Once upon a time, it was my job to write about kittens. Kitten plates, kitten ornaments, kitten figurines. I was excellent at writing about kittens. So good, in fact, that, after seven published books, I found myself scouring Monster.com, looking for another fulltime office job that would pay me to write about kittens. Because I really really really didn’t want to write novels anymore.
Oh, sure, I’m not the first writer who’s wanted to throw in the towel. Just last week, Nova Ren Suma asked a group of novelists if they’d ever felt like quitting. One writer after another shrieked an emphatic YES, confessing problems with unresponsive agents and overworked editors, struggles with failed manuscripts and icy rejections, a sudden and shocking lack of ideas. Writer and teacher Tim Wynne-Jones blogged about this very thing back in 2011: “I don’t believe in writer’s block,” he wrote. “I do believe, however, that sometimes the well runs dry.”
In my case, it wasn’t any of these things. Yes, I did lose my longtime editor to the financial meltdown of 2008, but I was lucky enough to get another. My agent took my calls (whether she wanted to or not). And I have never lacked for ideas.
What I lost was heart.
There are prescriptions for most kinds of writerly ailments. Maybe you need to break up with your agent or editor! Maybe you need to put that manuscript in the drawer and start another! Maybe your creative well is dry and you need to fill it up — with art, with music, with snacks and wine and salsa dancing! Maybe you need to reject those rejections, have a good cry, whip up some Baby Groot cupcakes, self-publish and/or soldier on.
There is no prescription for the loss of heart. I had all these manuscripts lying around in various states of completion, but the thing — the spark, the energy, the passion — that had prompted me to begin these projects in the first place was just…gone. “Which one of these stories do you love most?” my friends would ask, trying to help. “That’s the problem,” I said. “I don’t love any of them.”
And I didn’t. Not like I loved other things, other people. My father-in-law fell desperately ill at the same time my younger stepdaughter did, and for a very long time, needed me far more than my little stories. After my father-in-law died and my stepkid began to take baby steps towards recovery, it was impossible to convince myself that making a decent vegetarian lasagna wasn’t just as useful and creative as any novel I could write.
If this sounds like depression, it was a very specific sort of fiction-centered depression. What good is a story when the people around you are suffering? Shut up and make them something to eat! I had forgotten how nourishing stories could be.
As it happened, it was during a search for another kitten-related copywriting job that I was invited to teach at Hamline University. By then, I had mastered a decent vegetarian lasagna. My stepkid was flourishing. I didn’t love writing, but I still loved writers. I wasn’t sure that was enough for me to be useful, but it was enough for me to try.
And I had to try very very hard. It was the first time in years that I was forced to focus on how one makes a story work rather than dwelling on all the ways one’s story goes awry. But for some of the students, it was the first time they’d ever given themselves permission to take their writing seriously, the first time they’d ever admitted how much they loved what they were doing, how much they needed to do it. “Yes, of course!” I said. “Of course you do.” And I believed it. For them, it was good and right and true.
It took another year for me to realize that when I said, “Yes, of course, of course you do,” I was also listening to myself, talking to myself, giving myself permission to take my work seriously, giving myself permission to love it again (or at least like it a little, maybe, sometimes).
Life will break your heart and writing will break your heart, but love is weirdly, wildly, sneakily infectious. If there’s any prescription to be had here, it’s this one: if you don’t have the heart, surround yourself with people who do. It’s almost as amazing as burying yourself in a pile of real, live kittens.