Mental Disorders in the Creative Mind

There have been a great number of studies in the creative mind and how it relates to mood instability, erratic behavior, and general mental disorders. This is not such a study. Everything here is anecdotal from a personal standpoint, not scientific. Keep that in mind as you peruse my words. Also, nothing here is meant to be used as medical advice. It’s all about my personal journeys, how they relate to my writing, and how you can also be a creative person despite the hand dealt to you.

Even though I said this wasn’t going to be a scientific study, I need to get some facts out of the way. I’ve been professionally diagnosed with a handful of mental disorders. I’m going to cover each one individually, describe how they affect my life, and how I continually work to do my best writing despite the negative (and sometimes positive) impacts on my mental and emotional health.

I wanted to write this for everyone else out there that may be in the same (or similar) boat as I am. If I’m able to hold down three jobs (Day Job, Writing Job, and Non-Profit Job) and be successful at all of them, I feel you can do it as well. I hope you find my words encouraging and informative, but they are no replacement for qualified, professional help. If you feel you have a mental issue that you can’t deal with on your own, I urge you to contact your doctor and talk it over with them.

I did. I’m glad I did.

Bipolar

bipolarThe most impactful mental disorder of mine is that I’m type II bipolar. I also cycle “fast” as compared to others with bipolar disorder. If you’re not sure what bipolar is, I’ll explain in brief. Everyone goes through mental and emotional “ups” and “downs.” It’s just natural. People with bipolar disorder will have higher “ups” and lower “downs” than the normal curve. Some of them, like me, will move between days of great elation and days of crippling depression in a very fast manner.

My typical full cycle (number of days between two peaks) is roughly a week. This means that on Monday and Tuesday, I’ll be a great mood. Wednesday and Thursday will be fairly normal followed by a depressed Friday and Saturday. A return to normal on Sunday will follow and I’ll cycle back into manic behavior sometime on Monday. It’s not a precise science, and I’ll even spend a week “on high” or a week “down low.” It’s not entirely predictable, so I can’t schedule my life around it. I just have to deal with what comes, when it comes.

This affects my life, and my writing, by interrupting those high energy times where I produce more than the average person. The interruptions come in the form of days where I barely want to get out of bed, let alone put on pants, go to the Day Job, struggle to put 100 words down on paper, or even eat more than a light snack. When deadlines in the Day Job or the Writing Job come about, my boss/editor doesn’t care much that I don’t want to get out of bed. What they care about is that I get them the software or story edits they’re waiting for.

Part of my continual struggle with the rapidly changing moods is a daily medication that keeps my wildly swinging curves of up/down at a more reasonable level. Even with the medication, my highs are a tad above regular areas, and my lows are still a good amount lower than the lows. Unfortunately, the medication doesn’t do much for the speed at which I cycle through moods, but I have to deal with that on my own.

The way I deal with this is that when I feel a high hit me, I do as much (or more sometimes) as humanly possible to be productive. This includes late nights, early mornings, skipped meals (more on that later), and throwing myself whole hog into the project at hand. This helps me get ahead on projects and stories, so that when depression hits me hard, I have a little more leeway in how much behind I can get during those days.

Hyperfocus

hyperfocusAnother mental disorder of mine is hyperfocus. Basically, it’s the opposite of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). My ability to hyperfocus allows me to sit down, crank on a project (whether software for the Day Job or prose for the Writing Job), and delve so deep into that project that I won’t come up for air for hours, sometimes days, later. The longest stint that I’ve hyperfocused on a project was 52 hours straight. No sleep. Little food. Some water. Few bathroom breaks.

This might sound like a blessing to some of my fellow writers out there (especially around deadline time). However, my ability to hyperfocus is rarely within my control. I can’t trigger it or turn it on. It just happens. I also can’t turn it off without an outside force exerting itself upon me, and that outside force (usually in the form of my wife these days) must be persistent and annoying to snap me out of my hyperfocus.

The downside is that this is a dangerous thing for my physical body. I’m sure you’ve heard of the people keeling over dead after a two, three, or four day binge gamefest on some online game. I’ve come close to that a few times. One of the downsides of my bipolar medicine is that it causes low blood sugar. If I don’t eat on a fairly regular schedule, my blood sugar crashes, and I have a hard time thinking, walking, speaking, or just being a coherent human being. This means driving to the nearest fast food joint on my Day Job lunch break is out of the question. Good thing we have vending machines on site.

