Archive for the 'transitions' Category

Sep 13 2011

rough week, sloooooowly improving

Well I took a short break from PT these first two weeks post-surgery; I just couldn’t make myself keep getting up and pushing physically when I was already pushing mentally and emotionally to heal, heal, heal, keep watch on house management, help The Teen figure out a better after school strategy in the midst of a surge of attitude and angst, hurt hurt hurt, figure out writing kickstarts, wait for shoes to drop, heal and hurt, hurt and heal.  It probably wasn’t the best choice; keeping moving and exercising really is one of the better and faster paths to health, but I just ran out of self-push on that front.  Spent it all elsewhere.  I’ll be slowly starting back on it this week, but carefully, of course.

Today I went into the surgeon’s office for a follow-up, and of course, not as fast a healing as I’d like.  Well, I was warned about twice the healing time for this, plus less activity I’m sure hasn’t helped.  But there’s nothing terrible happening, just slow healing.  I had half of the staples removed on half of my right side (heh), and half of the staples removed on all of the left side (every other one).  I was told that it’s looking really good, even though it’s still producing quite a lot of fluid and is swollen, so none of the four drains came out. (A mixed blessing; it would be nice to have healed enough for drains to come out, but as I recall, that hurts, quite a bit.) I actually think one of my JP drain suction cups has a leak somewhere (based on something that happened tonight), I’ll get them to take a look tomorrow.  I have another follow-up a week from today with this surgeon, I expect at that point I’ll get at least half the drains out and switch from staples to surgistrips.  He also told me to use hydrogen peroxide on the drain openings, which continue to hurt more than most other places on my chest (the swollen areas under my arms are a mix of numb and big hurting).  The backs of my arms are also really painful and swollen, so we’ve been wrapping them to try and keep the fluid draining out and toward the center of the body.  I have gained by far the most weight and am the heaviest I’ve ever been, due to the summer’s inactivity and the steroid drugs I’m on; however the good news is I’ve already lost 30 of that in the last two weeks (mostly fluid, though 8 pounds of it was breast, hehe).

I have another appointment tomorrow, this one a big one with my favorite oncologist, the fabulous Dr. Carlos Rubin de Celis (for anyone looking in the Austin area, I’d commute to follow this guy and keep his services, that’s how good he is).  I get some lab work done, I think we’ll be scheduling some scans; it’s time for the monthly medication renewal so we’ll also be discussing that.  I had been starting to ramp down on pain meds but the surgery pushed me back up to where I was, and in fact I’ve been using a few more of the pops than before.  I think it’ll be ok; he trusts me to pay attention to my body and tell him what’s going on, and I trust him to listen and help me change and stay on top of things as needed for best pain management; it’s a good arrangement.   We have a plan for how to affordably start me on tamoxifen (an anti-estrogen drug) that we’ll be discussing tomorrow again to make sure it’ll work the way we think it will.  I’ll also be receiving my next Aridia infusion.  This is a bone treatment that he says I’ll be on once a month for the next two years at least.  It’s designed to both prevent any future cancer encroachment into the bony areas that were previously affected by the metastases, as well as help assist in the healing of those areas previously damaged.  I’m not sure about how Aridia itself affects my body, side-effect-wise; I probably won’t have a clear picture of that for the next couple of months as it’ll be all mixed up in the mastectomy healing process, but I’ll keep reporting what I notice, when I do.  I’ll learn more about tamoxifen side effects tomorrow as well.  A walking pharmaceutical package, that’s me for the long term, I guess.

Realistically, I’ll ramp down from the pain meds over time, we hope; the damage is still very much there but there’s good reason and hope to believe that it will lessen over time even if not go away entirely.  My mom and I even came up with a clever solution with the help of a nurse for weaning off the pops when the time comes. (I don’t have an addictive personality, but recognize that habitual behavior is its own thing, so I’ll switch to mini tootsie pops or dum-dum pops when I feel the habit but don’t need the drug.)

(TMI warning) One concerning side effect that continues is near-incontinence; I have a much shortened time warning on when I need to urinate, especially when waking up.  This is likely from the radiation, and the RadOnc believes it will fix over time; she says that for those whom it’s permanent damage, it happens during the day as well.  While I’ve had it happen during the day, it’s always when I’m concentrating too much on things like writing, and ignoring the early signals.  If I don’t ignore the signals, it’s not a problem, so the daytime stuff is my own fault and I just have to wait for the nighttime stuff to heal itself over time.  There have been very few accidents thanks to the bedside facility, several close calls and only a handful of missed ones.   (Tonight for example, woke up fine and no misses! yay)

I’ve also had some radiation recall come up, which is skin irritation and/or discoloration (in my case definitely irritation, bah) that is exacerbated by the time spent in bed, so that will hopefully lessen as I get up and moving around more again.  This most often happens when you have to have extra radiation treatments, which if you recall I had to get a second round of 20 radiation doses while on chemotherapy, a scenario they try to avoid when possible due to just such side effects but which was necessary in my case.

