Last year I was given the wonderful opportunity to meet and have lunch with one of my literary heroes, Robin LaFevers. She’s full of wisdom and magical stories, and our time together lived up to all my expectations. If you haven’t read her books, do that. ASSASSIN NUNS. ASSASSIN NUNS. Don’t make me say it again.
I was honored when she asked me to guest post for Writer Unboxed while she was on tour. I adore Writer Unboxed, and if you are in the business, you should be reading this site daily. I wanted to repost it here!
Pantaphobia: THAT’S IT!
I was diagnosed with major clinical depression last January. Big time med changes, counseling, the whole churro. With the help of family and friends, including Stephanie Perkins (who held me accountable for daily tasks like eating, showering, and teeth brushing), the extreme low only lasted for a couple of months.
But even the regular low is a real pain in the butt.
I spent a lot of time attempting to escape my pit of despair. I sat in front of my computer, trying to turn words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs. I tried, and tried, and tried, but never made it to scenes or chapters. There were distractions – we moved, our kids changed schools, and then summer break rolled around. Summer break at our house is like a three-month Coachella Festival. My focus is solely on crowd control and keeping everyone alive. Next year I’m ordering myself a t-shirt that says “SECURITY” in hot pink, sequined letters. I’ve not ruled out a low voltage tazer, but there are some … legality issues I need to look into.
When I wasn’t serving as the family bouncer, I decorated, painted, gardened, and crafted, until there was nothing left to decorate, paint, garden, or craft. (Y’all, I Mod Podged so many things my cats got nervous. I think they thought they were next.) Finally, once school started, I could breathe. I had quiet time to be still and get honest with myself. I evaluated life, and what I wanted from it. I didn’t know if I could write for publication anymore.
I had multiple conversations with my husband – who understands chasing dreams, as he’s a former minor league baseball player. “Should I get a part time job? Finish my Master’s? Keep the house really clean and serve a home-cooked meal every night? Go to the gym regularly?” (THE GYM. REGULARLY.)
Thankfully, my husband is wise. “You won’t be happy,” he said. “That’s not you or your life.” The man turned down home-cooked meals, and I’m a mighty fine cook, so he was not. messing. around. He gave me the courage I needed to keep questioning myself.
I talked to dear writer friends, who assured me they’d still love me if I weren’t “one of them.” That made me feel safe, but sad. I loved being “one of them.”
I didn’t seek out online affirmation, so every note or tweet I got from a reader was a boon, a bolster, a blessing. They all reminded me of how it felt to emotionally touch a reader. That’s why I started writing in the first place.
Then, last October, I was invited to attend a retreat in Gatlinburg with over 35 writers, largely 2014 debuts. Natalie Parker, organizer extraordinaire, wanted a couple of seasoned authors to help her facilitate small groups. Natalie, the frighteningly brilliant Tessa Gratton, and I asked our groups a different question every night. It was like summer camp (but with beverages!).
On the way, driving through the mountains where my current project is set, I wondered if I’d made the right decision to participate. What if I opened my mouth and discovered I had nothing to offer? How could I be authentic and keep things light and encouraging?
Could I hide my fear?
I’ve been afraid for a really long time. Afraid to fail, to succeed, to give my current project everything I have. Afraid of disappointing everyone and anyone – my family, my agent, readers. Myself. I’ve been working on this novel for five years. I’ve kept it close to my chest, because when I tell people about it, they either demand to read it immediately, or they scan the area for orderlies (because I am obviously a lunatic on the run).
Before my depression and fear kicked in, I didn’t care what anyone thought. Because I love, love, love this story, no matter how different or strange it is. I recently had a conversation with Maggie Stiefvater. (If you haven’t read The Raven Cycle series, you should treat yourself.) She has a work ethic like few I’ve seen, and a diabolically delicious mind. My project shared an element with The Raven Cycle, and I’d recently decided to remove the element, so I brought her a book I’d purchased for research. After I gave it to her, I attempted to explain my story. As per usual, I talked really fast and made a lot of wild hand gestures, and finally ended with, “It’s just really weird.”
And Maggie said, “Great! I never want to write anything that’s not weird again.”
Two and a half years ago, I read a post on Writer Unboxed by Robin LaFevers, subtitled: Abandon All Despair, Ye Who Enter Here. I do not overstate when I say that the post was life-changing for me. She’d had a respectable career, and then she’d taken a risk, and created a mind-blowing series that she called “an idiosyncratic collection of parts that could only be found in [her] own mental junk drawer.”
The His Fair Assassin series pushes all my buttons. It’s unlike anything I’d ever read, and it gives me hope. Robin says: “ In order to take our writing to the next level we must embrace our strange, unique, and often embarrassing selves and write about the things that really matter to us. We need to be willing to peel our own layers back until we reach that tender, raw, voiceless place—the place where our crunchiest stories come from. We need to get some skin in the game.”
Writers spend our days at our desks. Our life is the sum total of those days. I want my life to count, and that means there’s no room for fear.
So I sat down with my story again. It includes all the things I love or am somehow connected to – Appalachian history, multiple cultures, equality, mental illness, addiction, suicide – and my heart beat fast again. I know that all the lessons I’ve learned over the past five years were necessary. Back then wasn’t the right time for my crunchy, weird, book to be born. Life had things it needed to teach me.
About depression. Shame. Insecurity. Fear.
My response had been to isolate myself to try to deal with my shortcomings. I’d tried to fake normal, with MYSELF, when what was required was authenticity.
In Gatlinburg, I listened to newly published writers talk about the same challenges I’d faced. They had questions, and I had truthful, honest answers – or at least examples – because they were talking about a road I’ve been walking on for a long time. The truth was as clear as a really good metaphor.
I might be afraid every day I sit down with my manuscript, every time I open the document. But I’m not alone.
And for this, I am supremely grateful.