I’ve yet to find a good way to deal with this, even though I’ve been this way my whole life. One of my mom’s favorite things to say to me was, “You have a one-track mind.” If we’d only known the truth of that statement when I was a child… I’ve tried the software and alarms and alerts and such that trigger every so often to remind you to get up from the seat and walk around. I’ve tried alarms to tell me when to go eat. None of it works for me because I can click the “dismiss” button and get back to the thing I’m focused on. Like I said, the interruption to my hyperfocus must be persistent and unyielding for it to snap me back into reality.

Tourette Syndrome

touretteIf having bipolar and hyperfocus weren’t enough, I also have to fight with Tourette syndrome. Like with bipolar, there are nuanced flavors of the disorder. My particular flavor of Tourette syndrome manifests three different ways, and I’ve managed to get one of them under control, one of them as a rare thing, and the third runs wild in my system.

The one that I now have (mostly) under control is the fact that I grunt like an animal when stressed out. I’m not talking the “job interview” level of stress. My Tourette syndrome triggers when going through the loss of a close loved one, making a massive, live-changing decision, or something similar. I was almost expelled from sixth grade for “intentional disruption” of the class with my grunting. The ridicule was massive, and I knew that it was time to bring into control the part of me that grunted. It took several months of intense focus and meditation, but I was able to eventually bring the vocal outbursts under control.

The second symptom I have is that I used to constantly blow on my hands like you would after touching something hot. This manifested after I brought my grunting under control, and it still persists to this day. However, I’m able to keep it under wraps to the point that I only do it a few times a day instead of constantly like I did as a pre-teen and teenager.

Lastly, I have tics that ripple through my body like a wave. These usually happen in my jaw, elbows and knees. Not really places that people study or watch (other than the jaw), so I can let those tics run free without needing to bring them under control. When someone does notice, they think I’m nervous or restless.

None of these impact my writing directly, but they do affect how I have to handle myself in social situations. While I’m not in the point in my writing career where readings, signings, and public presentations are regular activities, I do have to appear in public as president of Pikes Peak Writers, and I give the occasional presentation to Pikes Peak Writers attendees.

While doing these public appearances, I tend to “twitch out” beforehand to get it all out of my system for a good thirty to forty minutes before the tics start to creep back in. I got the idea from a story about a brain surgeon with tremors in his hands from Tourette syndrome. Yeah. You read that right. Brain surgeon. Hand tremors. Well, he would meditate and induce a near seizure in his arms and hands. This would calm his system down to the point where he could operate normally for several hours.

Closure

creative_mind2As you can tell, there are a variety of things getting in my way of creative and professional work, but I still manage to get things done. I’ve had many people comment on the quality and quantity of my work over the years, so I know I’m doing something right despite everything that is “off” about how my brain works. I’ve had many ask me my secrets, and I’ve always had a hard time putting my “secrets” into words until now.

The last paragraph isn’t there for me to brag.

It’s there to show you that no matter what you have going on in your life, your brain, your body, or your society, you can create as well. I don’t care if you’re writing prose, crafting software, painting oils on canvas, developing poetry, taking photos, hammering out a sculpture, or any other creative venture.

You can do it.

I know you can.

Go create because of who you are, not despite of what you are not.

Note: This post first appeared as part of SF Signal’s “Special Needs in a Strange World” series curated by Sarah Chorn. With the closure of SF Signal, I received permission to repost this here for posterity. Thanks to John DeNardo and Sarah Chorn for allowing me to let these words escape into the public eye.

I Made Myself Quit Writing

iquitI good friend of mine works in a variety of capacities for a literary agent. One of the many hats she wears is that of a slush reader for the incoming queries. She shares inspirational (and warning) tidbits on Facebook from the slush pile without identifying the author that sent the query. Her post from today was about an eight-year-old girl who queried (with the help of her mother) this agent. This made me think back to when I was around that age and had started writing, and the journey I’ve been on since then.

Age: 10

I may have voluntarily (meaning not a class assignment) written a piece of fiction before this age, but this is my first memory of doing so. I hand wrote somewhere around ten pages (front and back) in my barely legible scrawl (and my handwriting has not improved much over the years). I remember it being fantasy. I remember attempting to emulate Terry Brooks (one of my literary heroes). It was not fan-fic, but definitely in Brooks’s style.

Incredibly proud of what I had accomplished, I gave it to my fifth grade English teacher to see what she thought of it. I wanted her to pat me on the head and tell me what a wonderful job I’d done. I wanted glowing praise. I wanted affirmation.

Instead, she graded it like it was a piece of tardy homework.

