Monday, January 15, 2018

Writing Through Catastrophe

The lives of writers have always interested me. Long before I even thought about writing stories for publication, I gobbled up biographies of my literary heroes and discovered many lived lives much like everyone else’s. Great highs. Miserable lows.

When I started to write, I began to connect with others, so instead of reading about the lives of writers, I was actually sharing in them. Daily humdrum to catastrophic. Of course, those catastrophic times remain clear in my memory.

The hurricanes that devastated the southern states, wreaked havoc that will have long-lasting effects on everyone who suffered the loss of people and property. Some of my writer friends have vanished from the online scene. They’re taking care of family and working to put their personal lives together. 

During last year fires in California totally upended some writers lives. I know some had to evacuate. Two are still without homes, and they may never return to where they lived before the fires. I still don't know if they lost their work, and I dread asking. 

Illness. Death. Financial loss. All can enter a writer’s life, derail a book, derail a career, derail a writer so that they can’t get the words to come. So how can writers write through catastrophes? How can they recover from their experiences and even turn them into something of value to themselves and others?

When I’ve had run-ins with catastrophe, I asked myself those two questions. Searching for help, I found sports psychologist Lew Hardy’s Catastrophe Model, and suggestions for athletes coping with those times they plunge over the emotional cliff and can’t function--in a writer’s case, that translates to “can’t write.”

His model is complicated, but his suggestions are simple: “Once over the edge, the key to recovery is 1) relaxation, 2) restructuring cognitively and 3) reactivation.”

Focusing on breathing is a simple and easy way to reduce tension and anxiety. When you’re in control of your most basic life function, you can’t be tense. You can’t be anxious. Your level of “emotional arousal” drops. Some use prayer with the same calming, centering effect.

And then there's the idea of having control over at least something. Here's a quote from one of the abstracts (Perceived Control of Anxiety and its Relationship to Self-Confidence and Performance
Sheldon Hanton  & Declan Connaughton) "Symptoms perceived to be under control were interpreted to have facilitative consequences for performance; however, symptoms not under control were viewed as debilitative." As I interpret this, when the bottom of your world drops way, get control of something, anything. That may be enough to help you gain control over something else. One step at a time.

Have you ever come up with these thoughts? This is horrible…I’ll never finish…My career’s over. There’s no use in going on. I have, several times. Hardy’s model suggests this is the time when restructuring the way we think is so crucial. We can use the tried and true mantra, “Dwelling on the negative will only hinder my performance, it does not help.” Or we can find something specific to our writing. “I’ve written good stories before; I can do it again.” Instead of the general and vague, make it very personal. We've just entered a new year. This is a great time to do a recap of what you accomplished in 2017. 

Reactivating is the last step in this process for getting back to optimum performance. It’s a gradual process, not a jump-back-into-the-fray one. Hardy says, “Focus on regaining a rhythm and comfort to your effort. As you settle into a sense of flow, you can increase your intensity and soon be back at that peak level.” Tell yourself, “Just stay calm and write a sentence you love. That’s enough. Tomorrow, do more.”

We all have times when we fall over an emotional cliff and can't perform the way we trained to do. I'm using these steps. They're getting me through one of those falls. What do you do when catastrophes strike? 


Pat Hatt said...

I'm too much of a stubborn sob, if catastrophe comes, I just face it and keep on keeping on. But yeah, sometimes we need to slow down and get things in order before we start again.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

That would work even if we haven't run into a catastrophe. How many times do we get sidelined by small things? Those steps could pull us back faster.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Dwelling on negative never helps anyone.
That's a great model for getting our lives back on track.

Christine Rains said...

I'm a face it head-on type and I deal well with change. Though it is difficult when so many people in my life are not.

Juneta Key said...

It is going on the third year of a tough struggle which seems to be getting harder and more unexpected and disappointment that I did not see coming, so I am not doing so well. This year I am trying to narrow and toughen down to singleminded focus, so will let you know how that goes. I need more discipline, fortitude, and motivated determination moving forward. I also need to stop feeling just oh so tired, which makes it hard to motivate and push harder.

Deep breaths have not been enough. Some of what I do and it does help. I meditate along with deep breathing. I learn about positive action techniques and actually try them before discarding. I read things that feed the soul daily even if only a small portion. I listen to relaxing music, music good for the mind and healing sounds. I take positive physical action where I can, even if it just getting some chore done. I have taken some action to the positive. Getting out helps too when you can. I pray, I plan and reorganize when I see I am failing to move forward or something is not working, which is what I have done for 2018. I make lists, mindmap and sometimes if I am lucky outline a short story or start a longer one.

