Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Insecure Writer's Support Group (and my return to blogging)
Alex J. Cavanaugh's Insecure Writer's Support Group meets on the first Wednesday of every month. I wrote my first IWSG post from the hospital where my daughter was born, my second post from a Barnes & Noble after my internet connection died, and my third was posted early, in advance of my trip to Boston. Thankfully, there were no major hurdles to leap this month, but I did have to return from a self-imposed exile to post this.
This probably isn't the best time for me to end my Blogger hiatus, but I've been away for too long and if I don't post something now I might get too comfortable with not posting and then one month will be come two and three and you'll forget all about me and I'll completely give up on blogging. And I definitely do not want to do that. Blogging has helped me become a better writer and a better person. It's helped me stay connected to the outside world at a time when I've felt more isolated than ever, and the people I've met have helped me feel more confident, think clearer, and overcome some of the most difficult challenges in my life.
The reason I took a break from blogging (and most other social media venues) is because I have trouble juggling the multitude of unfinished and ongoing projects in my life. I am terrible at time management, and one of my major issues is this constant struggle to balance responsibilities and hobbies, to put things down and let them go when something more important comes up without grumbling about being interrupted or falling behind a self-imposed schedule.
In August, when I turned 32 years old, I analyzed and evaluated how my free time had been spent during my wife's maternity leave. Did I spend enough time with the girls? Did I do enough chores around the house? Did I get out of the house enough? Did I spend too much money? Did I accomplish my goals for the day?
I realized that even though I was awake for 18 hour a day (or more) there just wasn't enough time to fit it all in. So I cut back on sports viewing and card collecting, avoided the never-ending trap of surfing the internet, and prioritized my family, my future, and my story. I thought that if I eliminated all the unnecessary distractions that my focus would improve enough to make a serious dent in my novel, perhaps even finish a first draft. And while I have made some progress and the storyline is about 95% done I'm still not certain that I'm talented or experienced enough as a writer to do this story justice.
Some people have told me not to put too much pressure on myself, that I should write for personal enjoyment and not for fame or success or money or the approval of others. They say that I shouldn't have any self-imposed deadlines, that art and literature takes as long as it takes. Don't rush the creative process. Don't force it.
But I have to.
Last month I was in Connecticut, visiting my family on my way up to Boston for the Red Sox game. I spent some time with my mother, my sister, and my nephews - but not my favorite aunt. Aunt Cynthia has lived next door to my mom and I for about 20 years, under the same roof of a two-family house. She has always supported and encouraged my writing and often provided the financial backing my mother never could. Sometimes I felt a bit embarrassed about showing her some of my work, since my stories often contained a minimal but authentic amount of swearing and sex. But she has always been happy to read anything I've written, dating all the way back to grade school when she typed up my essays on a typewriter before any of us could afford computers.
When I spoke to my mom after I got back home to New Jersey, I lamented the fact that I had not even knocked on Aunt Cynthia's door to say hello. My mom replied that I should make her a priority next time I'm in town, because "she's not going to be around much longer." Obviously if it were truly urgent my mom would have said something without being prompted, but the fact is my aunt is 72 years old, her health is failing, and I only get back to Connecticut two or three times a year.
My aunt was a lifelong smoker, and a few years ago she developed severe bronchitis. I don't think she has (or had) lung cancer, but she is on oxygen and cannot climb stairs or travel. When I first moved to New Jersey we lived in a third-floor apartment and my aunt had to stop halfway up to catch her breath. Her oxygen tanks last two hours so I don't expect to see her for my youngest daughter's christening, which means that the only way to spend any time with my aunt is to travel back home.
My mother turns 70 at the end of this month. A year ago I had told my wife that if I only go back to Connecticut once in 2012 it will be for her birthday. Three months ago I told myself that the best gift I could give my mom - and aunt - was a first draft of "The Lighthouse" to show them that their belief and investment in my writing ability is being put to good use. I was determined to finish something by the end of September even if it meant taking time away from my online life, my hobbies, and other things.
"The Lighthouse" will not be completed by the end of September. Most authors can finish a first draft in three months, six if they procrastinate. This is month nine and I'm still straightening out the spine of my story. All the plot points and subplots have been established, twists and turns have been mapped out, characters and relationships have been fleshed out (with the exception of Charlie's parents) but the main focus of the story is how Charlie handles his illness. So why is it the last thing I'm focusing on as a writer? Because it's too important to screw up.
It's harder to concentrate on things I don't have firsthand knowledge of, like cancer, or things based in reality, like science. The relationship between Charlie and Amber and the friendships and struggles of teen life are much easier for me to tackle because I can escape to my bedroom or my park or my attic and decide what I want them to be. But a lighthouse is what it is - it has to be dilapidated and neglected in a plausible and authentic way. And a brain tumor can't just lay dormant for a month and then suddenly attack a teenager's body in the exact ways that I want it to. It operates on its own timeline, with its own unique results. The way I picture the story in my head isn't quite lining up with even the farthest limits of what a reader could reasonably expect to happen. And that plausibility gap, combined with the frustration over my slower-than-expected progress, is what I'm insecure about this month.
It's very tempting to rush through this draft, to hold back on some of the details and condense it all into a 60-page novella, but my brain doesn't work that way. The story ideas are coalescing, the puzzle pieces are being revealed and analyzed, fit into place or discarded. But they're scattered about. There are blank spaces everywhere; even where the storyline is developed the words and actions aren't. It's grating on me that I can't work on this as quickly or efficiently as I'd like, not just because I don't know how much longer my aunt will be around to read it, but because I do know exactly how much longer my wife will be on maternity leave: seven weeks.
Once those seven weeks are over, my writing time will be incredibly scarce. There will be no more trips to the library, no two-hour brainstorming sessions while walking through downtown Cranford. I'll have an hour or two at night (if the girls go to sleep at a reasonable hour) and slightly more time on weekends (if I avoid socializing with the in-laws). And that's how it will be for most - if not all - of 2013.
Even though I'm painfully aware of the impending time constraints, and even though I took a month-long hiatus from much of my online life and went out for fewer walks than I wanted to (despite the weather being much better in August than it was in July) my word count did not significantly increase. The story didn't develop any faster or slower than it has all year, and while I did have some major (and minor) breakthroughs the twin pillars of cancer and the lighthouse are still embarrassingly underdeveloped. But I can't force them to do unfathomable things just to suit my schedule. I don't want to get it done fast, I want to get it done right. And maybe my aunt won't be alive to read the finished product, but I promise myself - and all of you - that whenever this story is completed it will be authentic and genuine and complete to the absolute peak of my abilities. And I will be proud to present it to my mother, to my aunt, and to the world.
For those of you who have stuck with me through my month-long hiatus, I truly appreciate it. I am gradually easing my way back into blogging and will try to get to all of your blogs this week.