I’m pretty sure she used more red ink on the pages than I had pencil marks. Every spelling mistake was circled. Every sentence (run-on, fragment, or otherwise) was mangled with cryptic remarks and lines and circles and arrows.

It’s the kind of thing you’d give to an adult critique partner in your critique group.

It wasn’t supposed to be the kind of thing given to a child with a fragile ego.

Without explanation or verbal review, she just dropped the bleeding pages on my desk as she walked by a few days later.

I read everything she’d written and understood very, very little of it. I never went back to her for an explanation of the things my childish ignorance couldn’t grasp. What I did understand was that I would never make it as a writer. I’d never be the next Terry Brooks. I’d never write anything worthy of human eyes again.

After crying myself to sleep for nearly a week, I made myself quit writing.

Age: 15

Five years passed, and I broadened my reading pleasures. I was solidly in the fantasy genre, but I snagged the occasional science fiction book as well. I threw in a few westerns for the fun of it, and absorbed every non-fiction book about history I could get my grubby little hands on.

At this time, my grandparents paid for my book consumption habit by gladly paying for anything I wanted to order via my Science Fiction Book Club membership. There were loads of omnibus editions of trilogies available, and I chewed threw them with a voracious appetite.

One of the things I read was The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson. It gripped me. It wouldn’t let go. I couldn’t get the “everything isn’t happy and shiny and glorious” taste out of my brain. I suppose this has, to this day, shaped my writing voice to some extent.

I pulled out a typewriter (see note above about the horrible handwriting), and started banging away on a story in the style of Donaldson. Again, not fan-fic, but in the same vein. Mine was about a fellow with leukemia that went into remission when he slept and dreamed about another world of magic and fanciful powers. It was dark and ugly, and I loved every word of it.

After writing a chapter or so, I handed the sheets of paper to my hero. My grandfather. My Papa. I wanted to know his opinion, and I knew he’d give me solid advice with a loving touch only he possessed.

After reading my words, he said, “This is fine, but you need to focus on something that will pay the bills.”

Like anything your hero says, you take it to heart. Fully. Completely.

I didn’t know of a way to make money via my words. I did know that software engineers (I’d been programming eight years by this time) made money. In order to make my way in the world as a software engineer (which I succeeded at), I gave up writing. I didn’t fully grasp the fact that a person could be proficient in, or even excel in, multiple things. I figured it was a binary decision, and I had to give up one thing to do another.

Again, I made myself quit writing.

Age: 19-22

A few years passed, and the writing bug wouldn’t leave me alone. I picked up the pen and paper (the typewriter broke long ago, and affordable laptops weren’t quite a thing yet) and hauled my writing implements to all-night diners to scribble my words. At this time in my life, I was only responsible for myself. No one else depended on me, so my time was my own. I’d nurse my pot (or two) of coffee and munch on some french fries into the wee hours of the morning while writing stories.

I didn’t have plot, structure, character arcs, storylines, or anything else you’d commonly find in a well-crafted story. These were basically characters going through the motions of life and overcoming the nasty things I threw at them. This was the best I could do at the time, so it’s what I did.

The problem I had was this: no support group.

I didn’t have anyone to talk with, anyone to encourage me, anyone to help me grow as a writer. This was before the Internet (as we know it now) really took off, so online communities didn’t exist. I didn’t have any local resources (that I knew of) to just hang out and talk-the-talk with them. There was no one around to encourage me to walk-the-walk.

Remembering my fifth grader teacher’s critique (and I use that word loosely here) and my grandfather’s advice, I tossed aside the writing. I moved on with my life. I threw myself head first into improving my software engineering and computing skills because I knew I would be good at it.

Because no one was around to support me when I needed it most, I made myself quit writing.

Age: 33

Lightning struck in 2006. I was eating at a local (Colorado Springs, CO) pizza joint called Poor Richard’s Pizza. Locals will recognize what I’m describing…. Poor Richard’s has a giant corkboard wall where people can post ads for yoga classes, upcoming band appearances, local businesses, suicide prevention hotlines, veteran assistance groups, some stuff for sale, lost animals, found animals, and so on. That corkboard is a great reflection of the society and culture of Colorado Springs.

When I eat at Poor Richard’s alone, I always try to sit along the wall where the corkboard is at, so I have something to read while I wait for the pizza.

This one day, there was a bright, yellow, oversized bookmark that would not be ignored. The logo at the top said, “Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group.” Somewhere under it were the bold letters, “Visitors Welcome” and below that was the rest of their schedule for the year.

