Writing through Hard Times

06 Aug

In the hospital

Several years ago, my two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. As part of her treatment, we spent weeks in a hospital isolation room. No visitors. No distractions. Just a little television playing Law and Order reruns on a seemingly endless loop.

To fill the long hours while she slept, I started to write a novel. My fictional world, set in the early days of the Oregon Trail, was the perfect place to escape from the pain and uncertainty we were facing.

For all of its doom and gloom, the hospital was a fantastic place to write. It was usually quiet, I wasn’t distracted by household chores, and nothing enforces “keep your bum in the chair” like being a captive inpatient.

Thanks to the wonderful staff at MSTI Pediatrics, my daughter made a full recovery. But I’d caught the writing bug.  For years afterward, I lugged my laptop wherever I went. In doctors’ offices, the carpool lane, and airports, my mantra was, “If I’m waiting, I’m writing.”

No matter how bad things got, I could always shut out the world and escape into a novel.

Until this year.

Last month, my father’s cancer returned and he had to be hospitalized for a couple of relatively minor surgeries. This time, no matter how I tried, I couldn’t focus on my writing. Instead, I found myself pacing the floor, constantly calling for updates, unable to concentrate.

For the first time, I couldn’t escape into my writing world. Perhaps it was because he was in another state, I wasn’t at the hospital, and I couldn’t see him breathing in front of me. I could only sit by the phone waiting for news.

Fortunately, he’s recovering, but my faith in my ability to write through anything has not. So I’d like to ask our readers: What do you do when anxiety keeps you from writing? Do you have any “tricks” to get back in the groove?


Posted by on August 6, 2012 in Idaho


13 responses to “Writing through Hard Times

  1. Liz Fredericks

    August 6, 2012 at 6:36 AM

    I’m so glad to hear your father is doing better, but sorry about what you’re dealing with. The last year has had a few challenges for me. I think I’m almost ‘back in the saddle’. What helped me most was sticking with my writing community even though I was struggling with producing words. My critique partners/friends are invaluable. This blog helped . . . writing regularly with a responsibility to others to post (except for my bad) as well as the advice. Stick with your buddies – they’ll talk you through and you’ll be a better writer for it.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      August 6, 2012 at 3:17 PM

      Great advice, Liz. It’s so easy to get isolated when things get hectic. I hope to see you soon!

  2. Allie Pleiter

    August 6, 2012 at 7:49 AM

    A friend forwarded your post to me, because I’ve practically made a career out of writing through adversity. I do know both sides of the writing-in-the-hospital-room coin; the one where writing saves you, and the one where you can’t begin to write. Here is my advice after a son with six major illnesses in the past 3 years (including advanced stage lymphoma, so I know isolation rooms!):
    Unless you’re on a deadline, respect your inability to write. Do something else, like read, cook, knit (my personal escape). I have found that something with a hands-on component is best, something where you feel a sense of accomplishment, however small.
    Every few days, try to write 200 words. If they come, they’ll fuel more, or you’ll at least have 200 words. That’s just under a page. When you’re ready, do 300, etc. It truly works if you give yourself the chance to just get a toe in the water instead of expecting full productivity.
    While we’re on disease #6 at the moment, my son is doing well and in remission from his cancer. And I’m on book #18, so I promise this process works!
    Prayers to you and your family,
    Allie Pleiter

    • Clarissa Southwick

      August 6, 2012 at 3:18 PM

      Thank you for the encouraging advice, Allie. I’m so glad to hear your son is in remission. Good luck with book #18. You have my admiration!

  3. ValRoberts

    August 6, 2012 at 9:46 AM

    Clarissa, I’m so sorry you’re going through this. When my folks passed away in 2005, I couldn’t write anything to speak of for about three years. The story I was working on at the time still isn’t finished, and I might never go back to it. There was a lot of churning, and it kept getting darker and darker…it’s probably better that it just rots on a hard drive.

    On the other hand, when I was doing breast cancer radiation treatment in 2010, I wrote the bulk of the book that’s coming out this October. Go figure. I think every illness is unique, and feeling helpless (like when the sick person is in another state) makes it worse.

    You have my permission to not write when you can’t focus. Your coping beans are already in play. For what that’s worth, LOL.

    One thing that helped me a little bit was the Julia Cameron “morning pages” — sit down and hand-write at least five pages every day, or at least when the anxiety is overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be fiction; it doesn’t have to be coherent. If you need to spell out “I’m worried about Dad,” for five pages (or more) every day to help get the mental churning under control, so be it.

    Once I had transferred it out of my brain onto paper, my subconscious was able to let go of it, at least some. I’m not a journal-keeper, so I stuck the pages in a file and eventually threw them out (and boy was it a good feeling to get rid of all that physical representation of angst).

    I hope this helps (and best wishes, good thoughts and fervent prayers for you and yours),

    • Clarissa Southwick

      August 6, 2012 at 3:20 PM

      Thanks for some great advice, Val. I love the coping bean image. It’s also nice to know I’m not the only one who’s reacted this way. And I’m so glad your cancer is in the past.

  4. maryvine

    August 6, 2012 at 9:54 AM

    Wow, you’ve been through a lot. My father died in May, at 91. Even though it was not unexpected for someone that age, I had a hard time getting back to writing-truly stuck in a way I have never been before. I met with a group of writers for a book signing recently and they made me think about a new way of presenting a different manuscript, one that’s been sitting on a shelf. That’s helped a lot, because I’m not having to create a whole new manuscript, however, making some big changes. The sadness or blocking out pain, hits your creative mind. Hopefully thinking about something else will energize that creative well.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      August 6, 2012 at 3:21 PM

      Mary, I was so sorry to hear about your father’s passing. He must have been a great man. Thanks for sharing. It’s good to know I’m not alone in this.

  5. Janis McCurry

    August 6, 2012 at 10:22 AM

    I am not much help here because I believe in letting your body and soul guide your actions. If you can’t write, you shouldn’t write. I agree with Allie to do other things, even if cleaning helps you (mind you, that wouldn’t be my choice!). And guilt about not writing just compounds the problem. Gather your loved ones close and breathe. That’s my advice and I’m sticking to it.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      August 6, 2012 at 3:22 PM

      “Gather your loved ones close and breathe.” Wonderful advice. I hope to see you in critique group again soon.

  6. johannaharness

    August 6, 2012 at 5:35 PM

    I love Janis’ advice. My heart is with you, Clarissa. One option is to try writing something completely different. It doesn’t have to be something you plan on publishing. Just let your heart go where it needs to go.

  7. Lynn Mapp

    August 6, 2012 at 10:20 PM

    Clarissa, this is a difficult time. You don’t know how you’ll deal. In 2000 my father died on September 2 and a few weeks later, my grandmother died on September 25. Somehow, I managed to write everyday. Even before Russell died, I was worried about him. I wasn’t comfortable. His choices didn’t make me happy. I couldn’t stop him. I couldn’t get between him and himself. I was so scared. Everyday. You know what being scared and unable to stop him did? Nothing. Do what
    you need to do in order to protect yourself, and know you have people who support you.

  8. Peggy Staggs

    August 7, 2012 at 5:12 PM

    Stress is a creativity killer. I know when I get stressed my brain wanders to bad places and I can’t gather it back. There are times when you when all I can do is wait or read until it passes.


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