The Business Rusch: One Phone Call From Our Knees
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
In 2009, Mat Kearney came out with a song called Closer to Love, which is, apparently, a favorite of the DJs on the station I listen to. It still plays in rather heavy rotation for an older song, and I hear it at least once a week. The song isn’t one of my favorites, but it has a line that stops me every time I hear it, because it’s so true.
We are, as Kearney states, just a phone call from our knees.
Dean and I have had those calls throughout our lives together—when my father died, when Dean’s stepfather died. The calls that just take your every day life and turn it into a completely new life, one that changes things so utterly, you can barely remember what life was like before that moment.
We had one in August. Our friend Bill Trojan had died, leaving Dean as the executor of an estate so messy that a lawyer friend of mine (who handles estates) called it one of the top ten estate stories of all time. My friend did not mean that in a good way.
Our lives changed in that moment and, I swear, almost cost Dean his life one night. He blogged about this after the estate closed in February. Even though his blog is extremely clear, it doesn’t quite convey the pressures of living in this high-stress environment for months on end.
And that comes after years of dealing with changes in our profession, some of which we’ve only begun to understand in hindsight. It comes on the heels of some difficult changes in our personal life, which I’m not going to go into here. We went from high stress to high stress for almost a decade, and then, just as it seemed the stress would ease, Bill died, and we realized that we had no idea what stress was.
I’m not writing about this to complain. We’re both honored by our friend’s trust in us, and we’re trying to do our best by him. We both miss him every day that we go without a curmudgeonly phone call, filled with both complaints, laughter, and trenchant observations about the world.
It is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that Bill’s death not only caused a disruption in our day-to-day lives, tore up our hearts, and changed how we live, but it also had an impact on our writing.
Professional writers who’ve been to our Oregon workshops—the Master Class in particular—call these events “life rolls.” When we taught the Master Class, we (along with Loren Coleman) invented a role-playing game that mimicked the way a long-time professional writer’s career works. Before I go any farther, no, we’re not teaching the Master Class right now, because publishing is in such flux that we have no idea how to present it in a way that will be useful to professionals five years from now.
Maybe, some day, we’ll do it again. Once things settle down.
Back to the role-playing game, which we called (unoriginally) the Game, we had disruptive events coincide with every writer’s role-played career. Those events were called “life rolls.” Sometimes they were positive—for example, you got married (of course, you’d lose money for the cost of the wedding plus weeks (maybe months) of work, but you might not have to pay all the bills on your own any more). More often than not, the rolls were disruptive. We took one bestseller (in the game) out for five years with a succession of life rolls that prevented her from working.
For years after the Game’s invention, our students would send us personal experiences and add, “This belongs in the Game as a life roll.”
Yep. Bill’s death belongs in the Game as a life roll.
In order to deal with this monster estate in a timely way—a way that wouldn’t permanently eat up what little funds Bill had left and our own savings—Dean let almost everything else go. He tried to write in September and somehow managed to finish some really good stories, but as October and November came along, he simply couldn’t concentrate any longer—at least, not on something like writing.
He is only now turning his attention back to writing, eight months after we got that knee-dropping phone call. And I’m pleased he’s doing so. I also understand the struggle. When my dad died, I couldn’t read or write for six months (which plunged me into a living hell, because everything I do involves reading and writing). The counselor I was seeing at the time told me such reactions are normal, and it would ease, but in the middle of it all, it seems like there is no way out.
When we realized how hard it would be to deal with Bill’s estate, we agreed that one of us had to keep our day jobs, which meant that I had to keep writing rather than go to Eugene every week with Dean to clean up the mess that Bill had left behind.
I finished a novel, continued to write this blog, wrote some other nonfiction, and finished three novellas. The novel and the novellas were real struggles, which I blamed on the projects themselves. The nonfiction wasn’t as hard, partly because I used to work in radio on a daily (sometimes hourly) deadline, and I’d trained myself to write fact and opinion under the most difficult of circumstances.
