by Angela Cybulski
Tip #3: Stay Connected
When I was a teenager, I attended a (then) California Angels game and was both excited and surprised to see All-Star Angels catcher and one of my favorite players, Brian Downing, sitting not 20 feet away from us in a reserved section. His leg was encased in a heavy cast and rested high on the bleacher seat in front of him. He sat there, by himself, for the entire game cheering on his team. I never forgot this – Downing couldn’t play, and would be unable to for some time, but he showed up. He can't know the example he set for me in that simple act.
For a baseball player, getting placed on the DL (disabled list) for an injury is a serious curveball that literally upsets his entire game. The player has been operating on a set routine day in and day out, practicing his skills and working in community with the rest of the team to perfect his game. His success depends upon his active participation in the routine and consistent practice. But an injury sets his whole routine off balance, effectively severing it along with the player's accustomed role in the team community. A new routine is necessary to deal with the curve – often slow recovery from the injury and then physical therapy before a gradual return to practice, with the hope of eventually returning to the original routine and communal role. In Downing’s case, his recovery from that injury brought with it an additional curveball: he was unable to return to his position as catcher – instead, he needed to work and train up to lead the outfield in the starting lineup. Through these life-altering, game-changing curves, Downing and other injured players stay connected -- they make the effort required to participate in the team community to the extent they are able and to the best of their ability, and even move into all new territory, if that is what is required.
When the curves come in fast and hard for writers and other artists, they can leave us feeling disoriented and out of the loop, maybe even completely out of commission. This can be especially hard and discouraging, especially if you were writing regularly and now are finding it extremely difficult or even impossible to sustain the kind of work or level of commitment you have been used to demonstrating. As you work to weather the curves and figure out how to deal with them, it is important to stay connected to both the craft and practice of writing, as well as to the larger community of writers.
One way to keep your hand in the game while you manage the curveballs is to read a book on writing that speaks to where you’re at now, or maybe re-read an old favorite. Perhaps there you’ll find an idea that speaks to you in your current situation, which helps you make better sense of the thing you are struggling with. Or maybe the book serves as inspiration to continue on at all, even in the smallest, most seemingly insignificant way. Choose carefully, however; not all books on the craft of writing are appropriate sources of inspiration and encouragement if you are struggling with life-changing issues. You don’t want a book that discourages you by setting up impossible expectations which you can’t hope to achieve right now. Rather, you need ideas and options, encouragement and support. I mentioned one of my favorite books in my first post to this series, Pen On Fire, by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett. One other book that I find inspiring and nurturing is If You Want To Write, by Brenda Ueland. Bird by bird by Anne Lamott is also a favorite. These books are humorous and encouraging, fully aware of the curveballs LIFE can let fly at you, and they offer practical inspiration and workable ideas to help keep you writing and staying connected when things get really hard. Or perhaps you might consider keeping an actual record of an authentic writing life close at hand to help give you courage and support when things seem particularly difficult to navigate in your own writing life. I love The Habit of Being, by Flannery O’Connor and A Writer’s Diary, by Virginia Woolf. Both writers recount, through letters and personal diaries, the highs and lows, joys and sufferings of daily life and how they do – or do not – write through it and what helps them stay connected and inspired through it all. I find these two books are especially good when dealing with my own suffering, whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. They demonstrate that art can survive, and even be born through, suffering, and illustrate positive and negative ways of dealing with both.
Another way to stay connected is through craft publications like Poets & Writers and The Writer. These magazines provide articles about what a real writing life looks like and offer many different ways of approaching your craft and working with and through life-changing situations. For example, one article in Poets & Writers dealt with a writing couple whose child has severe special needs and examined the ways they both manage to stay connected to their craft, while also managing the challenges their child’s disability presents and making their marriage a priority. Other articles have dealt with figuring out how to write while dealing with the death of a family member, experiencing divorce, or navigating serious illness. Staying connected to the larger writing community through articles like these have provided invaluable encouragement to me since some of my curveballs have recently made it impossible for me to write consistently. Reading craft publications also helps to keep your project front and center, even when you can’t get to it right then, by providing ample inspiration and food for thought during those times when you can’t practice.
If you are able to get out -- which might do you good -- perhaps you can find time to attend a writing event or conference in your area. Professionals in all fields take time for development, networking, and meaningful conversation with colleagues. Poets & Writers has an app you can download on your phone. Based on your location, the app provides current listings of readings, book-signings, author events and writing-related everything that might be offered in your area. Bookstores and libraries are also great resources for discovering local literary events; often they host writers and workshops, even book fairs and writing conferences. Local newspapers and community magazines may also have listings for literary events. I recently attended a Q&A session with a literary agent through a local writer’s salon, which was both informative and relaxing. It also provided a great opportunity to network and socialize with other writers, and was a much-needed break from the issues I am juggling at home.
If your curveballs prevent you from leaving the house or committing much time to extra-curricular events, consider staying connected through some of the great places for writers on the web. Visit LitHub, The Writing Café, The Paris Review, and Aerogramme Writers Studio. Podcasts on writing are a wonderful way to stay connected. Download the Stitcher app or use iTunes and look for Writers on Writing, Between the Covers, The NY Times Book Review, Ampersand, Bookworm, and The Guardian Books Podcast are some of my favorites -- I can listen while I'm folding laundry, cleaning the house, making dinner, or running errands in the car. I love listening to these interview shows with authors and agents, discussing every aspect of living a literary life. They provide great inspiration and encouragement, especially when you hear how other writers have worked through the curveballs in their own lives.
Staying connected to the larger writing community via these various avenues reminds me that I am not alone in my struggles to sustain an authentic writing life even amidst some pretty brutal curveballs. These resources remind me that I can still find a way to work on my art in a manner that works for the way my life is NOW, that I need to stay hopeful, and that I need to persevere to whatever extent I am able. Staying connected ultimately means showing up, even if I can't play, and showing that I am part of the team, part of the community. This is the life-lesson I learned by the example set for me by that beloved all-star who, though he wasn’t able to play down on the field, still showed up for the game, no less committed. In his quiet example, Brian Downing left a legacy he isn’t even aware of. And after all these years, I’m still grateful for the gift of his example.
This is part three of a six-part series. You can find previous entries here:
Writing Through the Curves: Series Opener
Tip #1: Let go of the pressure
Tip #2: Find a place apart