This coming weekend links post has some cancer ones in there.  I don’t like to think about the death aspect of it, how close that sits over my shoulder, even though realistically I know that death sits no further away from any of us, really. (Wildfires, car accidents, random violence, anything can snap out that light much more immediately than what I’ve fought off twice now.)  I hope that my loved ones can all continue to treasure my presence and what I give to their lives by being in it; the more I heal the more I have to give, the more I love to give.  The healthier I am, the more I can do and the happier I’ll be, and I hope my friends and family can believe in me along those lines, that you are all so important for me to have and hold and love and lust for and live for.  It’s been a vicious and long road, with no promises there won’t be future sharp rocks along the way, but I’m passionate and dedicated to the ones I love and I WILL keep climbing those rocks.  I look forward to feeling your supportive presences alongside me as I do so.  Patience is one of the hardest traits to keep hold of during these crises and healing times, and sometimes even I want to scream   at the universe for a fucking break already.  Having you there with me makes such a huge difference; even if we’re screaming at the unfairness of it all together, that “together” is what makes it so much easier for me to keep going, keep healing, keep surviving, keep thriving.

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Aug 19 2011

Thoughts on Doing Too Much

There’s several aspects to the phrase “doing too much”, not all of them bad. I’ll explore some of my thoughts on this here, but do feel free to add your own perspective in the comments.

Sometimes you gotta.

We’ve discussed that many a time here in the blog, so I won’t go into it again this soon, but when a thing must be done, and you’re the one around to do it, well…

And then there’s defining “too much”, which is a phrase whose definition really changes daily, when you think about it.  Stamina, willpower, energy, and more aren’t constants, they’re variables; and you’re unwise to treat them differently.

Sometimes I think a large part of life lessons revolve around learning our limits.  What do “limits” mean on that daily changing basis; when to push them and when to accept them; when to keep them and when to free yourself from them however you can.

There’s not much out there like facing terminal life conditions to make oneself face up to learning these lessons.  Too many of us get an easy pass to skirt around the issue.  I’m not saying life still isn’t hard, for most of us, much of the time.  But lessons like how to say “no this is too much for me right now” or “I need help with this, I can not do it on my own” are ones I’ve noticed many of us get to avoid facing head on.

When we finally must ask these things, reach out for this help, it often comes with a whole heap of guilt — and not always internal, either.  Asking for help is often scary, for those doing the asking and those receiving the request.  And if your requests for help have to change from “hey, I could use a little help on finishing this task,” to “help me clean up the bedsheets I just wet myself on”, your perspective becomes much harder to maintain.

But this is supposed to be about doing too much, isn’t it?

Anyone who knows me knows that I run at the equivalent of 110% nearly every moment.  Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but only a bit; I throw my full self into whatever I do, try to be as fully present in each moment as possible, whether it’s building and reorganizing a first aid kit (a long-overdue task that’s been on the to-do list for months that was completed today), feeding a 4-month-old a 6-month-old-sized helping of rice cereal and enjoying watching her race through it, or passing out over a keyboard as I atttempt to reorganize and make sense of a medication regimen that will keep me as pain-free and functional as possible while giving myself more space between constantly taking medications.  (All tasks done today, not counting the occupational therapist appointment, the physical therapist appointment, the open house meet-n-greet for The Teen’s school, or the several hours’ visit and chat about business and other sundry topics with a friend using our kitchen to make and share tasty banana bread.)

Now mind you, the only out-of-house activity of all of those was the school open house, but that’s still more than some people I know do in a week, much less a day, much less three weeks out from a two-month hospital stay.  And sure, I’m exhausted and I hurt (but I always hurt these days, and have been told to expect that I may always have some chronic pain issues from the damage I took to bones and nerves from this metastasis).  When one has experienced enough pain to completely incapacitate, it’s an effort to readjust one’s pain scale to know when to pay attention and slow down.  That’s a mental adjustment I do work on, daily.  Ha, but then again, that’s another task as well, isn’t it?

Tomorrow I’ll leave the house again; this time for an informal support group luncheon.  (And very much hopefully picking up the rest of my medications, or it will be a much more painful weekend than I’ve had for a while.)  I’ve never been to a support group, even an informal one, so it’s a new experience.  The rest of the day is scheduled around “resting”; visiting with my mother, discussing salary issues with the live-in help, hopefully a household board game in the evening for some fun.

And yet there are still items on the to-do list that have sat there, some for months (amazing how much cancer interrupts life flow).  This blog post has been written on all week, and isn’t the one most of you are waiting to read (the scans were overall good, and details will be forthcoming, I promise).  My physical therapist doesn’t understand why I can’t find time to do my PT exercises twice each day, and she’s unfortunately right in that if I did so, my endurance would increase accordingly and I could get more done of what I want or need to get done.