This catapulted me back into the writing world. I found a support group to encourage me, improve me, educate me, and drive me forward in my writing.

Through the CSFWG, I discovered Pikes Peak Writers. Through both of those organizations I’ve made countless friends, endless networking opportunities, and a world of literary wealth warming my heart.

Yeah. I’ve had my downs to go with the ups, but since that day in 2006, I made a promise to myself:

I will not make myself quit writing again.

Turning Things Around

I’ve hesitated making this post for a while. I received some good news today that changed my mind about posting this, so here it is….

I’ve been down on myself for a good number of months now as far as my writing goes. I’ve faced some emotional challenges. I’ve battled doubts. I’ve run against my inner critic. Through it all, I continued writing, but with each word that hit the manuscript, I’ve had to ask myself, “Why am I still doing this?”

I see a vast amount of success around me. Some of it I’ve helped facilitate through critiques, organizing meetings where people can improve their writing, and working with the fantastic volunteers at Pikes Peak Writers to further the goals of everyone around me. I’ve been doing these volunteer efforts since June of 2008 with various organizations and since October of 2012 with Pikes Peak Writers.

The problem is that the success is not mine. I can’t take credit for it. My name’s not going to land on the cover of the book. The success is AROUND me, but not WITHIN me. This has led to my doubts in all areas, including the Day Job and things I enjoy outside writing.

When I’m not writing, I still ask myself, “Why am I still doing this?”

I’ve slowly been turning things around on the emotional front back to the positive. Then this morning happened to help push me further to a happier realm.

I found out that one the agents at the 2014 Pikes Peak Writers Conference met with one of our attendees (this is a regular thing, so no surprise there), and they hit it off. The agent signed the author on, and sold her first book (and a few others) within two month’s time. The books were signed on by a large publisher as well, so this is huge for the author and the agent. I heartily congratulate both of them are their current success, and I wish them all the best in the future.

While this is success that is still AROUND me, and I can take maybe 0.000000001% of credit for anything happening there because I helped organize the conference and helped run the organization that hosts the conference….. This made my day.

Seeing this author rise through the ranks and achieve such a phenomenal goal of hers has shed new light on why I do what I do.

I truly do enjoy my work for Pikes Peak Writers. I usually (probably 98% of the time) enjoy my writing work as well… even the editing process.

It’s taken this monumental success put before me to make me realize I have to continue on with what I do because it helps other people achieve their goals. Yes, it takes time and energy and effort away from me fulfilling my own dreams, but I’ve come to be okay with that. More than okay. I really don’t have a word for how deeply satisfied I am that I help other people. I’m sure there is a word in another language or in the Buddhist realm about how internalized this happiness is. I just don’t know what it is.

I guess to sum up. I’ve been in a rough spot lately. Thanks to all of you that have noticed and helped shore me up with your friendship and companionship. Things are getting better, and I’m going to keep on chasing that dream of publishing a novel. It might take me a bit longer than I want it to, but as long as that pot of gold is out there, I’m going to chase the end of the rainbow.

I’ll catch it someday.

Thanks for reading.

I’m On The Round Table Podcast

I can’t believe it’s taken me almost two weeks to post about this! Many apologies to Dave, Terry, and Jake for the massive delays in getting this “out the door.”

A few months ago, I sat on the Skype-line with three fantastic gentlemen and scholars of the writing craft and pitched a story idea to them. They proceeded to throw tons of Literary Gold my way. I’ve caught most of it and crammed it in my pockets for later use on the story.

In this episode of The Roundtable Podcast these three wonderful people talk me through some difficult parts of my story, help me find a theme, and generate wonderful ideas for enhancing secondary characters.

Why am I just now remembering to post this? I listened to most of the “Twenty Minutes With… Jake Kerr” episode on the way home from work today. This means that interview will end while I’m on my way to work in the morning, and I’ll be able to listen to the recorded version of what I experienced live.

I can’t wait to see what new nuggets of wealth fall into my lap with a fresh listen. Gonna be cool.

The drive to work tomorrow is going to be very interesting, indeed.

The Cat’s in the Cradle

Cat's in the Cradle
Cat’s in the Cradle

On Tuesday, when I got home from the Day Job, my son approached me within seconds of my backpack hitting the floor.

He asked, “Daddy? Can we play football?”

I told him that I wanted a few minutes to veg out and just chill before doing anything. I’m often tired from the long day at work and the almost hour commute to get home from work.

He understood that I was tired, and wandered off to play with some toys.

By the time I had changed clothes, sufficiently relaxed, ate some dinner, and just puttered around the house, it was dark outside. Too late to play football.

