Something Like Writer's Block
I wrote my first ‘novel’ when I was six. It was called “Kindergarten Chaos,” and I penned it to fill what I saw as a void in Kid Fiction: not enough chapter books without pictures for pre-school and kindergarten students. (I genuinely thought there was a huge untapped market for this.)
I kept writing and writing and writing all through school. Often while in school. Specifically, during math or science class, when I was supposed to be learning math and science. (I did not excel in math or science, shockingly.)
I never had writer’s block. I didn't even think it was real. It was a myth. A way to excuse giving up. Writing is innate. Being a writer is just part of a person, and that part can't be blocked... right?
Don't get me wrong, I’ve had periods during which I’ve set aside a project because it just didn’t interest me anymore, or because I lost the muse, or because I no longer cared about where it was going – my apologies to people waiting to finish that fanfic I started posting in 2004 and last updated almost a decade ago - but that was never what I'd call writer’s BLOCK. More like writer’s boredom.
Around 2016 or 2017, I started working on an outline and character study for a book about a girl and her beloved grandmother. The grandmother in the book has Alzheimer’s. This was based on my own experiences. My grandfathers both have/had Alzheimer’s, one of my grandmothers has Vascular Dementia, and the other grandmother has unspecified rapid-onset dementia. It’s hard to watch. I imagine it must be even harder to experience firsthand. And I worry that Alzheimer’s and/or dementia is my future. But I digress…
I started to struggle with the manuscript over the last year, as my grandparents’ conditions worsened. My paternal grandfather died a few years ago, but my maternal grandfather, who first started showing signs not that long ago, has gone from forgetting how to turn the windshield wipers on while driving during a sudden storm to forgetting every single member of our family, including his wife of sixty years. My maternal grandmother’s Vascular Dementia robbed her of nearly all of her speech, until “Yeah” was just about the only word she could say, though she’d come out with the occasional sentence that made us all happy to hear. And my paternal grandmother, Grandma, the one who said she didn’t want to be called “Yia-yia” because it sounded too old, went from driving and traveling independently and seeming perfectly herself to being found wandering confused in the woods with her Yorkie, being admitted to a nursing home, and deteriorating rapidly for reasons unknown – her doctor, who specializes in geriatrics and conditions like Alzheimer’s, said he’d never seen a case like hers, and the possibility her dementia was caused by something like an untreated tick bite causing fluid building in the brain was discussed.
Through this, it became harder to write the manuscript.
While I worked on it with all four of my grandparents in mind, it was most inspired by my maternal grandmother, Meme. Meme, with her incredible memory, creative streak, and never-wavering support for her grandchildren’s artsy endeavors.
I wrote my dedication early on. This was on the advice of one of my favorite professors, Nancy Ruth Patterson, who said “if you know who you’re writing it for, you won’t be able to abandon it; you’ll finish it for them.” She’s right. Every time I thought about abandoning my debut novel to write something easier, I’d think about the kids I was writing it for, and keep on. My dedication for the WIP was this:
For Grandma and Grandpa and Pepe
(whose memories I’ll keep)
And especially for Meme
(who remembers everything)
“One doesn’t recognize the really important moments in one’s life until it’s too late."
(Agatha Christie = Meme’s favorite author.)
At the time I wrote the dedication, I somehow still had no idea how very true it was.
Despite the dedication, I was struggling with the rough draft while my grandparents were struggling with Alzheimer’s and Dementia. I thought I might not be able to write it. It might be too hard, too emotionally difficult, too sad.
Then, in July, I spent two weeks down in Roanoke, Virginia, where I am an MFA student in Children’s Lit at Hollins University. Professor and KidLit author Nancy Ruth Patterson led a writing intensive for post-grads, and the school made an exception to let me join it, even though I’ve not graduated yet. I workshopped my WIP, and was feeling so much better about it by the time it concluded.