I started the next novel on the schedule and wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and wrote, never feeling like I was getting traction, always feeling confused and out of sorts. I wasn’t finishing anything, even though I produced my daily word count plus, and I’d often have to review what I wrote just to remember where I was.
The year from hell continued, with lots of other disruptions, so that we got to the point where we actually hated to hear the phone ring in the hours before we got up. (People who don’t know us call then; our friends call in an emergency.) I keep track of the day in my desk calendar, and not a week went by without me losing an entire workday to an emergency of one sort or another. Yet I persevered, continuing work on the never-ending novel, taking time to write a short story or two under deadline, and this column as well.
Until earlier this week, when I swear that my brain melted. I looked at the book and realized I had 100,000 out-of-order words with no real hope of figuring out what I was doing or where I was.
I talked to Dean about it, and he finally convinced me to let him help. He would read the book and see if he could find the common thread or if I had written past my ending or if I even had a book at all.
I told him I had no idea why this book wasn’t working and why, even though I was writing, I couldn’t seem to wrap my brain around what was happening.
He smiled at me. He then gently reminded me that we’d had a heck of a life roll in the fall.
I shook my head. He had the life roll. Look at that blog post of his: he went through a lot. I stayed home and worked.
“Sometimes,” he said, “being the support staff is harder.”
I disagreed then, and I disagree now. I’ve never seen a man work that hard in my life. That hard or that long or with that much focus. I was, and am, impressed.
Yet I know he was right about being support staff. My brain was busy these past eight months with Real Life. Imaginary worlds just weren’t as vivid or as important as they usually were—and that included other people’s books, television, and movies. I had little patience for anything that didn’t grab my attention immediately.
I had an unacknowledged life roll.
And I had to acknowledge it—not just acknowledge it, but also acknowledge that for me, at least, it still continues. In the past two months, two more friends have died and so has my uncle. The friends, while not close friends, were still people I enjoyed and who passed away too soon (one at 50, the other at 62). My uncle, whom I hadn’t spent a lot of time with since I moved out West, was an influential person in my childhood, and so losing him was, in a sense, the reminder of the loss of an era.
Plus the deaths resonated with Bill’s, and with my thoughts of late. Dean and I are putting our own estate in order, and I have started a series that will eventually appear on the blog about estate planning and small business. Part will go in the Freelancer’s Guide, because I realized I had missed that topic, and part will appear here, in the Business Rusch. And then I’ll combine it all into something that stands alone.
Yep. Another project. But one that’s necessary, I think.
The brain is starting to come back. And as it has, I realized I haven’t written about life rolls in quite this way. I wrote about setbacks in The Freelancer’s Survival Guide, but because I was dealing in general with freelancers, I didn’t talk about the way life rolls can impact writing.
And they do. Because like it or not, life rolls mess with our brains, our creativity, our energy, and our ability to concentrate.
I know this. I’ve known it for a long time. I have taught professional writers about this for more than ten years now.
In fact, I’ve just watched another friend go through this same kind of slog during the same period. Her father died a few days before Bill, and she had a novel due (and a real day job). She did her best, was just a little late, and only recently mentioned that writing feels fun again.
I reminded her about life rolls.
Pot, meet kettle. Kettle, pot.
The fact is that no one does a job at 100% when something major is happening in life. We all lose focus and concentration. Some places offer family leave or compassionate time. Others put employees on reduced duties or take the employees off the complicated problems and put someone else on that job.
It’s just, as writers, we don’t have the luxury of putting someone else on the task. We either delay the deadline, slog through, or abandon the project altogether.
In the middle of this mess, a book dealer told me about Tony Hillerman’s first missed deadline, which occurred when Hillerman’s brother died, and Hillerman became executor of the estate. Hillerman had a long career and, from what the dealer told me, this happened in the middle of it. I’m sure the dealer—who is a good friend—was offering a sideways life lesson that I was ignoring.