I apologized to my son for missing out on the football. He understood.

What I didn’t understand is that he wanted to spend some quality time with me. It wasn’t about the playing. It wasn’t about the football. It was about me. He wanted time with me.

I didn’t get it.

Then I saw this comic on Real Life this morning, and I got it.

Damn. I screwed up.

The cat’s in the cradle. It won’t stay there for long.

If I want my son to grow up to be a good man, I have to show him how to do it. I can’t just instruct or tell or educate. There has to be a demonstration of a quality life with the loved ones around you.

I have no plans for tonight after work, so I’m going to spend some quality time with my son tonight. It’s not about the playing. It’s not about the football. It’s about my son. It’s about the man he’ll grow up to be someday. Someday soon. These years with him are flying by. I’ve got to learn to treasure them more.

Robin Williams… And More

I’m not sure what to say here that’s coherent or will make sense, but I gotta get this out of me.

Robin Williams passed away today of an apparent suicide.

I’ve lost more than my fair share of close friends to suicide. It’s one of the most painful ways to lose someone you love. Probably the most painful. I hate the word. I hate the act. I hate what it does to friends and families. I…

Let me rewind a bit before I get carried away on that train of thought.

I’m 13 years old and living with my grandparents full time. My grandmother is in the hospital with her second heart attack, and I’m horribly frightened to my very core that I’m going to lose the woman that’s taken me into her home without hesitation or question. I’m scared like I’m 3, not 13, that she’s going to leave me behind. I’m old enough to know that everyone dies. I’m young enough to think that I have forever with those around me. These two conflicting thoughts rage in my mind, and I’m not sure what to do with myself.

My step mom is staying with me in the house while my grandfather cares for my ailing grandmother. We’re flipping channels, and get to HBO (I think it was HBO) that’s showing the intro for Robin Williams’s An Evening at the Met performance. Despite the adult material and cussing in the show, my step mom lets me watch the whole thing. We laughed together until we cried. For those scant few hours, my tears were of joy, my shaking was from guffaws, and my soul was soothed from the worries about my grandmother.

That’s the night I fell in love with Robin Williams. I looked up to him like that crazy uncle that everyone loves and he loves everyone back with such ferocious passion that no matter what he does, you support him in everything.

When Robin went to repeated rehab trips, I prayed for him. I truly wanted him to get better. I wanted him to overcome the demons that drove him to drug and alcohol abuse in a healthy manner. I suppose it was a selfish desire because I wanted more of him in my life. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every movie he’s been in. I’ve seen most of his stand-up comedy. I loved it when Whoopie and Billy and Robin would riff and act-up between sets on all eight Comic Relief shows.

When I fought my own, personal darkness in my early 20s, I remember heading to a Hastings to find something to rent to watch. I didn’t know what I wanted. I meandered through the aisles of tapes looking for something to rent. Something caught my eye, and I pulled it out. It was a Robin Williams act I’d seen before. Then I realized they had a full section of Robin’s stand up.

I rented every tape that afternoon. The cute girl behind the counter looked at me weird, but I didn’t care. I was going to have some “me time” with Robin.

I got home, and binge watched every minute of it. I think I finally came up for air two days later. During that time, I cried more. You see, some of these were from later in his career when he didn’t have to fling endless jokes. He could put his own humorous spin on the tragedies of life. He delved into some deep, hidden areas of his psyche that many people didn’t know where there. His vulnerability and honesty and comedy about it all made me cry tears of sympathy, tears of joy, and just tears for no damn good reason.

From that darkness in his life came laughter. It was hard to see the pitch black because of the bright lights Robin put on everything. Maybe if we’d looked a little closer, we could have seen what was coming. Maybe not.

My favorite show on TV last season was The Crazy Ones because of the pain-inducing laughter that I suffered through while I had an inflamed intercostal nerve. It drove lightning-like pain through my torso to breathe deeply, move quickly, or shake my body. The Crazy Ones led to all of the above, and I didn’t care about the agony because I was laughing along with one of my favorite people in the world.

Now he’s gone. I never had aspirations of meeting Robin or becoming a friend of his or anything like that. It was just nice to know that it could happen. Now it can’t. Ever.

Even the most brilliant comedians or the most upbeat people or the happiest souls in the world have pain and sadness and internal agony and demons plaguing them.

I know. I’ve been there. I still go there (unwillingly) from time-to-time.