I had new vision, purpose, a better outline, a hopeful undertone to replace the one of deep sadness permeating my real life. My classmates seemed engaged in the story. Lisa Rowe Fraustino, Kathryn Erskine, and Uma Krishnaswami gave helpful, positive feedback. Nancy Ruth Patterson believed in it, and we agreed to check in with each other once a month until it was finished, because she’s wonderful.
The intensive ended on a Friday. On Saturday, I left Roanoke and began the ten-hour trip back. I bypassed NYC and went straight to northeastern CT, because a friend of mine had passed away while I was away and her funeral was scheduled for Monday morning. Her name was Marian and she died suddenly, unexpectedly, leaving behind two sons who are about my age. She was an incredible person and I couldn’t believe she was gone. I still can’t.
The day after the funeral, my mom and I planned to take my maternal grandmother out to dinner. She had said on Monday evening that she wanted to go to The 99. (She couldn’t actually SAY The 99, but I wrote down a list of options so she could tap the one she wanted. The 99 was one of her two favorite places, so no surprise that she wanted to go there.) But when we got there Tuesday evening, she seemed a bit out of sorts and too weak to even get into her wheelchair. I was very worried. Mom was a little worried. But that’s normal – I’m a worrier.
We promised Meme we’d go to The 99 when she felt better, but for that night Mom and I ran out to buy milkshakes, a hotdog, a cheeseburger, and fries. We brought them back for Meme and Pepe. Meme only ate a few fries, maybe a couple of bites of her hotdog, and a nibble of Pepe’s burger, but she drank all of large chocolate shake. She lacked energy and was unfocused, but she seemed otherwise okay. She enjoyed the shake.
“We’ll go to The 99 next time,” we told her. “Later this week or next week.”
By the next morning, she was being transferred by ambulance to the Intensive Care Unit.
One week after we were supposed to take her to the 99, Mom and I went there for dinner alone. Meme had died.
During her time in the hospital, she’d spoken very little. When asked if she was comfortable, she said, “Yeah.” When asked if we should bring my energetic godson who likes to push buttons and rearrange furniture into her room to visit, she told us no. When the nurse said she couldn’t hear or understand us because she was too ‘out of it,’ I asked her to pick up her hand and move it to mine, and she did, so we know she could hear and understand.
I sat in her hospital room for hours during the days while my mom, brother, and uncle were at work. I read the ARC of Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn, which is a beautiful middle grade novel about a resilient tween girl, her little brother who has special needs, a new friend, and a fishing competition, but beyond that it’s a story about loss, grief, and the connection between a girl and her grandparents. I can think of no better book to have been reading while sitting there by my beloved grandmother’s bedside.
I didn’t want to leave her during that period, but only two of us were allowed in the ICU at a time, so I’d switch out when my great-aunt, cousins, Mom, uncle, aunt, dad, and brother were visiting. We didn’t take my grandfather to visit, a decision my mom grappled with, but ultimately even the doctors said it would be better for him not to go.
A couple of years ago, when Meme was sick in the hospital, I sat by her bedside and read her the chapter of my debut novel, Planet Earth is Blue, which, at the time, had an agent but hadn’t gone on submission to editors yet. She said she liked it, but she also started to fall asleep after a couple of pages. She was happy for me when it sold. I showed her the cover art and she said she liked it. I couldn’t wait to give her the book, even though by the time it sold she was no longer able to read books. I just wanted her to hold it.
Meme passed away on Monday, August 6, around four in the morning. We weren’t with her.
My uncle had left the hospital around eleven at night and my mom and I were on our way back there at five in the morning. She was only going to be alone for six hours. We weren’t expecting her to die that night, or I’d have stayed. My editor had already rescheduled the meeting we had planned for Monday morning, because she knew I’d want to stay in CT, even though I felt terrible about making everyone change the date. (I hate inconveniencing people and feeling like I’ve let them down, but everyone at Wendy Lamb Books and Penguin Random House was so, so nice and understanding about it, as was my agent, Katie.)