I did my job. I finished my deadlines—except the one, the 100,000-word novel that needs an editorial eye, which it’s getting at the moment. I’ve kept my editor at the traditional publishing house informed as to what’s going on, and he’s understanding.
I’m not. I want to be robo-writer, the person who can write through anything. But I don’t know any writers like that. That’s why we included life rolls in the Game.
Some things just slow you down or take you out for a while. And while I understand that, I sure as hell don’t like it.
The thing is: I’m not sure if that 100,000-word novel would have been a mess even without the life roll. Every now and then, I take on a project that’s a stretch. Or sometimes it’s even beyond my current skill set. And I do that with or without a life roll. Those projects get tossed and restarted, redrafted usually, because I told the story in the wrong order or from the wrong character’s point of view, or I wrote until I figured out what the story was, and then I had to actually write that story, not the story about writing the story.
In other words, even when life is normal, my process is a messy one.
It all goes back to something Neil Gaiman said once. He said that something you write with a headache is as good as something you write when you’re feeling fine. And it shouldn’t be.
But it is.
So as messy as my life has been these past few months, as hard as it’s been to concentrate, I’m probably putting out the same ratio of good to bad stuff that I always do. It just feels worse than it is.
The key is something I tell my students: You have to give yourself a break. You must look at your work as if you still had a day job. If you’d call in sick to a real job, then don’t write today. If your boss would tell you that you’re being ineffectual and you need some time off so go home, dammit, then you should really knock off writing for the day. If you’d take a vacation or compassionate leave or family time at the day job, then do so as a writer.
Oh, that advice is so easy to give. So hard to take.
Dean told me two weeks ago, as more stuff happened in our lovely little spat of life rolls, that I should take April off. Instead, I’ve written my usual number of words of fiction, my weekly blog, and a few other nonfiction pieces. I’ve also started the major research on the estate article.
I didn’t want to take April off. But I did want to quit focusing on the Impossible Book. So I started a project just for me, something fun. And I’ve knocked off early more nights than not. I’m actually caught up on my television viewing for the first time in years. I’ve read two novels on the day they arrived in the mail, something I haven’t done in longer than I care to think about.
And I’m starting to noodle the idea of a vacation. Somewhere easy. Somewhere close. Somewhere fun.
Life rolls knock all of us to our knees, whether the rolls come by telephone or via e-mail or by a simple knock on the door. We’ll all spend some time on that floor wondering how the hell we got there.
The key is not that we’ve fallen, not even how long we remain on our knees with our hands hiding our faces, but how many times we’re willing to get up. Once we get up again, then we go forward in the new reality, forging a new path.
My students have heard me say that countless times, and I’ve spoken from experience. But it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve said it or how many times I’ve lived it: I still need someone else to remind me about how difficult life rolls are and how different we are after we’ve recovered from them.
Don’t hear me wrong: I’m not giving anyone an excuse to skip writing. I’m telling you to evaluate your life and realize that at times, the writing will be hard, the business will be hard, life will be hard.
All we can do is get through that, and then go back to what we love.
Sometimes the key to surviving a life roll is to just get through it.
I hope I will do so with the same grace under pressure that Dean has shown these past eight months. He’s been amazing. In fact, when that knee-knocking phone call came last August—and it was a phone call—I’m not even sure Dean went down. He just started moving forward with great purpose and a built-in recognition that everything had changed.
Apparently it takes me longer.
I guess it’s time to deal with the fact that I’ve had a life roll. Now I need to deal with the fallout from it.
Time to stand up and face the music.
I just hope the music isn’t a three-year-old Mat Kearney song with a devastating lyric. I’d like to listen to something else for a while.
I’ve written this blog now for three years (Jeez, as long as that stupid song has been out), and I generally focus on business. When I was writing the Freelancer’s Guide in this space, I remembered the emotional component of business. I’ve been ignoring it of late. I’ll bring bits of the emotional side back in as I continue.
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“The Business Rusch: “One Phone Call From Our Knees,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.