It’s a hard thing to do, but if you think you’re in (or heading for) one of those times of life when even the brightest light can’t shine, reach out for help. It doesn’t have to be professional help (though I advocate that as well). For starters, it can be a friend, sibling, parent, grandparent, cousin, or anyone close in your life. If you’re a person of faith, find a counselor that shares a similar faith and talk to them. Talk to someone. Talk to many someones. Check in with psychiatrist or psychologist and see if they think you need professional counseling or medication to help with a chemical imbalance.

Having a medical condition that affects that way your brain works is not shameful. Would you be ashamed of having a ruptured appendix or a gallbladder full of stones? No. I don’t think so. Those are serious medical conditions that you don’t ask for or bring upon yourself. The same thing goes for clinical depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, and a host of other mental illnesses.

They are medical conditions, just like that popped appendix.

They can be treated, just like that inflamed gallbladder.

They happen to the best of people. Having a mental illness doesn’t make you less of a person. Having the strength to find help, accepting it, and putting that assistance to good use makes you a better person.

Please don’t suffer in silence or alone.

How am I to know all of this about mental illness? I don’t claim professional training. I don’t have any specialized knowledge or skills in this area.

These are all things I’ve learned by living it. There’s something most of you don’t know about me: I’m bipolar. I go through bouts of severe depression followed quickly by sessions of increased anger and inability to sleep or think straight.

It took me until almost two weeks of no sleep drove me to the doctor. I sat in his office shaking from fear. If I’d had a cold: antibiotics. I knew something was wrong with my brain chemistry, but I didn’t know what. I didn’t know if there was a “magic pill” that would make me better. I didn’t know if I’d end up in a padded room. I didn’t know if the doctor would just shrug and tell me to drink some warm milk before bed time.

I didn’t know. That scared me more than anything.

He talked with me at great length and ran me through some self-assessments. After spending almost two hours with him, he declared me bipolar.

I cried. Not out of fear or anger or frustration. I cried because someone finally had figured out what was wrong with me all those years ago. I started seeing a psychiatrist for the chemical imbalances in my brain. After trying one medicine, I asked for something different because of some side effects that were messing with my life. We swapped to another medication, and it’s been a miracle drug for me. I’m not going to give the name here because I don’t want to endorse my miracle drug. You see. It’s worked wonders for me but your mileage may vary.

I want you, if you need to, find a mental health professional and seek their guidance, not mine. Well, I guess I’m guiding you, but I’m pointing you to someone that can help you more than I can. Assume I’m a sign post that’s pointing the way out of the forest of scary thoughts.

This post has gone on long enough and I’m emotionally exhausted from the news about Robin Williams. I’ll wrap things up here.

I just want you to know that you’re not alone and there are always positive options out there. Please think about that.

Good night, and rest in peace, Mr. Williams. You’ll be missed.

PS: I still have An Evening at the Met on VHS. It’s late now, and I need to get to bed. I think I’ll watch the tape tomorrow night and remember the good times with Robin.

Guest Post: Inside the Trunk with SJ Abraham

The moment in my writing career I’m most proud of happened just last year. I took the 85000 words of my debut novel that had consumed years of my life, hundreds if not thousands of hours of effort and thought, editing, querying and pining and…

I trunked it.

Then I put the proverbial fat guy on top of said trunk to ensure the novel never escaped ever again. It was the best thing I ever did for my life as a novelist.

Anyone who has strung together more than a couple of sentences in hopes of having them someday published, has heard the phrase “kill your darlings.” I’ve heard the quote attributed to everyone from Stephen King to William Faulkner (though it actually first came from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch). In those early days of writing, we naive writers think “killing your darlings” means occasionally cutting that bit of overly-flowery prose. By the time we’re starting to mature it means cutting that unnecessary character or that scene that just doesn’t move things along. I’ve also come to believe it can mean permanently setting aside that first novel. Don’t take my word for it. Brian Sanderson on his podcast Writing Excuses called first novels “One giant darling.”

I think most everyone goes into their first novel with dreams of becoming JK Rowling or Bernard Cornwell, where that first brilliant work is scooped up after a dozen queries and then rockets to worldwide acclaim. First novel greatness is an exception, not the rule! Most first timers don’t get that and I think that’s part of why they (me included) spend so much time agonizing over that début novel: they don’t want to face that they’re not going to be JK Rowling. I’m not saying if your first novel isn’t immediately picked up you won’t be a success, or that it’s some sort of indicator that you’ll never be huge, I’m simply saying the story of your writing career won’t be the same as JK’s.