I think that you’ve done “too much” when your body shuts you down against your will.  If I want to finish this post, but I wake up 5 hours from now with dffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff across a paragraph’s worth of screen, it’s quite likely I did more than I “should have”.  But that’s an “after the fact” tell, not a signal to stop before I get to that point.  And I do agree that sleep should get its own fair 110% along with the rest of daily activities, though that’s a lesson it’s taken a stubborn while to accept and learn.

It’s made harder by the fact that other people can’t tell you what your “too much” is.  When I say I need to write more, and someone responds that I really need to focus on visualizing a healthy self and resting and taking care of me before “worrying” about more writing, on one level they’re right (especially their own level, of what they can imagine they’d need to do under similar circumstances — may none of you ever have those).  But when a blog post or fiction snippet I finish at four in the morning rejuvenates my soul, gives peace to my mind, allows me to actually, deeply, rest for three solid hours, it becomes harder to believe that taking the time to write was “too much”.  And you can’t always know ahead of time that I “should have” made that choice instead of taking my ambien and trying for just the resting part.

So, conclusion:  No easy answers on what “too much” is, when to know when you’ve found it, or how to avoid it.  But I’d adore for this to become a discussion in its own right and hear about your own experiences or attempts to control this urge.  If you have any, share your thoughts here.

3 responses so far

May 10 2011

whirlwind week, plus actual good news bits

This is a very full week. That also means it’s a difficult week, compounded by the fact that over the weekend my pain levels started climbing rapidly again and my hips are now even more unstable, giving out several times a day when trying to stand up or sit down. It’s also affecting my sleep again, both making me unable to fall asleep at times and awakening me due to pain other times. It isn’t just my hips but my back, and the pain surges are almost like electric rapid throbbing all up and down my core, wrapping around my ribs, even making it a bit difficult to breathe at times. The lump under my right arm also flares up daily, swelling up enough to put pressure on other muscle groups throughout the right shoulder area and being uncomfortably painful. I can’t do the hot tub (dr’s orders) and I do miss it now, though I’d gotten quite sick of it before childbirth since I was using it several times a day for the pain I was in then. I am allowed bed-buddy and heating pad, so am using that on the shoulders and hips/back, and I put an ice pack on the underarm lump which doesn’t do much but is better than nothing.

Yesterday had the consult for the port catheter install, which is scheduled for horribly early tomorrow morning and which will be difficult both energetically and logistically to accomplish. It is surgery with local anesthesia and heavy sedation, and hopefully also accommodations for the fact that I can’t stretch myself straight on a table or bed. (I spoke to the doctor and he said they can prop my legs up no problem, and I’ll remind them of it tomorrow.) As Jay Lake laughingly calls his, afterward I will have my very own Harkonnen heart plug installed. The port catheter is a device installed into a central blood vessel that feeds directly into the superior vena cava. The doctor was really awesome in the consult, giving me the 30 year history of these devices as he was explaining the procedure. I learned that only about 85% of these allow for blood draws from the area, so hopefully I will be in that majority as I am having difficulty lately with successful blood draws (lots of re-sticks and bruising for days). The main reason the port caths are installed is because chemotherapy drugs are very harsh, and if put in a normal IV will eventually result in collapsed and scarred veins that can’t be used. I won’t have anything visible on the surface once it heals, and it is designed to stay in semi-permanently as chemo treatments will last for months.

Today had another follow-up with the medical oncologist to discuss the CT scans from last week as well as the most recent pain changes and upcoming cath install and chemo. We have also started all the medicaid pre-authorizations so that hopefully we can stay on the timetable for the rest of this week’s plans, though of course that might not happen. (Haven’t yet heard nay on the cath procedure, will call a bit later today to make sure but have to assume that at least is staying on the schedule.) The doc is concerned about the new pain increase and the differences in how I am describing the back pain, so he has ordered an MRI (which we’ve scheduled for Thursday, pending Medicaid approval) on my thoracic spine as the CT scans don’t give a clear picture of what is happening in that area. His concern is that the tumor there might have shifted to putting more direct pressure on the spinal cord, which would be fairly bad news if so, and the MRI will be able to determine that more clearly. Hopefully the MRI scan will be able to accommodate the leg problem also; I was so out of it from pain when I had the first one several weeks ago that I can’t remember if they propped my legs or not.

But I promised good news bits, and here they are. The CT scans from after the radiation treatments were compared to the ones taken before. The effects of the radiation will still be happening for several weeks (they’ll be taking another set of CT scans after 2 rounds of chemo for further comparisons) and so the full effects aren’t yet known, but the liver and lung spots and underarm tumors all either stayed the same or grew only slightly (none of those received any radiation so it’s good that they haven’t changed significantly). The spine had some changes (more will be learned after the MRI on that), but the hip/groin tumor shrank to almost nothing. Also he mentioned no sign of a tumor in the left hip, so whatever badness is happening in my hips is at least not more cancer. The hips will remain weak and unstable until the bone has time to repair itself, so I have to be vigilant for weeks more to come, which is rather scary. It’s also likely that my body is still finishing up flushing the relaxin out of my system from pregnancy, which would contribute to the instability of the hip region. I think I’m more scared about the pain increase and the hip issues than I am about the upcoming chemo.

Speaking of, pending authorization, I will be starting chemotherapy on Friday. (I said it was a crazy week!) We are choosing a very aggressive set of chemicals, such that I will apparently only be able to do a maximum six rounds of this combination before we have to switch it up, due to the danger longer-term to my heart with repeated use. It’s normally given every three weeks but we’ll be trying for every two weeks assuming my blood count permits, to try to hit the cancer as hard and fast as possible. He wants CT scans after two rounds, as I mentioned, and depending on what those scans show will determine how many more rounds of chemo we’ll do before scheduling the mastectomies and underarm lump removal. It sounds like I’ll have a fairly normal range of side effects. Nausea and vomiting can happen for 2-5 days of the cycle; mouth sores; fatigue (ongoing); low blood cell count (peaks about a week after infusion); and of course, hair loss (begins about 2-3 weeks after the first dose). Of all of these, I’m of course most upset about the hair loss, as I have not cut my hair (except for trimming) since I was my son’s age. I like having long hair, never wanted to have anything but since I was a little kid, so that’s another of life’s little ironies for you. The doc assures me it grows back, but that doesn’t change much of the initial yuck of having to go through the hair loss. I plan to do crazy henna designs and wild and wacky scarves, so if you know where to get good head scarves let me know!

Increased pain increasing, so this post is plenty long enough for now.

3 responses so far

May 06 2011


Dealing with Medicaid is a special hell, in terms of getting things scheduled and actually done. Each procedure needs “pre-authorization” that takes anywhere from 1-5 days, so nothing happens on a speedy time frame and there have been several re-schedules due to the authorizations not going through.

Radiation finished up last week, though the effects will be ongoing for a few weeks according to the doctors. Skin irritation on the abdomen, and some variable and lack of sensation in the anal and vaginal areas continue, hopefully as temporary effects. Hips are definitely still quite unstable, and the left hip continues to have very uncomfortable problems that make me think there is something bad happening on that side beyond compensatory imbalance. I definitely want to be wrong on that feeling.

We did another chest/abdomen/pelvis CT scan post radiation today (finally, after 3 reschedules) so that will hopefully tell us more about whether there is anything newly wrong on the left hip, as well as the progress so far from radiation treatment. It was painful and I was unable to straighten my left leg, thankfully we could arrange pillow props under my knee and still do the scan I cried and had to break once to sit up for a bit, but didn’t scream so that is some improvement from when I first began radiation a few weeks ago. Next week we have a consult for installing a port catheter in my chest for chemotherapy (and hopefully also the install itself, assuming we successfully navigate the pre-authorizations). My medical oncologist said that while the port will be sore for a few days, there’s nothing stopping us from beginning chemo right after it is in. So possibly as early as late next week, almost surely by the week after, I’ll be beginning chemotherapy treatments. We will do some number of these, every 2-3 weeks depending on how my blood cell count keeps up and in healthy ranges. Then we’ll schedule a mastectomy, which for me can’t come fast enough at this point because the lump under my arm is getting to be in the way and really painful. I am hoping it responds well to chemo so I can get some relief before surgery, but if it keeps up this bad I will of course be talking to the doctor to see if we have other options sooner like radiation for that spot or something.

I’m actually reading a couple of books, which I haven’t done in quite a long time. It’s good, it’s sparking writerly thoughts, unsurprisingly. My brain seems to be taking on the logistics of figuring out how it wants to be working during all of this madness, which pleases me since it’s a good brain and generally solves those types of problems well. Patience with the progress is a little trickier but I’m managing it admirably given everything else, I’d say.

I keep promising baby posts but reneging; hopefully I’ll quit being that naughty. In the meantime, still perfect baby, still awesomely low maintenance, still gorgeous and developing her superpowers daily. If you’re local, come meet her and join her fan club!

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Oct 12 2010

Seeking Your Bliss (and Sometimes, Finding It)

There’s a large amount of screwed up social programming floating around out there, and few people escape its tangles entirely no matter how enlightened you attempt to be.  A good upbringing helps, and a strong self of self does as well, but you can’t avoid every message that gets repeated at you from the surrounding world.  The best you can do is learn to analyze your own behavior to identify when certain thinking patterns have been heavily influenced from outside sources.  Even then, that doesn’t mean you automatically jettison it; quite a few social structures exist because they really do make getting along with your fellow monkeys easier.

One area I’ve managed to avoid (for the most part) myself, is heavy neurosis surrounding what I do for a living.  All of my blended family of origin has a strong and principled work ethic, so I was certainly influenced by that while growing up.  What I remember more, though, is the sacrifice they and so many of my parent’s generation made:  several of my parents ended up in middle-level corporate-style jobs because that was the easiest way to stability for a family, not because they were passionate about what they did.  (At least one was doing what they liked by the time I knew them and that was a good perspective to see.)  I don’t remember them complaining about that choice, and as the years progressed I got to see them successfully change where they started from into something they DID like more, through excellent work and additional education.  But from my child mind’s perspective, one of the largest messages I took away from observing this is that I absolutely did not want to stay long in any job where I wasn’t being challenged, or didn’t care about what I was doing.  Thankfully, I also had the sort of family where making my own way was encouraged, even though my early career goals were certainly an attempt to balance doing my own thing with the concept of job security (like choosing veterinary science over acting).

My first job was a crap McD job to learn what the working thing was all about, and I still managed to learn how to do every non-management job including the grill.  My next job I decided to do something closer to what I liked, and worked at a local pet supplies store.  The next two jobs after that were at veterinary clinics, since that’s what I wanted to be when I entered college.  Unfortunately, working at vet clinics helped me realize I didn’t really want to deal with pet owners for the rest of my life, so I had to do a quick life goal readjustment.

In the meantime, delivery driver seemed like fun, and it was!  Minus the fact that what I earned during those several months just about covered the car repairs necessary due to the wear from delivery driving.  The next couple were crap jobs again, due to the fact that my ex wouldn’t hold a job himself and my scholarships and loans didn’t quite cover the room and board for two people alone.  But I fairly quickly during that time realized that even as a scantily-skilled college student, I could still choose to go for the “crap jobs” that were more intellectually or socially interesting, or that actually contributed in some way toward learning new skills, over mindless drudgery.

During this time I also embraced the “jill of all trades” philosophy, a bit of an iconoclastic departure from the “pick a job and do it unto death or retirement” programming so prevalent at the time.  I figured since I was smart and quick to learn in so many different areas, it would be pretty limiting to narrow down to just ONE area of focus for my entire working life.  I was still in school then, and still in an animal-intensive major (Animal Science), and switched to a crazy-intense summer job working with horses that probably merits its own post one of these days.

The three years as a Biology Dept inventory clerk probably sound tedious to some, but getting to organize data and inventory and go into cool science labs to find mad-scientist equipment with a barcode scanner at night when no one was around were definitely fun.  And my first major trained-skill career, body piercer, was absolutely something I wanted, sought out, trained hard for, and did for years.

Even my Freebirds time was useful.  After a particularly rough and desolate patch job-wise (third-shift custodian — definitely a crap job, but I learned a ton about classist assumptions among other things), during which I was also isolated from family and friends geographically, I thought I’d try the siren call of the steady paycheck and benefits, but went with a small corporation instead of a big megacorp, thinking it would better suit my inclinations. (I also moved closer to friends.) I was the fastest promoted female from crew to general manager in the company, and in case I ever need it I have restaurant managing skills to fall back on.  (Sadly, if I want to manage my health to live some semblance of a normal lifespan with my new health condition, I probably can’t realistically do that again because of the body energy load.)

Owning a small business is a leap I definitely wanted and worked my butt of to achieve, though health issues have absolutely made it much harder to maintain than it would have been otherwise.  I likely won’t own this shop forever, as I hope to be able to someday sell it to the employees who have been so awesome working for me, but I might own a business again in the future.  I have confidence if I do I’ll be much more versed in the common mistakes and able to avoid them.

Now I’m a home-based mom, and anyone who doesn’t know THAT’S a full-time job obviously grew up under a rock with no parents.  I also manage the flow of the household (with lots of help!), making sure chores and food and re-supply and all that good stuff happens when it needs to.  Additionally, I’m working on a full-time fiction writing career, and while the full-time part has definitely suffered while I adjust to the other new jobs, I still do something writing-related every day, even if it’s just some research.  (And with my projects, it’s never “just” research.)  I don’t have time or energy for creative hobbies at the moment with all the other work-load, but even that I expect to change with time.

It was evident even while I was still a kid that the world was changing, and it wasn’t going to be as easy to stay with just one career for an entire working lifetime.  As an adult, I’ve previously considered returning to school for something like nursing (job security anywhere you go!  high demand!  flexible hours! good pay!) but no matter how shiny all those other bits sound, I strongly suspect I wouldn’t have any more fun dealing with sick patients and their families than I would the pet owners as a veterinarian, especially those many many conditions where people willingly keep engaging in the behaviors that keep making them sick and don’t follow health advice.  I’m not sure I want that sort of extra stress, and I don’t really think the job security and benefits outweigh the impact, especially long-term, of such chronic stress.  I’d say that as a cancer survivor I have to be concerned about the impact of stress more than most people, but that’s a lie.  Stress damages or kills anyone given enough time and presence, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to not take on avoidable stress, since life gives us so much of the unavoidable kind.

These days, if I go back to school, it’ll likely be for a psychology-related degree, since one thing I never get tired of is the workings of the human mind.  I think that fascination would definitely sustain me through the stressful parts of that career.  Plus, it’s a job I can largely do sitting on my ass and thinking, and I’m now of the opinion that the break-your-back on-your-feet go-go-go jobs are for the teens and twenties time whenever possible.  I’d like to actually live a long time in reasonably good health, and I don’t think it requires a round of cancer to teach one about the importance of energy management.  Unfortunately, too many people (far too many) wait until such a health crisis (and possibly some measure of irreversible damage) to make those life changes.  If they do even then.

It is not easy.  It’s not easy to work against classist disadvantages, and might not even be available for everyone given our current societal structure.  But it IS possible.  It’s hard to work against the “shoulds”, like “I should stay with this soul-sucking job because my family needs a paycheck” — and that, too, might not be avoidable if you don’t have a partner or support network willing to help you through such a transition.  But it IS possible.  And for those of you that DO have the education or latent brainpower to learn what you want to learn, and have a family that is willing to work with you to make sure everyone’s goals can be achieved…

Well, where are the remaining stasis holds?  (Not a rhetorical question)

If my Fearless Readers like this and want more in the same vein, I can easily go on.  Ask questions, discuss your own perspectives in comments, share!

8 responses so far

Mar 09 2010

What to do when your block isn’t a block

We’ve talked several times on this blog about creative “blocks”, and some ways to cope with and get around such things. One of the things I’ve slowly come to realize over the past several months, however, is that often something that looks like a “writer’s block”, might not be quite that. A friend pointed out a similar struggle in her own creativity recently, thus the topic (and title) of this post.

What do you do when what feels like writer’s block is something else? To clarify definitions for purposes of this discussion (though you can argue my parameters in the comments if you’d like), “standard writer’s block” often arises through struggles with regular writing routines, or insecurities or doubts about the worth or quality of one’s own work. What’s the point of all of this? or why am I trying something I’ll never succeed in? or I’m not that good a writer anyway are common refrains from the internal judges and censors in many of the blocks you might encounter. And we’ve talked before, and likely will again, about different ways to hack around those sorts of bumps.

There are several other life reasons you might need a break — or at least a slowing down — of your regular creative process. Because we’re used to the blocks we know, often these other reasons will feel like standard creative blocks, to our internal emotional perceptions, because those are the well-traveled neural pathways. For example, Elizabeth Bear refers to a state after she finishes a major project she calls “post-novel ennui”. She describes it feeling as if her brain’s insides are scraped clean, or the creative pool has been emptied and needs refilling. It’s taken her several novels to better understand her own patterns, but she’s found that if she gives herself the few days or weeks she needs to recharge — read books, do physical activity things, learn something new, watch TV shows, and just the minimum maintenance needed on her writing obligations — she can get to functional creativity on the next project much more quickly than if she just tries to push ahead immediately after finishing the previous project.

What if your need for hiatus is different than arriving at a project’s end? Major life changes can be stressful whether positive or negative, and if there is enough upheaval present, it can quite legitimately disrupt the energy available for other things (at least for a while), including your creative projects. Sure, you’ve spent time and sweat making sure you will keep writing anyway, even when life gets tricky, but what about when it gets extreme enough that taking a break would actually be more advantageous to your later creativity? A promotion, household relocation, or new addition to the family are all situations where it’s possible to keep creative flow going…but depending on the specific circumstances, it’s also possible a break would be better for long-term creative health.

Or what if your need for a pause is darker than that? Major life trauma will, if not bring your creative progress to a halt, at the very least cause extreme disruptions in your routine. It could affect which projects you continue working on, or even want to work on. Loss of a job, loss of family members or children, major physically debilitating or activity-changing illness, all these and more can make you question the very reasons you create at all, not to mention whether your current work is worth the work you’ve put into it. Depending on your emotional state, you may not be able to access the same creative energies that you could before. A project that was conceived and begun when you were in love and on top of the world is rather difficult to connect to, if you’re currently in a bleak and despairing place emotionally.

So what do you do when this sort of thing is on your plate?

First, you have to find the space to give yourself to take the needed break. In order to do that successfully, you’ll have to avoid the common habit of punishing yourself for the break-taking. For those of you inclined toward this behavior, a guilt-free break is harder than it looks.

(quoted from, quoting someone quoting someone else clever)
“flamingnerd writes:
I asked her, “do you have any negative self talk?” She burst into laughter and said, “Do I ever fart?!” And I got it. EVERYONE has negative self talk. And some people are more flatulent in that
regard than others. And it’s ok. It’s normal, not some great tragedy.