It can be a constant battle to turn thought from negative dwellings to positive. The good thing about that is you cannot hold two thoughts at the same time, so think about something else and make it a positive mantra until the persistent negative thought goes away. Just repeating thank you, thank you, thank you, for the blessings, I do have can lift the spirit.

Loved the post and suggestions. I want that to be me now writing despite it.

cleemckenzie said...

Juneta, you really have had a battle. I hope you continue to find things that you can be grateful for, and continue to make that huge one-step-at-a-time journey.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I didn't write for over three years after my husband's death and my loss of job and thought I never would. While I'm enjoying the process again, I'm forever changed by these traumatic experiences and life and writing is a new journey.

Deborah Drucker said...

I am grateful I haven't had to go through a catastrophe with so many occurring in California and around the world. I have a feeling it would derail me for a while for sure. I have been going through a long transition from working to almost complete retirement earlier than I had planned. I have had to face the big empty spaces in my life. I have never been a big organizer and it is hard to restructure your life when you had been used to having it structured from the outside with job and children.My life was leading me instead of me leading it, I think. I am drifting a bit and haven't reached shore yet.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I've had a few writer friends who when through personal losses that threw their writing careers off the rails. Have supportive friends can help. It seems there's one natural disaster after another lately.

nashvillecats2 said...

Great read Lee. Should anything occur I try to keep writing although when it comes to painful shoulders I do rest for a couple of days.


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Lee - it's a challenge at times ... but finding I could write and then continuing the blog has really helped - there's positive here, even if negative can be running through. We each develop our own way of coping - and being positive and realising the tide will turn, it always does, is one way of keeping going.

Excellent post for so many of us - cheers Hilary

Roland Clarke said...

Great post and good advice. My nearest encounter with 'catastrophe' was when my equestrian journalism/photography career was cut short when my multiple sclerosis forced me to retire. I managed to continue working for five years after the diagnosis, but I was forced to take stocks and reinvent myself - when I eventually relaxed and accepted my destiny.

Now, I'm a part-time fiction writer who has to juggle work, sleep and play - and forget about the wheelchair. Basically, an MS Warrior.

lyndafiller said...

I find the major juggle is giving in to "maybe I'm not good enough..." When that happens I have to go to Amazon or Goodreads and maybe both--and stay away from sweets!--and remind myself that readers love my work. In one of those paralyzing moments, I almost didn't publish Lie to Me. I asked my editor to be honest: should I publish this book? Is it good enough? She laughed at me, told me it was great and to stop worrying. It's getting almost all 5-star reviews.
I haven't had any natural disasters. My heart goes out to all who have lost property, family, and work.
Thanks for this reminder.

J.L. Campbell said...

I think writing helps me get through 'things', so when I need relief from reality, writing is a refuge. Glad you've found a process that helps get you over the hump, Lee.

Shah Wharton said...

As someone with GAD, bipolar disorder and social anxiety, I experience negative thoughts and fight them every day. Medication helps, as do my family. My worst 'catastrophe' however, was losing my brother to suicide, then my father to organ failure a year later. This was 2004 - 2005 and I still feel their impact.

Thanks for this great post. One step at a time and keep on keeping on! X

Mirka Breen said...

When I was younger, writing was a way to cope with the hardest things. Now I find that I need inner calm to write, and turbulence makes it impossible.
Writing while riding through a storm is not for everyone.

Bryan Fagan said...

The key for me was control. I remember a death in the family that I took hard. Creating short stories for only my eyes to read gave me a calm that I couldn't find elsewhere. Looking back it think it all came down to control. I was in charge of something. Somehow that put my mind in a good place.

cleemckenzie said...

Each of you has shared something very close and personal. I hope we all take something from each others experience that helps us through those extremely hard times. What a brave species we are, heh?

Michelle Wallace said...

Since I haven't experienced a catastrophe that has derailed my carefully constructed writing path, I'm wondering what my reaction would be?
Knowing myself, I'd push through to the best of my ability...I can be relentless in that way.
But I can't be sure. I still regard myself as a newbie, so I'm still fragile in that sense...
This made me think.

Liesbet said...

During a catastrophe, I find it helpful,to write down my feelings and what I am going through. I can’t write in a work of progress during those times. And, that is fine. It refuse to feel guilty about that. After the catastrophe, it is helpful to focus on something else, shift the attention away from the disaster and the writing. Next, is time. After some time has passed and I can take a step back, I am ready to write “seriously” again.