In a session at Pikes Peak writers con a few years ago, Marie Lu, author of the now-huge Legend series stated that she’d written six books before Legend was picked up. Five before she got an agent. Now she’s sitting on the next big thing with a movie in development and slated for release in 2016. In the same session her agent, Kristin Nelson, said that across the board, authors average TEN books written before being published. This includes Harlequin romance writers, and we all know they’re like the rabbits of the writing world.

Here’s why I think clinging to that first novel is such a stumbling block and why they should probably be “killed” more swiftly than they usually are. I spent a total of seven years “perfecting” my first novel (five back-to-back years, and two non-consecutive). Much less than half of that was actually writing. Most of it was editing, tweaking and trying to fix the problems I didn’t want to really admit were there. My second book took three years to write with about half spent in editing. The third which I just finished took under a year and a half I spent less than four months editing. When I set aside my first novel and wrote something entirely new (just like Marie Lu did), I not only got faster, my writing got better. If I’d stopped fussing with my first novel sooner I could be on my fifth or sixth novel. I’d have more practice, better skill and less frustration.

Now, I can already hear some of you going on about how I don’t understand that your book is different. It’s the first book in a series of eighteen novels each woven together by—Aaaand I’m going to stop you right there. You do not need to worry about sequels when you’re trapped in a bloody, wrestling match with your first and most precious darling. If you’re an exception to the rule and get picked up, great! Then start working on the sequel. But, if like the other 99% of us and your first novel isn’t snatched up, let it and the unwritten sequels go graciously, rather than wasting years in stagnation when you could be improving your writing and stories.

Even across the ether of the internet I can hear your grumbles about elitist publishing gate-keepers and the values of self-publishing. Be that as it may, here’s one final thing to consider. What other career would you ever—EVER—expect to start out with absolute brilliance? Would you pick up a tennis racket and assume you’d be in the Olympics two years from today? Would you assume your small business will be a fortune five-hundred one year after you start it? Writing is a skill, and just like any other skill, it improves the longer you study and practice it. Don’t be ashamed of that. Don’t cling to something that’s going to hold you back because it’s your darling. Save the ideas. Kill the novel. You’ll be glad you did.

~SJA

SJ_AbrahamS.J. Abraham is a writer working towards publication. He’s a geek to the core and seeks to write stories that will inspire younger geeks to embrace their nerdy side and never look back. In addition to his novels, he writes fiction for his blog GeekyWriting.

You Never Knew Me, But I Have Met You

I awoke yesterday morning, and the very first thing I saw in my RSS feeds was news of Jay Lake‘s passing on SF Signal.

Jay didn’t know me. We were Facebook friends with the occasional “like” or “share” between us, but no real conversation or comments to talk about.

However, I met Jay. I met him through an interview he gave over at SF Signal. I met him through his writing, his short stories, his novels, and his non-fiction.

Did I know Jay? No. I can’t claim to have known him as deeply as other people in his life. Far from it. However, I knew him through his words. That’s the extent of my relationship with someone no longer with us. That will be the only kind of relationship I’ll have with Jay. It will never change as the only thing I have left are his stories on paper and his voice coming at me through my iPod.

I’ve met quite a few people that were touched by Jay during his short forty-nine years on this planet. Without exception, they related to me the kindness, generosity, love, and care he had for everyone around him. Even when busy with his own concerns (like fighting off the cancer that eventually took him on the next part of his journey), he had time to guide “Hugo newbies” through the process of what to expect and how to do things. From the tales I’ve heard, he put out an incredible amount of energy and concern into others.

Jay, you don’t know me, but I know you through your deeds, actions, words, and legend. You’ll be missed. I only wish we could have met on this side of things. Maybe we could have had a Hawaiian shirt contest (odds in your favor, of course). I hope to be able to meet you on the other side of this life and swap some stories while wearing hideously-colored clothing.

Thank you for the words… more than that really… that you’ve shared with the rest of us.

The Other Side of Fear

other_side_of_fearI friend of mine posted this image with a quote from Jack Canfield. For those of you that are somehow unable to read the quote, it goes, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I used to be afraid of almost everything important. I’m not talking about phobias or fears of “scary” things like snakes, spiders, scorpions, graves, darkness, heights or things like that.

I’m talking about fear of companionship, friendship, family, success, and giving over my heart to other people for them to do with as they wish. This fear paralyzed every relationship I had before they even started. The people I grew up with (mom, dad, grandparents, cousins, etc.) were already established in my heart. I had very little fear of them, but there was some. It was all on me, not them. They rarely gave me reason to be afraid, but I found reasons within myself to not want to be close to them. I couldn’t bring myself to trust them. Again, it was all on me.

