Plan B

I've been struggling this week - well a couple of months really -  trying to keep from drowning in anxiety. News and social media has bombarded us with images of recent horrific events and celebrity deaths. More recently there have been almost-tragedies closer to home. My mind has been chattering away, creating worst-case scenarios, second guessing, panicking me into petrified inactivity. One of my triggers is empathy. I find myself crying (I mean really bawling my eyes out) over news stories - a lost child (their parents must be worried), a car crash (and the devastation of those left behind), a terrorist attack (how could someone hate others so much). The pain manifests itself as palpitations, muscular spasms, migraines... The list goes on. It's one of the reasons I had to quit my old career. I'd come home and worry . I'd worry about my patients, worry about missing things, worry about dealing with the company powers-that-be. I've tried cognitive therapy, relaxation, mindfulness and hypnotherapy. (I reacted badly to meds.) But it is difficult to turn off the reason why I started that career and the very thing that spurred me to stay in the job, years longer than I should have. Writing helps. I can channel that empathy. How do my characters feel? What will they do? What was the thinking behind that? But sometimes it gets all too much. Even the writing freezes up. Then I retreat into books and get lost in their pages. But even that escape has been thwarted recently. When I was ill I tripped, damaging my spectacles. As a result, reading is a chore and brings on migraines. (Have you tried reading with askew progressive lenses? argh!) So it's plan B for now. I have a list of vaguely-writing-related movies - some inspiring, some just a bit of fun. Some are, well, dubious but, nevertheless, contribute to pulling me out of my funk. Yesterday I pried open my current WIP box and picked up a pencil. I thought I'd share my current list with you:
  • Anonymous
  • A man for all seasons
  • Eat, Pray, Love
  • Ghostwriter
  • Confessions of a Shopaholic
  • Bright Star
  • Cinderella Pact
  • The Devil Wears Prada
  • Inkheart
  • Julie and Julia
  • Authors Anonymous
  • Music and Lyrics
  • Shakespeare in Love
  • The Rewrite
  • Becoming Jane
  • Miss Potter
  • Under the Tuscan Sun
  • Bridget Jones Diary
  • Never Been Kissed
  • Little Women
  • Love Actually
  • Paperback Hero
  • Sliding Doors
  • So I Married An Axe Murderer
  • Sleepless in Seattle
  • Romancing the Stone series
  • Magic Beyond Words: The JK Rowling Story
So now you know one of my deep, dark secrets. Please don't judge me.

On Spoons, Steampunk and Socialising

The alarm went off twice this morning. Well, I think it was twice. Maybe it was three? I cracked open an eye and cringed back into the sheets away from the sunlight streaming through the curtains. The alarm blared once more. My hand slapped the off button. I groaned and dragged myself out of bed.

I'm really not a morning person, especially after draining several days worth of spoons with an all day event. (The spoon theory is an effective way of describing how chronic illness or disability affects life. If you're not familiar with the theory, you can find out all about it here.) Friday's 13-hour celebrations for steampunk's 30th (naming) anniversary left me depleted. It was a long (but fun) day.

Socialising takes a lot of effort for me. It's exhausting. It's not you. It's me. In public, I spend most of the time trying to fight the urge to run away and hide. Anxiety does that. I usually organise my social events carefully, with a few days after to recover those precious spoons.

Fortunately it was an online event and it was celebrating something I love: steampunk. (Otherwise I would've been a gibbering mess if I'd spent all thirteen hours face-to-face with so many people without a break.) Large crowds, particularly in shopping centres with their cacophony of noises, crush me.

This got me thinking. Why do I do this to myself? Why do I do conventions? Why do I do talks...? Why do I walk out the door at all?

There's a stereotype: the starving writer (that's a whole other blog post just there) scribbling away in a lonely garret - alone, with only the artistic muse for company - locked in the struggle to create the perfect prose.  But, despite this romantic (Victorian) vision, writers need company too. I need company too. I need to experience life, not just write about it.

So why do I keep pushing myself to attend events - social or professional?

Because, deep down, I like people. I love conversations where I suddenly realise the sun is rising and we've been chatting all night. I love talking writing, science, art, Doctor Who, steampunk. I'm fine one-on-one or in a small group. Where I feel safe.

On a bad day, I push myself to do online socialising. I can cringe in the corner while I type supposedly confident words - and no one can see my fear. But I'm still engaging with the world.

A couple of years ago I found an online steampunk forum, The Steampunk Empire. Tucked away in a corner was a writers group, The Scribblers Den - a band of steampunk writers spanning the globe. We chatted about writing, steampunk (lots of steampunk), events, shared pictures and stories. I felt comfortable there.

