The Business Rusch: One Phone Call From Our Knees

Business Rusch free nonfiction Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing

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.

Thanks to all of you who support the blog. If you like what you read, if you’ve learned something, if you’re a frequent visitor, please leave a tip on the way out. The interaction, from comments to donations, keeps me writing the blog. So thank you.

Click Here to Go To PayPal.

“The Business Rusch: “One Phone Call From Our Knees,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.






126 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: One Phone Call From Our Knees

    1. Powerful blog, Diana. Thank you for sharing, and for finding that silver lining in what sounds like very, very hard times.

  1. I always enjoy your blog, but this post really resonated with me as I’m just getting over a life roll myself. It also inspired me to write a blog post about the good side of bad times.

  2. Thanks for the great post. I’ve had at least one life roll a year (usually more) since 2005. I have pushed to keep writing, but it’s hard all the time. I wish more people, and more writers, understood. I’m tired of hearing how if you’re a “real writer,” you’ll write through it all, using writing as therapy. That just doesn’t work for everyone. I’m not sure it even really works for the people who think it works for them. I lost two close family members last year. I kept writing, but I’m really looking forward to having some time in the future where I can write without having to fight the grief to do it.

    1. Catherine, I thought I was one of those people who could write through anything. Then my father died, and I couldn’t write or read or think for six months. That was quite a lesson. Because usually I can–and could–write in any conditions. But some conditions are just too severe. I’m so sorry about the loss of your family members. Hugs to you. I hope you can find some time to rest and deal.

  3. As the friend Kris mentioned whose father died, I want to say she left out an important detail: Kris and Dean helped me more than I can say.

    When I thought I had forgotten how to write, when I was wondering if I could just write a check to the publisher and say “sorry,” when I FINALLY got up the courage (or desperation, not sure which) to admit there was a problem and I was terrified, they said many of the things Kris put in this post. Kris, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say you saved my career that day, because I really thought I was done for good and without your help I don’t know if I could have stood up and kept going.

    They told me my reaction was normal. That the writing would come back. That I hadn’t forgotten how to write and would never write another book.

    They gave me the reassurance (from experienced, seasoned pros) that this would pass, and while the grief and readjustment aren’t over, I know it will get better.

    And oddly enough, I had this same conversation a few days ago with another writer at Malice Domestic. In the middle of a life roll, the writer was scared and alone, and I was able to offer the same reassurance. I couldn’t have done that without you, Kris, so you may have saved another career, too.

    I know there is another monster wave facing me, but I hope I have a few more tools for coping. And if I do, I owe it to the generosity of Kris, and Dean. You are both exceptional.


    1. Chris, thank you. I am so glad I helped. (I should have listened to myself.) I’m so glad you were able to pass the words along, but I’m sorry that the knowledge had to come at such a high price. **Hugs**

  4. Thanks, Kris.

    I knew I was in trouble when my father died in November, despite everything my siblings and I could do for him. Then I lost an older professional friend in January, as I was packing to move (and writing – and recovering from long-term illness) followed by still another familiar face around the convention circuit just recently. And now, just this last week, a new friend whose loss crushed me.

    Writing anything has been a struggle, and friends asking me about my word count have not been helping. I was just back to things that might pay when the last hit came. Fortunately, this time it seems to have energized me in a strange way. He would expect me to find my way through this with grace, and know that he hasn’t left us.

    Life Roll. It’s a great way to describe these occasional hits, some of them from sledgehammers. I’ve been saying that I’m simply playing the cards I’ve been dealt. Thank you for reminding us that everyone has to go through them, and that writers will be thrown out of their secret worlds. We usually find our way back, but it doesn’t happen overnight.

    I’ll be sharing this column. Thank you again.

    Sending you and Dean strength and grace —


    1. Thank you, Kathi. I’m so sorry you’re going through all of this. It does get better, as you know. At some point, we writers have to find our way back to our secret worlds. Sometimes they’re refuges, and sometimes we can’t hide there. And often our subconscious makes the choice for us. Hugs to you.

  5. Hi Kris,

    Thanks for writing such a heart felt post. I have thought often during the past three years of your advice when my father died and then as we dealt with the almost daily crisis that accompanied my mother’s Alzheimer’s decline until her death a year ago. All your posts have been helpful but this one especially hit home as I struggle with my latest novel and wonder why it seemed to never quite pull together. You are so right too – sometimes the way the way to survive a life roll is to just get through it.

    I wish you and Dean all the best. Having someone to just be there with you makes getting through it easier I’ve found.

    writing as Pryce M. Jones

  6. Folks, I’ve been away from the computer all weekend, so haven’t had a chance to answer everything. I’ll catch up soon. But I did want to say thank you for all the great comments, here and on e-mail. Thanks!

  7. Thanks for sharing this, Kris. Very moving! Hugs to both you and Dean. I hear you. Writers need their brains in order to do their work, and the grieving process takes up a huge part of our brain’s focus as it tries, both consciously and unconsciously, to deal with the traumatic event. Even if the writing does turn out as good or as prolific as usual, the toll on our minds and bodies from dealing with both the event and the creative writing process at the same time leaves us feeling muddled and unsure of our abilities, not to mention exhausted. I’ve been there and completely understand. And you’re the first person I’ve heard express an experience I also had while grieving (thank you so much for allowing me to feel less alone!) – I no longer cared to read or watch films or TV because I suddenly had no tolerance for anything that wasn’t absolutely spectacular and filled with deep meaning, and I didn’t feel like spending time searching for that level of entertainment while I was wrestling with trying to write my own material. I wish you and Dean all the best. I’m sure you’ve helped many writers with your very open post.

