Jul 31, 2012


I have a confession.

That book I finished writing during my week-long retreat?  I don't like it.

I've been working on various revisions of this novel for almost a year.  I finished one and sent it off, convinced I'd made the book better.  And really, that would have been okay---if it were not for my sense of better heading off in a different direction than anyone expected.

I know what happened. It's not rocket science.

My mom was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and I became her primary caregiver.  My thoughts turned serious.  My writing turned serious. My revised draft turned into a manuscript my agent could not sell.

I personally needed to write that version, but my writing, along with my life, had gone off-track.

So I did what my Western upbringing taught me to do.  I wiped those dirt-streaked tears from my cheeks, dusted off my ripped and faded jeans, and got back on the horse.  It's what you do.

I pushed back emotions that threatened to choke the life out of me and I focused.  I outlined. I planned a book I thought my agent wanted me to write.

I started writing.

When the scenes didn't spark, I rewrote them.

I rewrote

and rewrote

and rewrote.

And I wasn't getting it done.

So I gave myself a firm deadline.  I would get the draft finished during my week-long retreat.  I just had to cowgirl-up and get that thing done, right?

Yes, the writing was painful.  Well, fine.  Writing is hard. I simply had to stop whining and suck it up.

Rule #1:  get it done.

So I did.

I followed all the toughest advice I've ever received or given: I didn't wait for the muse.  I accepted that some days writing is work and you show up for the job.

Only after I finished this last version did I realize:  I wasn't being weak or unprofessional when I wanted to quit that book. Nope.  The problem was the book itself.  I'm not submitting it.  I'm not putting my name on it.

And honestly?  I'd be very surprised if that was a book my agent wanted to get.  As much as I thought I was writing it for her, I was really trying to claw my way back into an orderly existence, going through the motions while my heart continued to cry.

Now, not only was I hurting, but I'd failed again.  We all have those moments---those dark nights of the soul---when we feel like we've come to the end of the road.  I'd followed my heart into a draft that couldn't be sold.  I'd followed my willpower into a draft I hated.  What else was there to do but quit?

Telling my mom was so difficult.

She doesn't want this damn illness to hurt me.  She still wants to protect me from everything cruel in the world.  She especially wants to protect me from her pain.

Finally, I could put it off no longer.

I hesitated on each word. "I finished the book."

"Oh, wonderful!"

"No.  It's not good, Mom.  I don't like it.  I put all that time into it and I don't like it."


I tried to break the silence that followed, but there were no words.  There was no way to fix this ruined draft or reclaim that time, no silver lining that I could see.

"That's too bad," Mom finally said.

And then?  With little more than a breath punctuating her acknowledgment of my feelings---my agonizing ache of disappointment and grief and abject failure---she asked:

"So what are you writing next?"

And you know that point in every great Western, when the music swells and the panorama grows so big you can't imagine the expanse of it?

Yes.  That.  That was my life in the eyes of my mother.

I'd been seeing myself as the turtle in the photo at the top of this post---claiming not to be dead when it had to be obvious to everyone around me that I was totally ossified, merely pretending.

But in that moment, I saw myself as my mother saw me.

"What are you writing next?"

My options were wide open as any Western landscape.

Oh  wow.

I'm still hyperventilating a little.

Anything is possible.

I can write anything I want to write.


"Hmm? Right. Yeah. The next thing. I'll let you know."

This morning I picked up the pen I'd been using to stab myself and I doodled a rainbow.  After lunch, I think I'll draw a cloud.  And somewhere in my daydreaming, I'll find the first line of this new book---the one I've been ignoring---the one written on my heart.

- - -

Update:  I wrote this blog post a little over a week ago, knowing I'd have time to chicken out and write something less vulnerable.  How honest should a writer be about her foibles and failures?  But you know what?  Filtering is the mindset that disrupted my creative process in the first place.  My heart could certainly lead me to write another dud manuscript or two, but my voice still remains in those pieces.  Writing without my heart muffles my voice, giving me a book full of almost-good, not-quite scenes.  If only---if only I could cut loose and tell it the way it is.  

Oh right.  I can.

That's what I've been doing this week.  This new book?  Same beginning and ending, but the middle will knock your socks off.


  1. This is a great post. Yay for you and your mom!

  2. WOW! This is a beautiful post. And your Mom is incredible. :)

    Sending you both hugs and wishes for great joy.

  3. Thank you for sharing this unfiltered truth; it has so helped me. Doing anything "without my heart muffles my voice" too, and I've been doing that in more things than just in my writing. Trying to make things 'normal' when I haven't found the new normal yet, I muffle when I'm trying to find the new path.

    I'm going to doodle rainbows and clouds today and just write the words that come. I'll think of you and pray for you and your mom too.

  4. Incredible post. Thank you for sharing and please know how helpful this was for others to read.

    I hope your next book is exactly what your heart wants it to be.

  5. Wow, your mom does sound great. That's are hard one - Thanks for sharing that part of the story too. Onward through the Fog, huh?

  6. I don't think I would of truly understood your blog if I'd not lost my dad a few months ago. I keep pushing back the emotions, too, and for the first time I truly did have writer's block. At least I found my writing "muffled." I found it hard to finish reading a book, too, at times.
    I was talking with some other writers at a book signing a couple of weeks ago, and that got me inspired to redo an old manuscript I'd written. Rebooted me - for now.
    Thanks so much for sharing these words-helped me understand, a lot. Blessings to you and your family!

  7. Thank you, Tracy. No matter our age, sometimes our moms have to get us back on track. Your well-wishes are much appreciated.

  8. This brought tears to my eyes. Just knowing this helped one person makes it worth being vulnerable. Thank you so much for telling me.

  9. Thank you so much for commenting, Sabrina. It helps me to know this resonated with others. What a beautiful wish for my next book. I'm holding that close.

  10. Ever onward. It's amazing to me how much more quickly things move when our hearts and minds are lined up. Thanks so much, John. (You're going to love this next version. You so are.)

  11. Sending you hugs, Mary. I know a lot about that pushing down of emotions lately. It's not so conducive to writing. I'm so glad you're feeling re-energized. May that feeling stay with you for a long time. Blessings to you and yours as well.

  12. Always be honest, and always bleed onto the page, you're a writer, not a robot. And you're pretty brilliant too.

  13. Aren't Moms amazing? Sometimes you need to step back and recover from life's blows. Rainbows and clouds, wonderful.

  14. Allow me to begin with cliche ~ 'I've said it before and I'll say it again' you seem to touch upon universally shared struggles in your blogs. Congratulations on finishing! Congratulations on a glimpse of the limitless vista of your life! Congratulations on beginning the next book! Mer and I often comment that people (and I'll add especially writers) often don't seem themselves as clearly as those who love them do. I see the panorama when I read your work. And, once again, you made me cry. You really have a powerful gift to spark the emotions of others while also motivating them to get their butts back in the chair and write. Thank you.

  15. I was just telling someone yesterday that the best things I read are those written from the heart. Thank you Johanna for being so honest and sharing this with us. I love how brave you are. Thank you.

  16. Sending prayers for your mom, your heart, your spirit. Sending good juju vibes for a return joy in your craft--when it's time. Crying is as important as laughter and cheery toasts. Be with your mom. Be still with your mom. Be silly with your mom. Let her pat your head, and you pat hers. Draw rainbows and clouds together. Stories are always around; mom's are not.

  17. Bleeding, broken, ripped, battered hearts are difficult to deal with. It messes with your being. It's hard to be you when you've been altered by life.
    We cowgirl up and do our best to to make the most of our world crumbling.
    So...your book took a turn. It went somewhere you didn't plan. It's a reflection of what happened in your life. You won't be fine, but you'll patch yourself together. It's what we do.

  18. You've done it again. You've written a blog that got me exactly where I needed to be. I want to be the kind of mom that sees that panoramic view of my daughter. Well done, Johanna, as always.

  19. Wonderful, wonderful post. Thank you for sharing this. As a writer in the midst of rewrite hell—well, more accurately, rewrite angst—I have been there, done that, gotten the t-shirt and am now back for seconds. I applaud you for your openness, and I especially appreciate the contrast between your opening and closing images. Anything is indeed possible!

  20. Johanna, this is raw and beautiful. Thank you for it. I do understand that place you describe. It was the place I was mired in after our house fire, when every ounce of my energy went toward creating some kind of new normal for my husband in my children even as we lost much of our life's belongings and our home. The story I wrote during those months was saturated in darkness and loss. I had to abandon it--it became too painful to write.