She went on to tell me of a talk given by a young Buddhist priest. “When you beat yourself with a stick just beat yourself with a stick and don’t beat yourself for beating yourself.”

Thanks to nationelectric for sharing the good reminder.”

For me, in my own recent-past traumatic experiences, I found that giving myself the space for a creative pause and recharge to happen wasn’t an adjustment I made overnight. It was a few months of struggle between what I felt I “should” be doing at a particular point in time, and what I knew internally needed to be happening if I was ever going to create regularly again. It was slow progress, a bunch of baby steps and “two steps forward, one step back” frustrations. It also required a lot of practice in trusting myself, in my ability to assess internally what I “knew” I needed to heal, and to ignore the conflicting inputs externally from people or sources less informed about my situation. Plus enough stubbornness to keep going on all of that when I didn’t “do it right” the first time or three.

When you’re in brownout mode, the pause is likely to be longer than you want it to be. Yes, that means your patience gets practice along with everything else. Fun times, eh? You are worth it, even the waiting. One day, finally, you might find yourself with a little more energy than you’ve had. The next day, more. One of the trickiest parts, at this stage, is not overloading yourself the first time you have energy to do more than just get by. That’s asking for a relapse, and that won’t help you get more functional. Add some small creative act into your daily routine, and stay with that for a bit, give your artistic muscles time to stretch after some disuse.

Soon enough you’ll notice that you’re a bit bored or frustrated with doing just one thing. This is probably a good sign that you’re ready to do more, but keep the lessons you’ve learned throughout this time in your mind, as you progress back towards more fullness of functioning. Push your limits, but in the spirit of a good workout, not burning yourself on as much as you can do. Let your momentum creep back in a healthy bit at a time, and use those healthy bits to springboard even more positive change.

Trusting ourselves is part of how we better learn to love ourselves. Your baby-steps will make progress. Heck, even 2 steps forward, 1 back will get you there eventually. When you start making visible progress and changes to your routine toward your goals? Don’t forget to notice it, and congratulate yourself. Ideally you have a couple of close friends to whom you can brag about your progress, however incremental, and have them support and cheer you on as well. But at the very least, make sure you give those kudos to yourself. Noticing all the work you’re doing for yourself is one of the best ways to get more such work out of you!

Throughout all of this process, spend time figuring out what really matters to you in this incarnation, regardless of which past goals or projects were important before. Allow your goals to change as you change, throughout your life. It is not a failure to survive and keep creating, even if your process is different than before — even if your work is different than before.

One response so far

Feb 13 2010

How far will you go, artist?

The question of how far down the rabbit hole to fall, when working on a creative project, is rather an interesting one. The possibilities are legion for hacking, warping, and weirding the mental processes to create art. However, an artist of whatever stripe often runs up against their own self-boundaries, in such explorations. Sometimes they’re self-imposed limits that should probably be pushed against; other times they might be coping mechanisms for biochemicals that really need to remain at certain levels, thankyouverymuch. Finding the line between what to give to yourself and what to give to that art can be difficult; even for how many artists have gone before, there just aren’t universal roadmaps for making good, deep, provocative art and staying “sane”.

So where do the compromises come in? There’s a wide range of individual choices. We’ve all heard stories of the people who ultimately lost themselves — either the qualities that made their work stand out or their life itself — to the imbalance between care of self and creation of art. And if you aren’t willing to take at least some risks with your own psyche, you’re likely to have a shallow or surface-level artistic end-result.

For me, it’s usually about finding the balance point that allows me to push forward. If I’m going to be doing some crazy internal meanderings, delving into the Shadow self, finding the locked-box memories that are still raw with emotion and creative potential and dragging them out for a look…then if at all possible, other areas in my life should be as stable and least-disruptive as can be. If everything else in my life is chaos, or my own internal landscape is unstable, and I’ve already considered and rejected taking a creative break for whatever reason, then it might be better to steer toward the more “brain candy” level projects. I can keep creating but not get so locked up into my work that I lose myself in the rest of the instabilities. It’s why I don’t believe in the myth that every work must be a Masterpiece For the Ages. Heck, even the master painters of the Renaissance and other eras still took portrait commissions to pay the bills, it wasn’t all frescos and finery.

Sure, they were Really Good portraits, and taking a brain candy creation path during stressful times isn’t license to avoid doing the best work you can, either. But hey, if all you get written during a rough time is a silly zombie story (to pick an Entirely Random Example), you still maintained the creative drive so that it’s available for “more serious” work later. That is definitely good work done.

And when you do give yourself the opportunities and stability to peer into the abyss…how far will you look? How deep can you go and still come back to yourself, or at least a version of you that creates and with whom you can live?