    1. Thanks, Marilyn. Yes, that reading/watching/writing thing was startling to me, and I actually planned for it when I lost my mother. But that grief experience was completely different, which leads me to believe they’re all different. Thanks for the comment.

  8. Hi Kris,

    I found this post via Gary Jonas on Facebook, and I hope you don’t mind me chiming in, despite not really knowing you.

    As a caregiver for a wife with several chronic illnesses, I’ve learned a few things about being the support person, even if it’s just a temporary situation. I understand why you disagree with what Dean says about how being the support person is sometimes more difficult, but he does have a point. When it comes down to brass tacks, though, it’s not more or less difficult, it’s just different. Being the support person has its own unique stresses, and they can easily interfere with productivity, just like the primary stresses faced by the person being supported. My wife agrees with Dean that sometimes it is harder for the caregiver, but she’s quick to point out that it’s not a competition and shouldn’t be viewed that way.

    Consider PTSD, for example. The end result is often the same, no matter what the initiating trauma was. The PTSD experiences of a woman who has been beaten by her spouse are no less valid than those of a soldier who has seen his best friend’s head disappear in a spray of red; the triggers are different, but the level of anxiety is often equal, despite the intensity differences of the original experience.

    Keeping that in mind has been helpful for me as I go through my life as a caregiver, and I hope that some small bit of it might be helpful for you, as well.

  9. I want to add my thanks too…what a powerful piece. It really shook me, because so often the way I get through a life roll is to pretend it’s not happening and soldier on. And when the roll is serious, that just won’t cut it, at least not in the long term. You never get over the big stuff that happens to you, but in order to integrate it and get healed enough to carry the loss, you first have to admit it’s really happening.

    I think a little vacation is a great idea…hope you get one soon, and that things get easier for you and Dean!

  10. I am fortunate (?) in that there were a couple of episodes early in our marriage where he thought I was nagging and it turned out I was right. (It helps that I don’t normally nag.) In particular, he’d been having a terrible pain in his jaw, but he has incredibly sensitive teeth and HATES the dentist, so he wouldn’t go. So about a week later I come home and he’s standing in front of the bathroom mirror holding half his tooth in his hand. And I said, “You’re calling the dentist now, right?” and he said, “Well, it doesn’t hurt…” And I said, “You’re calling the dentist now, right?” Turned out the root had died and the tooth was literally rotting in his mouth. Ick. So now if he’s being stubborn I just say “You’re calling the dentist now, right?”

    My beloved proud stiff-necked mule-headed stupid stubborn cousin who died at age 36 the day before his only child’s fourth birthday was also ignoring his support staff. (Not that I’m still mad at him or anything…) I didn’t know it at the time, and his wife (who is also very dear to me) later said she wished she’d called me, because maybe he would’ve listened to me. (I was the only one who managed to talk him through a couple hard things over the years.) And of course I told her that if he wouldn’t listen to his wife, or his mother, or his sister, or our grandmother, he probably wouldn’t have listened to me either, but deep down I wonder. Which isn’t healthy. That’s the hardest part for me to get over.

    So anyway, Dean, next time Kris tells you “You’re calling the dentist now, right?” you should listen. Because the support staff is paying more attention to your well-being than you are.

    1. LOL, Mercy. He has gotten better over the years. Now I need to learn to listen to him. He’s been trying to get me to stop since February…

  11. I keep writing a comment and then deleting it. I think I’m too much in the middle of the roll to really have something to say here, but I did want to thank you for this post even though it made me cry. It’s nice to think that it will get better.

    Thank you.

  12. I started getting migraines in the past few years, with a warning sign of light sensitivity. If I can catch it then and get somewhere dim and quiet, I can often keep the migraine from hitting. (Thus why I always carry sunglasses.)
    I’ve recently discovered, though, that peppermint works pretty well when the migraine’s in the early stages. Altoids for munching, and peppermint essential oil for sniffing or for putting on the tight spot in my neck to help the muscles relax (which is one trigger, when I can’t get to the chiropractor to fix it).
    Feverfew tea’s also supposed to help prevent migraines. I’ve only tried it once so far, and it seemed to work. Clove + feverfew = nauseating flavor, though.
    Of course, none of my above statements are approved by the FDA, etc. Nor am I a medical professional. I’ve just been playing with herbal remedies since I accidentally cured my own lung infection a few years back. (Usually, I need 3 rounds of antibiotics for those. That took 3–4 mugs of tea.)
    So your own mileage may vary with the peppermint and feverfew. ^_^

    1. Carradee, thanks for the recommendation. I’ll try the peppermint. Clove and I… The migraines can be unbelievably severe, which is why I haven’t been on line the last few days. Couldn’t even look at a screen. Or think. I’m sorry to hear that you get them as well. Take care.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *