Finding Your Inner Writing Shaman
It’s not just Covid-19 that left me wondering whether it mattered if I wrote my novel—or not. The truth is that I stopped writing two years ago. Yes, years. And I am the author who denied the concept of writer’s block (see Chapter 9 of Fire Up Your Writer’s Brain), the proclamation itself had also been published in Writers’ Digest and shared on popular blogs. And yet I had simply stopped writing and couldn’t work up any desire to start again.
I’d spent a lifetime writing and the previous fourteen years writing and editing nonfiction—as well as editing other people’s novels—and longed to finally complete the story that I’d been writing various parts of for a decade (some 200,000 words lying around in stacks of paper or on various hard drives). But I’d lost sufficient impetus to write, and the longer I went without writing, the emptier and less like a writer I felt.
I succumbed to a web of negative thoughts—“Who cared if I ever wrote a novel or not? Most novels don’t sell well anyway. I don’t have anything meaningful to say.”—spiraling all the way down to—“Although I’m good at helping other writers craft their novels, it may well be that I don’t have an original mind or enough creativity to spin a viable novel plot of my own.” Small surprise these levels of negativity squashed my ability to write—repeated, self-generated flagellation has that effect (see my entire book on writing advice).
To be fair, during this dry spell, I somewhat unwillingly sold my darling cottage on a New England pond, uprooted and moved into an apartment in Raleigh. This entailed months of sorting through, well, everything I owned and discarding literally truckloads of things, from furniture to piles of paperwork. Way back in 2002, I had willfully sold my adorable Napa Valley home and fled to Paris for a year, then NYC for a year, and that move had involved shedding a four-bedroom house and half of my possessions. This last move involved splitting the remaining half by half again, so it did keep me busy.
I also felt like I’d lost a dear friend. She moved beyond me into the world of remarriage and, worse yet, real writers, those who wrote and successfully published novels. She now hung out with him—and them—far more and me far less. She’d long been my primary cheerleader and support, and the psychic loss devastated me. She’d gone where I longed to go, and it wasn’t envy I felt so much as this horrible, sinking feeling that I not only would be alone forever but had misread my destiny—I wasn’t going to remarry or be a successful novelist after all.
All that and my son hadn’t felt sufficient desire to see me for a long, dry spell (I’d moved 3,000 miles away, but still) and my daughter and I had been enduring a complicated separation process that went on for years. I felt absolutely abandoned and dismissed—my two Achilles’ heels (the psychological wounds, not the children). And I’d allowed these emotional imbroglios to silence me.
It was no one else’s fault—only mine. All self-inflicted wounds.
I’d lost my passion for writing. I’d written two memoirs that didn’t sell (the 1990s one about studying with a shaman wasn’t polished enough to sell, but the 2011 one about my year in Paris might have caught hold in a better market), and when my last nonfiction proposal didn’t sell in 2017, I allowed myself to feel discouraged. In truth, the concept was a bit overdone, the writing was stilted, and the topic had become almost blasé to me—so no surprise it didn’t sell. Truth is, I didn’t want to write nonfiction anymore.
My editing business also dried up, until last year when a client hired me to ghostwrite her novel. You’d think that alone would have driven me back to my own work, but I only felt the years growing shorter and my desire to write fiction scurrying farther out of reach.
I focused instead on reading. Last year I read 86 novels, focusing on literary novels with strong female voices, as that’s what I aspired to achieve. But now it was March and I still wasn’t writing, couldn’t even lodge myself in front of a computer long enough to type more than three sentences. I’d made new friends, volunteered to work with children, saw the beginnings of renewal with my daughter, totally reconnected with my son, and still just could not sit down to write. I could barely propel my body into my writing space. It felt like an iceberg blocked the door. Occasionally I slipped past it, but quickly left again, desperate to avoid any consciousness of lost opportunity.
And then a pandemic hit our shores, and after ten weeks of isolation, spent watching gruesome news’ reports, an urge to climb out of the darkness steadily grew. Experiencing the pandemic dramatically heightened the realization that I’d been frittering my life away. I whittled my worst fears down to the bone, asking myself: “Once your grown children are solidly on their paths and barely notice that you’re still around, what does one do to make life worth living? I’d not been blessed with grandchildren—one hopes—and had no special someone. I searched for purpose and meaning, but simply couldn’t conjure the level of passion required to write.
At my darkest, as I listened to reports of thousands dying and the grim fact that this virus was likely to keep me fairly isolated for a year, I wondered: Would it really matter if I died now instead of twenty years later?
The more losing my life felt like something that could happen, the more I realized that I was no longer willing to wither away in an apartment in Raleigh. And then, right on cue, a shaman who had re-mothered me in the late 1980s spoke clearly to me in a dream. She left our planet a few years ago and I hadn’t seen her for more than twenty years. But here she was, insisting that I had whole new chapters ahead, but I had to write that damn story (my adjective, not hers). She reminded me, as she used to do repeatedly, that it’s not about my ego, but about how what I write will benefit others.
My internalized mother/shaman communicated in a very direct manner, kind yet stern.
I do believe, as I always have, that the facilities that enable one to write well are a gift. It’s like having a crown set upon your head as a child, only it’s a crown of thorns. I always believed that my gifts—for observation, feeling intensely, gathering my thoughts, stringing words together to form images, being persistent, a passion for storytelling—were given so I could write stories that help others, and it’s always been my responsibility to do the hard work required to make that happen. I’d spent decades honing my craft—reading, studying, writing, rewriting, editing, coaching, teaching—but these last few years I’d been negligent and lazy. I’d gotten mired in small-minded grumbling. I’d also been fooling myself—frittering just wouldn’t do.
This “novel virus” reaffirmed that my life won’t feel sufficiently meaningful again until I develop a renewed sense of purpose. Writing has always provided that for me, and I’d discarded my writing practice as if it were an empty, battered suitcase at the end of a journey. Hell, I’d thrown it over a cliff.
So, after ten-weeks of necessary isolation, my long period of coma-like existence has seemingly come to an abrupt end. I’m once again fired up by the realization that I am a fairly accomplished wordsmith, who has stories of value to share.
I’m telling you this because others have expressed their feelings of “why bother” and “who can concentrate on writing in a pandemic?” and I truly want to offer anyone who might find it inspiring the opportunity to “write along with me.” I will keep posting blogs, offering tips I’ve learned along my path, and doing what I can to inspire others to simply write. I’ll share my process in hopes that it bolsters your process.
So, what do you say? Ready to write?
Hint: Listen to Robbie Robertson’s Music for Native Americans, specifically, “Ghost Dance” to get fired up to write.
Photographs of Norma Jaichima also by Susan Reynolds