The nurse said Meme’s death was peaceful. She just fell asleep and didn’t wake up. (That’s what they told us, anyway. I’d like to believe it.)
I wrote her obituary. Then I wrote her eulogy.
Then I stopped writing.
For weeks, I couldn’t write anything. Not my writing intensive manuscript. Not any of my other works-in-progress. Not poetry. Not news articles for Nanny Magazine. Not even new chapters of my super-secret just-for-fun fanfiction, even though my readers expect updates on Tuesdays and Fridays.
I couldn’t write ANYTHING.
I guess this is writer’s block.
And it felt weird. Scary. Empty. I felt like I was letting down Nancy Ruth Patterson. My agent, Katie. My editor, Wendy. My goddaughter (and biggest fan), Meadow. My grandparents, in particular, Meme.
I had nothing in me.
On August 25th, I had my monthly check-in phone call with Nancy. We talked more about grief and grandparents than about the manuscript, but we also made a plan. I’d send her four chapters a week, no matter how horrible they were, to keep to a deadline. And she asked to read the eulogy (as did Wendy and a few friends who were unable to attend the services). I started working on a new, detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, which I wrote by hand, because – for reasons unknown – trying to type anything on a computer seemed too daunting, too impossible. I handwrote for a week. And the quality I turned out was 95% awful – I’d get frustrated, rip a page out, crumple it, and throw it, which made my cat happy because she loves attacking balled-up paper. (So, sad as I was, at least there was some solace in knowing Shakespeare kitty was happy, right?)
I slowly got back on computer. I wrote a few new chapters of my fanfics. But not twice a week. Not 25,000 words per week, like I’d been.
And I struggled to put out four chapters per week of my rough draft for my WIP to send to Nancy. They’re not good. But hidden in the terrible are probably some bits I can use later, when ready.
I saw Wendy last Monday at the rescheduled meeting. We talked a little about the manuscript. She said not to rush it, everyone grieves in their own time, and she understands how hard it can be to get back to writing – especially something so personal – after a great loss. During a subsequent conversation with a friend, I was reminded that it hasn't been that long, only six weeks, so it's okay not to have completed all 5-7 "stages of grief" already. It's normal.
But part of me worries I’ll never be able to write it, or anything of quality again. Everything seems to have this air of sadness hanging over it. I can’t write the grandmother in my book. I can’t picture her in my head. I can’t hear her voice anymore. I skip over the scenes she’s in – and there are a lot of them – because writing a happy, lively, loving grandmother (called Yia-yia) hurts. It hurts because mine is gone, and it hurts because I know, if she were a real person, Yia-yia would eventually be gone too. She’d either die, or disappear, because Alzheimer’s doesn’t just steal a person’s memories away, it steals away the whole person.
I have to rework my dedication. Maybe it’s as simple as changing “Meme, who remembers everything” to “Who remembered everything,” but that alteration – from present tense to past – is too painful to think about right now.
Even though I’m back to writing, I still feel like I’m experiencing writer’s block. It’s an emotional block. It feels weird.
The only quality things I’ve managed to turn out in the last six weeks are the eulogy and the obituary.
In over thirty years, I’ve never experienced writer’s block before, but I also kind of feel like I’ve never really experienced grief before. I thought I had. I’ve lost people. I’ve felt sad. I miss them. I miss my grandfather. I miss my friend, Marian. I miss both of my great-grandmothers, who passed when I was two and twenty. Great-aunts, great-uncles, cousins, friends…
But, somehow, it’s not the same. I wasn’t ready.
I feel guilty because we didn’t go to The 99.
I don’t know when I’ll be emotionally ready to really write again.
Though I feel silly for ‘suffering’ writer’s block when there are so many other ways to suffer that are far, far worse.
Plus, I wrote this today. And I guess it’s a start.