of my editors had been rejected (ouch), I finally did what Elizabeth Gilbert and every other self-help guru out there says: I followed my curiosity. Circuses. I love the circus. I’ve always been enamored by it and would love to write about it. The Night Circus is my jam. I used to do burlesque and my all-time favorite production ever is Cirque du Soleil's O. So I sit down and Google “circus” and I’m on Wikipedia’s page and my eyes snag on the phrase “Moscow Circus.” Now I’m really intrigued. Because I’m pretty obsessed with Russia. Then I find out all kinds of interesting things and—Eureka!—the idea for my first adult novel is born.
When I told my husband, I said, “I finally feel like my life has purpose again.” For so long I’d been going through stories, finding nothing that stuck, as though my writing self had been thrown into a dark hole that was impossible to get out of. It wasn’t until I was at rock bottom creatively and had spent several weeks trying to fill the well (in both healthy and unhealthy ways) that I was able to catch that firefly, that shining idea that I could only wrap my eager fingers around when I gave myself the time to stop and look for it. One little firefly--a whole lotta light.
Suddenly, I'm spending my days reading about Russia and the circus and reaching out to anyone I know who knows anything about these two great curiosities of mine. I start planning a move there with my ESL-teacher husband. I blast Shostakovich and read Anna Akhmatova poems and buy a Russian dictionary because OBVIOUSLY I have to learn Russian. And a Fulbright! I'm thinking about that. And looking into fellowships and grants to give me the time and space to write this thing and and and and and…
I am FREE and being a creator and am a writer/nerd in her element. And here’s the thing: I know without a doubt that this book is going to take me years to write. The amount of research I will have to do is more than a little intimidating. Tet there has been such enormous freedom in the hugeness of this undertaking. It’s not something I can dash off to sell. It's not on trend, it's not something I can wrestle into a pretty tag line. It’s a marathon book, not a race. Which means I get to ease into it, like it’s a warm bath. I allow myself to get lost for hours reading books and watching circus documentaries. I spend weekends hunting down rare books about the Russian circus. I begin researching where to take trapeze classes in NYC. I become very familiar with the NYPL.
From there—from this process of beginning my Russian novel—I’ve rediscovered flow. Finding something I could be crazy passionate about--something that terrifies me, something that will force me to be better, so much better--it seemed to unlock some part of me that had been imprisoned by my exhaustion and unrealistic expectations, as though the pure creator in me had been behind bars, trying to stick its arms through them in order to reach the keyboard. I got another idea, this time for a YA contemporary. Then I got another adult novel idea. And a story I’m working on for one of my editors that hasn’t sold yet has started taking more interesting turns—slowly—but surely. Suddenly I’m able to string together sentences with meaning again. Suddenly I’m getting excited about stuff.
Here’s the really cool thing: none of that was able to happen until I gave up. I had two big deadlines in June for two very different books. I was sweating it. As soon as I turned in the second one, I stopped writing. Oh, I tried to write, but all it resulted in was frustration and disappointment until gradually I spent less and less time in front of the computer. Whole days would go by where, somehow, I hadn't managed to find the time to write. Huh. But then my Russian idea came, born in many ways out of desperation--there had to be something out there for me…right? As soon as my creativity was unlocked, I began craving nature, me, the city girl. I had a transformative week at the Cape with a dear friend in which I gave myself permission to indulge my spiritual side.
I started meditating and honoring the part of me that believes in the magic of the spirit. I hung out with family, not worrying one bit that I’d only turned my computer on once in a week. Because I knew it would be okay. I knew this was all filling the well. I could feel that water rising in me, pure and sweet and life-giving.
I really do feel like I hit rock bottom at the beginning of the summer in the way one talks about it as an addict or alcoholic. I was a total workaholic--for the past many years, especially since I moved to NYC and got published, all I did was work. And even when I left the house and did cool things, I felt guilty. I should be working. I didn’t take time for my spirit, my health. Everything was always in service of whatever book I was working on that day. And it hurt me creatively. I might have felt I was giving myself more time to work, but I wasn’t giving my heart or soul space to work.
Now I take time each day to meditate. I’m going to a kirtan chanting session tonight and joining the YMCA next month. I’ve gotten really into essential oils and even own a few crystals and signed up for a reiki session. Yeah, I'm going full-on woo-woo and it's great fun, even if some of it might be total bullshit. I'm letting my curiosity guide me now. Ohhhh, pretty, what's that? I’ve escaped to nature a few times and I’m reading all kinds of books—from new age spiritualism to classic Russian lit. I even took a poetry class (spoiler alert: I have A LOT to learn).
I’m realizing that just because I could crank out a few good novels in a short amount of time doesn’t mean I’ll always be able to keep up that pace--or that doing so is even desirable. I’ve also learned that creativity is like a plant—it needs to be nourished. It needs time in the sun and regular watering and pruning. And maybe a pretty pot to put it in. I thought I was doing okay with that by going to art exhibits and making playlists, but I didn’t realize how my ingrained schedule was preventing me from being the best writer I could be. I now see that all that other stuff that takes time—meditation, morning pages (for all you Artist Way fans out there) actually winds up gifting you with more time than I ever had before because now when I show up to work, I’m all in.
I’ve learned a lot of lessons this summer and I intend to share more of them here, but this one might be the biggest: self-care is necessary, absolutely essential, to be being a healthy artist. Because only a healthy artist can run around in the dark with an empty mason jar, ready to catch the first firefly they see.
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