I stared blankly at the computer screen for a few minutes and started wishing the words would magically appear in front of me. I was writing my first novel and I was into year six of a 13-year journey. It wasn’t that I was a slow writer, or even that I was a poor writer. I was a professional writer, for Heaven’s sake. I did this for a living. So, why was it so damned hard to write a book?
I looked out my office window at the big park across the street from our house, and listened as the woodpeckers foraged for their lunch. The big trees were loaded with leaves and the wind blew rhythmically and cheerfully through their branches. It was heavenly. It was the perfect setting for a writer. And I simply couldn’t write.
I had started that book when I was pregnant with my second child and I had naively thought that nine months was plenty of time to write a novel. How hard could it be? People had been telling me for years what a strong writer I was, and I had a crystal clear vision of the story I wanted to tell. I had already written this book in my head, for crying out loud, and it was emotionally ground into the fabric of my heart. All I needed was to assemble the words into a nice string of literary accomplishment that would jump into my hard drive and eventually dance onto the bookshelves of a waiting public.
After nine months I had completed the exciting endeavor of creating a beautiful new baby, but the book was nowhere near complete. My husband had quit his job in Toronto to start a business just before I became pregnant with what was to be our blended family’s fourth child, and, by the time the baby arrived, his business had become a memory. A new job opportunity showed up in Quebec. We moved from southern Ontario to Montreal. My man was downsized out of his job. We moved back to Ontario. I made another beautiful baby. We moved. And on it went. At the time, it felt like life was never going to settle down.
And the book became my secret salvation, the dream that flickered continuously in the back of my mind, taunting me, mocking me, and, at times, goading me back to my keyboard. But there was always a reason not to write, another distraction, another emergency. It became the book-that-wouldn’t-be.
Looking back on those years, I realize that there were many reasons why I couldn’t complete that first book. Family disruption was a huge part of it, for sure. How could I settle down to write with five kids on various access schedules, countless lunches to make every day and a never-ending pile of laundry lurking in the basement? It seemed as though we were always moving from one temporary home to another. Through it all, my husband never wavered.
“Write your book,” he kept saying.
But the real issue behind my lack of completion on the project seemed to be the menacing question that has probably murdered many great books long before they are born: who was I to write a book?
Oh, sure, like almost every writer out there, I wanted to become a published author. It is the Holy Grail of a lot of highly accomplished writers. And I thought I had a good story to tell. But I was also riddled with self-doubt about the project, and I kept stubbing my metaphorical toes on the well-known fact that it is almost impossible to get a traditional publishing contract any more. I knew almost nothing about self-publishing, but what I knew didn’t appeal to me. What was the point of writing a story that nobody except the members of my immediate family were ever going to read?
And then my husband died.
His illness and death shook the foundation of my entire existence, and shredded my future into bitter fragments of lost hope. I was breathless with pain and drowning in sorrow. My children, the youngest of which were seven and nine at the time, were reeling from the loss of their dad, the loss of the security that had blanketed them from birth, and the loss of the sunshine their mother had spread through their lives.
I had to begin the plodding, difficult task of creating a new life from the ashes of the old one, the one that had been burned to the ground by an explosion of cancer.
There is a lot involved in starting over, as anyone who has ever attempted the task will tell you. It can be shockingly difficult and there are few guides who can take you by the hand and lead you into your future, the one only you can design and embrace. But the one thing I knew—like I knew like I knew like I knew—was that I was going to finish my novel. Finish it and get it published. Somehow.
We live our days assuming we will see our children get their driver’s licence, graduate from high school, fall in love, and, perhaps, marry. We make plans for a holiday, a summer home, a basement renovation, and a new car. There are restaurants we want to visit, books we want to read, gadgets we want to purchase. And there are mountains we want to climb, ones that might take the form of a book we want to finish writing.
The problem is, we actually don’t know if we will be granted the time to do any of it. We don’t know if we have a future. All we know for sure is that we have a “now.” And it’s what we do with that tiny sliver of time, our “now,” that matters exclusively.
I decided I’d better hurry.
Amid the crushing misery of dragging a new life into existence for me and my kids, I threw myself into finishing my book. I rewrote it several times, hired two editors to bully the language into greater clarity, and began the long search for an agent and a publisher to make my dream of becoming a published author come true. I actually never did find an agent. But I did attract the attention of a publisher, and, in 2011, my first book was born.
That one was followed by three more, and a fifth is due out soon (I hope!). I’ve started writing the next one, and I have plans for several more. It’s becoming easier to write books, now that I see them as part of what I do, part of who I am on the planet to be. I don’t panic about dying before I finish these projects any more, in fact I fully expect that when I leave the planet—hopefully not for many years—there will be at least one partially-finished manuscript haunting the computer I’ve left behind.
For now, I’m focused on the highly important task of making each moment of my life the best it can be, and I’m full of appreciation and gratitude for the magical gift it is. There are still challenges left to conquer in the writing life I lead. But I’m monumentally glad I found the motivation I needed to keep going in the galvanizing experience of loss. Who knew there would be a silver lining in that experience? Who knows what else is available, if we only keep going? The mystery of it all is glorious. The surprises are divine. And, oh my! It all makes for some wonderful stories to share with my grandchildren, if any of those ever show up in my life!