Thursday, June 20, 2013

So Why Pulp? Life’s Little Wake Up Calls

This has been a tough spring for me. Actually the things that are interfering with my writing life started late in the winter. After somewhat financially over-extending ourselves to put in two furnaces and then buying an old four wheel drive dump truck with a plow that was supposed to keep the driveway clear, we had a 30” snow and then a series of equipment failures that wound up costing more than expected. My Pulp Ark funds got dipped into, and though the idea was to replace them, we could never quite catch up again. Then I got sick with something no one could quite identify, but sure was making me miserable. The copays on the extensive medical testing just about wiped out whatever spare cash we were able to cobble together. I was feeling pretty punky anyway, and hearing so many big and scary possibilities like cancer, heart attack, pulmonary embolism, and stroke, I decided traveling wasn’t a very good idea. So I reluctantly canceled the trip.

 I have been poked and prodded, tested and scanned, with no definitive results. When all was said and done, whatever it was cleared up on its own. The verdict was, some sort of a low level and lingering virus, likely more of a problem due to stress from not getting enough sleep and hunching over a keyboard most of the day. Not much showed up in the tests, but there were some physical symptoms like swollen glands and shortness of breath that could be observed while they lasted. There was one minor anomaly in the blood work, and the worst thing that showed up in the CT scan was my arthritic spine. The prescription was double the fish oil daily and get away from the blasted computer for a few hours to get up and get moving.

Easier said than done on the second part, when you consider how much writing and editing I have been doing the last three years. I’ve had to rearrange my entire day to allow for those hours away from the keyboard, and that meant cutting out a lot of the online time I was using for self promotion. Still, it sure beats feeling wobbly and tired most of the day after laying awake in discomfort half the night.

Those were my first two wake up calls of the season. The next one came on so subtly, I almost missed the warning signs. My mother turned 79 this year, and for someone her age, her health has been fairly good, with just a couple medications to correct blood pressure and cholesterol. She is a tiny little thing, spry and active, generally in good spirits, and looking forward to seeing a new great grandson late this summer. However, her memory is starting to deteriorate to the point where she can’t easily recall her own birth date, and will tell you the same thing she just said ten minutes before. She sometimes either forgets to eat, or forgot that she did eat, and consequently has trouble keeping her weight above 105 lbs. In a quiet room, without any conversation, she will stare blankly ahead, and it sometimes takes several calls or a tap on the shoulder to get her attention. On the phone or in a lively conversation, she is often vague and doesn’t follow what’s being said. It seems to come and go, but both family and medical providers have noted it. So we’re starting those dreaded talks about ongoing care, medical intervention vs. letting Nature take its course, and who gets to make critical decisions when she won’t be able to.

My mother doesn’t think she has a memory problem, but I know her well enough to understand that she does. Right now, she lives with my boys in the house they grew up in and the one where she came to restart her life after my dad’s sudden death almost 30 years ago. I have her here with me one to four times a week for a good chunk of the day. I call it mommy-sitting, and that sounds flippant, but that’s what it is. We don’t leave her unsupervised anymore because we’re afraid she will do something she shouldn’t and get hurt, and she has fears about being alone too long. While she is with me, I make sure she eats well, has someone to talk to, and something interesting to do or watch in my house and yard. My boys and daughter-in-law get a much-needed break from watching over her. It’s win-win for everyone.

Now what has all this got to do with writing? Well with everything going on, writing and editing has gotten harder for me. Even when I am alone and I sit down with the intention of getting some work done, I find it hard to concentrate. Most things I can put out of my mind long enough to get some work done, but this situation with my mother is eating at me. I treasure every moment we have left, and dread the inevitable downhill slide ahead. I can’t just let it go, and the agitation makes me irritable and antsy.

These days I spend a lot of time outdoors, in the yard and garden, doing physical labor that leaves me dog tired and able to sleep. Otherwise I’d be pacing the floor half the night, wondering how I’m going to make things work for everyone and wind up worn to a frazzle the next day. I’m also spending more time with family, because we make an impromptu celebration out of anything. I squeeze in writing whenever I can; on inclement days, or when it’s ridiculously hot out. It takes a lot of effort right now just to sit down at the PC and tune out the little voices in my head that whisper of grief and my own mortality, at least long enough to focus on what I’m supposed to be doing. So I work in small increments compared to the long hours I had been putting in.

I’ve been through rough periods like this before and I’ve learned how to cope with them. As much as I urge everyone to write no matter what’s going on, I’m realistic enough to know that there are times you just can’t force the words out. If you make writing burdensome, it becomes an exercise in frustration that leaves you dreading the next session. Consequently I’ve scaled back my writing obligations wherever I can, though I have made some commitments I don’t want to back out of and I do have to just buckle down and get to them.

Along the way, I’ve given myself some slack—and it’s paying off. While I might not be getting much actual writing done, the odd ideas are still coming regularly, and I’ve been eagerly jotting them down. In the past, whenever life threw me a few too many curve balls, I learned to use whatever time I could spare to do some actual writing. Often the stories didn’t get much past a few paragraphs or novel ideas exceed several pages. That at least keeps the mindset going that writing is an important and necessary part of my day. I still manage to do some writing just about every day, even if it’s just a couple scribbled sentences in a note to myself.

Then there is the incentive thing, or what I call ‘the carrot that drives the horse’. I want to be able to support myself on my writing. Right now, that just isn’t happening. If it was, I’d likely be far more enthusiastic and dedicated to getting my behind in the chair and fingers on the keyboard. I have books and stories out there to promote, and I should be doing more of that, but I am just plain burned out with beating the drum for myself. I know I need to reach a wider audience than I have been in our insular little New Pulp community, because I’ve about saturated the existing market, and I’m not seeing an uptick in sales. Clearly something has to be done differently to find those eager new readers, because I can see that the kind of books I write are popular. The dark side of my mind wonders if it’s just because I’m not as good as those big name authors who have their complex novels turned into HBO series. The practical side of my nature insists that I’m laboring down here in obscurity, where even the polished diamonds don’t shine as brightly.

That’s been the most niggling concern on my mind lately when it comes to promoting what I do: Just how do I reach new audiences? I am never going to be content writing simply for the joy of it. Damn it; I want what I work so hard at to be read! It’s become clear to me that if I’m going to take all this time away from other things I should or could be doing and write, then I want to see some measurable results. That would go a long way toward breaking through that grim and murky feeling that I should chuck it all and spend the time with my family, cooking, or getting my house cleaned. Writing is a passion, but how much of it I do compared to how much time I devote to my mother before her memory is completely gone, or making sure I get out there and take care of the things I’ve planted, is a dynamic balance that I haven’t quite mastered in this brand new phase of life. As much as I love what I create at the keyboard, I can’t ignore the other important parts of my day. It will remain to be seen how things work themselves out.

In the meantime, I will write when I can, and whenever the spirit moves me. Never fear, I am nowhere near ready to give up, and neither should you. It may not be possible for most of us to support ourselves on our writing, but you still need to maintain a presence out there, and some sort of disciplined schedule for getting things done. I can’t stay up late at night like I used to. I can’t write when my mother is here and needs face time with me to keep her mind active. I can’t ignore family and give up other things that bring me peace, joy, and good health. To do all that would be crossing the line between enthusiasm and obsession. I need my writing time back, but tempered with wisdom, now that life has sent me a few little wake up calls.

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