Sometime in my sophomore year of high school, I met a wonderful girl a year ahead of me in high school. Her mother was our french teacher, and we shared that class together. She was always a friend to me. Early on in our relationship, I kept her at a distance. By this time in my life, my ability to do this was well-honed and sharp as a razor. I could easily cut someone out of my life without them even knowing what happened. Katie disarmed me with her kindness and warmth. My razor fell by the wayside and rusted so quickly, I didn’t realize it had done so. She brought me out of the iron casing I’d wrapped myself in. I was free of my protective, and restrictive, armor. I was vulnerable in the cold wastelands of high school.

This was not an overnight process. It wasn’t until I was near the end of my junior year (well over 20 months after Katie and I first met) that I peeked out the shell and found that happiness could be had. Sure, there was a chance to be hurt, but I had to take that risk. With it being the end of my junior year, I realized Katie was about to leave to go to college since she was about to graduate. Without her there to hold my hand in friendship and drag me through the painful birthing processes as I escaped the constriction of my armor, I felt lost.

I wanted to crawl back into my armor.

Then a girl I’d met through Katie called me out of the blue during summer vacation. She continued where Katie left off with kindness and friendly love. It wasn’t until years, perhaps decades, later that the glimmer of an idea popped into my head: Did Katie arrange to “hand me off” to Heather because they both knew I needed it? To this day, I’m not sure, but I like to think their secret conspiracy was for my betterment.

Heather introduced me to a whole slew of friends. I’d love to list them off here, but there are too many. I don’t want to do any of them the disservice of forgetting their names on my list of vital people that helped me grow strong after I cast off the internal supports of my distance from others.

During my senior year of high school, I made a decision. It was a hard one to make. I could still see my protective gear in the rear-view mirror of my past. It loomed in my shadow and demanded I return to its safety. My fragile, yet strengthening, psyche of what friendship meant wanted to flee to its protective coverings. I decided not to allow that to happen.

I turned my back on my past and swore to forge a new me.

I had moved past the barrier of fear that kept me from being the true man that I would eventually become.

The person you know today is nothing like the boy he was so many decades ago. The confidence I have in myself, the willingness to make friends, my drive to excel against all odds, and the compassion I have for others are due to the massive emotional efforts of Katie and Heather.

Almost everyone I’ve met since those distant days of high school has supported me and held me up.

The most important person in my life today that keeps me going on my path is my wife, Kimberly. It’s for you that I continue to strive to excel. It’s for our son that I want to make proud that I do what I do.

The point of all of this?

I’m certain you have fears as well. Again, I’m not talking about phobias or those strange things that go bump in the night. I’m talking about deeply internal fears of you build for yourself.

You can get past them. Perhaps not alone. Probably not alone. Find someone in your life you can trust and extend your hand. Ask for help. There are people out there willing to help you for as long as you need. It won’t be an overnight process, but you can do it. I know you can.

Work past your fears and get to what you want. Get to what you deserve.

Christopher Nolan — An Inspiration

Christopher Nolan was an Irish writer with exceptional talent, and a great desire to write. His drive to put words down on paper overcame the facts of his birth. He was born without the ability to move anything other than his eyes, and later advances in medicine granted him the ability to move his neck. With a stick strapped to his head, Nolan was able to write beautiful poetry, and even a novel.

Here are some quotes of Christopher in a NY Times article.

“My mind is like a spin-dryer at full speed, my thoughts fly around my skull while millions of beautiful words cascade down in my lap.”

“Images gunfire across my consciousness and while trying to discipline them I jump in awe at the soul-filled bounty of my mind’s expanse.”

These quotes are going on my Quotes Page for they deserve the company they’ll find on that electronic summary of what moves me.

Christopher was an inspiration to me in his life, and will continue to stand on that pedestal even in death. The world lost a great writer in Christopher this week at the age of 43. I can only hope to attain such lofty goals as he did in his short and rough lifetime.

I feel we have a little something in common, which lightens my heart even with the news of his loss. Here is a quote I once rambled off about myself and a friend of mine managed to write down for me.

“My ideas are brilliant sparks of light that illuminate the dark pathways of creativity just long enough for me to see my next step.”

Without my sparks, I feel I would be lost in a world of despair and darkness. I assume (safely, I hope) Christopher probably felt the same way.

You will be missed, Mr. Nolan. Thank you for what you brought into this world, and may you use all ten fingers (and toes!) on your next typewriter.