    Sending you my thoughts and best wishes as you navigate this difficult time.

  21. As others have said, Johanna, this is a very touching blog. I don't see that book as a waste. Sometimes we have to go through the motions until we believe. However it turned out, it provided you some space during very difficult times. I hadn't started writing yet when my mother became very ill. Reading romance novels became my escape--my distance so I could cope. But I also want to echo Charlene's comment above. Do whatever you're able to with and for your mom while you can. Blessings on you and your family. Thanks for sharing.

  22. Yes and recovery takes its own sweet time, doesn't it? Thanks so much for the support.

  23. It's funny, Liz. I agree with you whole-heartedly when I'm looking at other people. Why can't they see how wonderful they are? With ourselves, always the blinders.

  24. It's always when I don't feel very brave that people say I am. Funny how that works, isn't it?

  25. Sending you hugs, Charlene. Thanks for these words. So true.

  26. Somehow this is enormously reassuring to me, Lynn. Thank you.

  27. It's such a gift when we can help other see their many options. I have no doubt you'll be that person for your daughter when she needs it.

  28. Wishing you all the best with your rewrites, Jennifer. It's good to know I'm not alone, but I wouldn't wish rewrite hell on anyone.

  29. Yes--the new normal. It's so hard to find, isn't it?

    Thanks so much for your good thoughts and wishes. They mean the world to me.

  30. Thank you so much for these words, Marsha. I do think you're right. The farther I get from that revision, the more good I can see in it. I'm so thankful for the kindness of others who have cared for their parents through illness. Your experience gives me strength.

  31. You're amazing, Johanna - and you obviously come by it honestly. You did what you needed to do, both in finishing that book and in writing this post. It's fantastic you're able to keep - or at least gain when you haven't kept - perspective on issues like this. That your mother would be the one who pointed out the panorama which is you, which is your talent, which is your life, is so right. Thank you for having the strength to post this.

    Take care,

  32. Clarissa SouthwickAugust 5, 2012 at 7:52 PM

    I once wasted 8 months rewriting a book to suit an editor's vision. In the end, we both hated the new version. And I still have figured out how to justify that lost time. Thanks for sharing your story and pointing me in the right direction. Good luck with the next one.

  33. Well done for getting back on the horse, and wow to your mum for giving you the 'move forward' speech in so few words.

    I wish you both well. Good luck for the future.

  34. Johanna, aren't moms amazing creatures? Your post brought tears to my eyes.

  35. I love you so hard, writer friend! And I love your Mom. You two give each other a big squishy hug from me. :)

  36. Reading and willing to have my socks knocked off - and they're my favorite socks!

    Excellent post, Johanna. Listen to the music swelling. The music's always there, sometimes in a minor key (and that's not a bad thing necessarily), but always there.

    I'm glad you Mom helped you see through her eyes. As much as I am sad for what your Mom and you are going through right now.

    My best to you - KjM

  37. Thank you, Glynis. This means the world to me.

  38. Moms are incredible. No doubt about it.

  39. Thank you, Marian! One of your recent posts really inspired me. I think I've been guilty of editing the life out of my work (while all the time trying to please). You've helped me. I love you too, my writer friend.

  40. Thank you! And yes, sometimes we all need a little help to see what's been there all along. Life is good.

  41. Should have read this first. I'm so sorry to hear about your mother. It's very difficult to deal with your parents being so seriously ill. During the time I was revising "When the Moon Is Gibbous and Waxing," I was caring for my mother, who had Lewy body dementia. Might explain the rogue werewolf--writing his chapters was very cathartic.

    I know I'm not exactly a good person to advise any other writer, because I didn't really even try to get an agent and went directly to a small publisher when my book was completed. But not being a good person to give advice never stopped me before, so here goes : - )

    I really think some of us have stories we just need to write. Not the story our agent wants, not the story our publisher wants. But the story our heart is telling us needs to be written. That's where the joy is. And I firmly believe that someone else, somewhere, needs that story--yes, even my story about a werewolf. But before it can find them, you have to free it. Write THAT story.

  42. I think as writers we all reach those turning points from time to time. Those times when we get boxed in by our own thinking and can't seem to find the way back out. Thanks for reminding us to take off the blinders and see ourselves from a different angle. And for not chickening out on this post! :)