Unfortunately, as online entities often do, it disappeared. Some of us had seen the cracks. Some of us lived in denial. On a, soon-to-be bleak, day in March I logged onto the forum and - horror of horrors - my beloved Scribblers Den had dissolved into the aether!

But, never fear, my dear Reader, we had a plan (albeit a very vague one). Soon the Refugees of Steampunk Empire assembled on Facebook. We lamented, explored a few new enclaves and finally found a new home; the Steampunk Dominion was formed. My dear Scribblers' Den had returned from exile! (Thank you to the intrepid pilgrims - especially Lee and William - who founded our new realm.) I could once again frolic in steampunky goodness and forget about my anxieties.

You can now find fellow steampunks on The Steampunk Dominion's webpage and forum, or on Facebook group - The Steampunk Dominion (our bolt hole in case of future host demises).

Writing through Writers’ Block

"What?" you ask. "How can you write through writers' block? Doesn't it mean you're stuck, and can't write?"

Well, yes... and no.

Here's how Cambridge dictionary defines writers block: the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.

I'm currently in the middle of writing the third (and last book) in the Adventures of Viola Stewart, The Illusioneer & Other Tales. The first story rolled onto the page. In From the Depths, Viola is in Scotland, recovering at a beach resort after her ordeals in Eye of the Beholder.  Of course, she is swept up in a series of unexpected events. We meet a new character. This story ended up twice as long as previous shorts. I didn't want it to end.

I started on the next short story, Tomorrow, When I Die. This is a more convoluted story, requiring fiddling of ... (spoilers!) and some fun research on Victorian Christmas traditions. Then it happened. It crept up on me, taking me by surprise; the realisation that this was to be Viola's last set of (traditional) adventures. ("Gasp!" I hear you say.

Never fear, dear Reader, I have a few plans up my sleeve - but that's for another time, another blog.)

About this time, a late bout of dust-induced summer bronchitis hit. I felt like shite. Being ill is certainly not helpful when trying to build up the will-power to wade through the dreaded marshland I designate Writers' Block. I see it as a marshland as it is inconvenient, an impediment to moving forward and I must plan my way to proceed or sink further down.

First find the cause: why do I get writers' block?

I've thought about this in depth (perhaps way too much!). It seems to strike me at two different stages:

  1. When I'm staring at a blank page. I know the gist of the story. I can usually see the end scene in my head, the mood I want to create. But the words refuse to flow from my brain onto the screen. At this point, I am usually working pen on paper; words seem to flow better with a pen or pencil in my hand.
  2. when I am nearing the end of a story. I'm finally having fun. The characters are co-operating, even enjoying themselves. Then the penny drops; it has to end. I panic. I don't want it to end. I don't want to leave my characters behind. But I must. Perhaps if I don't write those final words...?

These are things I have to deal with. They are not new. In 2014, I had almost finished the first draft of what I thought would be my first novel, The Department of Curiosities. I had about four scenes to write. Crunch, the writers' block hit me.  What was I to do? I started on a short story, (reviving) a character from An Eye to Detail, short listed the year before in Australian Literature Review's murder and mystery short story competition.

The block shifted. I kept writing Viola's s adventures with gusto (There were minor blocks but nothing as long-lasting as that with DOC.)  I'm now ready - and can't wait - to return to The Department of Curiosity - my next project after The Illusioneer. 

How do I Tackle Writers' Block?

I have a box of story ideas. I keep getting them. Not all are worthy of a full story, but they are there. I usually have at least three (sometimes four or five) stories on the go. When I hit the wall, I redirect my energies toward another story and let the original one bubble away in the background - ensuring I move forward, and not wallow.

This time I was side-tracked onto a story to submit to a (absent) Sherlock Holmes anthology: write a story in the Holmes mileaux, sans Sherlock himself.

Bang! The main character was there. Her enthusiasm was contagious. I could see, hear, smell the final scene. This short is now being polished with final edits and about to be submitted. Wish me luck. (And another series is born. I can't wait to write another story with my new detective and her soon-to-be-drafted side-kick. Though I need to finish The Illusioneer and the DOC first.)

Short stories are fantastic. They give me a brief holiday from my main project, just enough time to let the original story gurgle back up to the surface.

April is Camp NaNoWriMo and I'm ready to plunge Viola back into her adventures. I hope you'll join the ride.

Photo © 2017 Karen J Carlisle. All rights reserved.