12 responses so far

Feb 10 2010

Opening the Door

She awoke with the last dream image still in her mind — an empty street, all the buildings along both sides with their doors standing wide into the road, irregularly spaced night lamps illuminating a light mist. More open doors. She knew her subconscious would eventually get its full message through; the obvious interpretation was that it was time for another adventure outside, but it didn’t hurt to wait and confirm such intuition. Reading more would help shift mental gears, and thankfully it seemed like there was nothing currently stopping her from enjoying her book.

The prose was delightfully vivid, and she was enjoying the interweaving of metaphor around jailer and prisoner, parent and child, insanity and the fight for sanity, the power exchange and attempts at same. She caught herself staring through the words after reading the scene with the first escape attempt, her fingers absently stroking the smooth page as her thoughts took her back through the street of open doors. She closed her eyes briefly to erase the image, and returned to the text. After a while she set the book aside. It was engaging her interest but not enough to banish her dream, and she could not ignore the rumblings of her stomach any longer. With a little sigh and a last pat on the cover of the closed thriller, she arose from her couch and went to the kitchen.

She was definitely in the mood for violently chopping vegetables, and not of a mind to wait long for food, so stir-fry was an easy choice. She started a single serving of rice in the cooker, then pulled out a strip steak, an onion, a red and an orange bell pepper, and a bag of fresh-frozen green beans. The slicing and dicing was as viscerally satisfying as it always was, and she found herself humming as she combined the ingredients with her favorite custom sauce blend in the hot skillet. She didn’t recognize the tune, but that had happened before. Just as she felt the stir-fry was ready, she heard the clicking sound of the rice cooker completing its cycle.

Dinner preparations always helped repair her mood, especially when the timing worked out just right. She carefully arranged a perfect circle of pristine white rice on a dark blue dinner plate, and then scattered two scoops of the colorful skillet contents across the top. That, chopsticks, and a simple clear glass of water were all she carried with her to the table in the dining area that filled one end of the kitchen.

After her satiating meal, she did the necessary clean-up — putting the leftovers into a storage container in the refrigerator for lunch tomorrow, rinsing the dishes and putting them in the dishwasher, giving a quick wipe with a sponge to the counters and stovetop. She decided a dirty martini with her after-dinner reading would complete her evening nicely, and retrieved the appropriate glass from its place next to the cereal bowls in the cabinet. She set the glass on the kitchen counter and went to the refrigerator for the jar of olives. As her fingers closed around the cool cylinder hidden behind other bottles in the door compartment, she brushed something hard under what felt like a piece of tape, and her eyes widened for a brief moment in disbelief. She pulled out the olive jar and turned it around to confirm her suspicion: the key was taped to the back, over the nutrition label so the tape would hold.

One corner of the tape had peeled back where it went too far onto the glass, and her fingers played with the curled edge for a bit before she peeled off the key, taking bits of the label with it. She ran her fingers over the key’s surface but stopped when she encountered the sticky tape residue. Washing it was the first priority then; half a minute at the sink with soap and water and a good rinse were sufficient.

She thought for a moment about having her drink before trying the door, but decided it would make a better end to her adventure than a beginning. She left the glass on the counter to remind herself, but returned the olive jar to its place so it could remain properly chilled. She thought about leaving the key on the counter while she changed clothes, but that had failed her at least once before, so she kept it folded into her palm.

Now dressed more appropriately for the outdoors, she checked the window in the door to ensure that no one was near, but the visible area was as deserted as usual. She tried the key in the door lock. It slid in easily and turned smoothly on the first try, also not a given from past attempts. She didn’t hesitate as she turned the knob.

The door opened onto a shadowed path, made darker by the presence of full night. A cone of light from a street lamp at the end of the way seemed to show that she was down a short alley off a larger road. A brief burst of wind carried a crumpled piece of paper past her ankle. She moved to where she could see the main road better, and wasn’t surprised to find it was the street from her dream. More discarded paper littered the roadscape than she remembered, and there were less lights here, but those were minor variations in detail.

Here, unlike her dream, all the doors were firmly shut.

2 responses so far

May 19 2009

Playing the long game with writing: stuck transitions

Published by under transitions,Writing

Many of you may have noticed in your own writing a similar effect to one I’ve observed: it’s easier to get started in a writing session if you’ve paused a sentence or two into the next scene, rather than at a scene or chapter break. I find that even if I know what I want to write next, there’s a subtle hint of extra inertia to contend with if I’m contemplating the blank space after a scene shift. Even a bad first sentence of the next scene works; I might come back the next day and re-write or even erase the previous lead-in, but the mere presence of the words gets further story flowing more quickly.

I asked Steve about this and he said it’s because we conceive of story in terms of scenes, and so a scene interrupted is a scene in motion; we’re able to more easily find the momentum after a writing pause. He also commented that this concept allows you to do interesting things with story structure, if you have certain elements present and repeating throughout your scenes it’s also easier to keep the story flowing.

What are some of your own ways for getting past stuck points that aren’t really writer’s block?

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