When writer’s block isn’t

I had writer’s block yesterday. For some reason writers talk about writer’s block as if it’s a disease, some illness you can contract. And everyone has their own way of treating that disease. Special foods. Mindless television. Going for a run. Doing the dishes. Staring at the screen wondering if you will ever, ever write again, because obviously your store of words has permanently run dry. It’s unpleasant, no matter how you try to deal with it, and it’s always a huge relief when it passes.

For me, writer’s block is different. I have bipolar disorder that’s more or less kept in check by medication and behavioral modification. And some days I’m just depressed enough that I can’t write. If I force myself to, whatever goes on the page gets deleted by the end of the day because it’s awful, not just to my depressed brain but to any objective reader. But I’m not so depressed that I’m incapable of getting out of bed (though I do tend to spend the day in my pajamas, but that’s just an indulgence), which means I haven’t lost the drive to write. This is hell.

In a moment of synchronicity, my husband sent me a wonderful blog post by Mary Robinette Kowal, detailing her own journey through depression and how that relates to writer’s block. I repost it here because it’s uncannily like my own, though unlike her I was thrilled to have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and was eager to be treated; I had been suffering for so long thinking I was weak and stupid it was wonderful to have a name to put to my condition. But the essence is the same; you don’t have to let depression rule your life, and there are ways to deal with it. Kowal lists some great coping techniques for dealing with writer’s block that arises from depression, but I think they’re excellent suggestions for anyone struggling with depression, period. And if this is a struggle you recognize within yourself, for your own sake, get help, whatever that means for you. Don’t let the stigma of mental illness keep you from getting well.

I’m still staring at the screen, waiting for this to pass. I’m grateful to know it will.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 60

15 Lennitay

Before I can scribe my th’an with fire, I have to find a way to do the pouvra so that the fire manifests as a trailing line, like ink flowing from a pen, rather than as a single mass all at once. I tried all day and failed every time. By midafternoon I was too exhausted to do it any longer, and Terrael made me sit in a corner and watch how other people create th’an, and it should have had a calming effect, but it just made me more tense, thinking that all their lives were at the mercy of a madwoman with command of thousands of armed warriors. I didn’t get a chance to talk to Cederic today; he was busy with some of the Sais doing I don’t know what. I’m not exploring tonight. Too jumpy—alertness, even a little paranoia, those things are a thief’s friends, but too much anxiety leads to carelessness.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 59

14 Lennitay (continued)

Nothing else exciting happened, and we returned to the gate we’d started from, and the God-Empress stepped off as lightly as she had before. I stumbled a little when I reached the ground, had to catch my balance, and was about to thank the God-Empress for her generosity in giving me her time when she said, “Kill the driver.”

I whipped around just in time to see two of the soldiers lift the woman off her seat, and another take her head in his two massive hands and twist so rapidly the woman didn’t even have time to scream. The sound of her neck snapping was almost inaudible over the roar of the blood rushing through my temples. The soldiers dropped her, and the God-Empress came to stand next to the body and prod it with her big toe. “Tell the priests to train me another,” she said, and walked away, her damp shift still clinging to her perfect ass and thighs. Fortunately my body knew to ignore my shocked brain, and propelled me after her, because for all I knew I might have been next.

“Don’t worry, I have many drivers,” the God-Empress said, and to my further shock drew my arm through hers and patted my hand. “I can see you dislike waste as much as I do. But she broke the rule and acknowledged me on a rose day, and God cannot be disrespected.”

“I thought…it was the bad driving,” I managed.

“What bad driving?” the God-Empress said.

We reached her filmy red chamber, which was empty of servants, and she stripped off her shift and walked naked to a wardrobe in one corner, which she flung open, revealing richly embroidered robes in all shades of, that’s right, red, accented with gold and copper and silver. She took robe after robe from the wardrobe and tossed them on the floor behind her, held one for a few moments before wrenching at its back seam until it tore, then finally found something she liked. But she didn’t put it on; she held it out to me. “You must be rose, too,” she said, “for you are God’s chosen.”

I did not like the sound of that, but I said, “Thank you, Renatha,” and wrapped it around myself. It was far too big for me, too big for the God-Empress even, but it was wonderfully opaque and fastened high enough in front that only a hint of my cleavage showed. She beamed again, childlike, but with a body that was definitely not that of a child. She found a robe for herself and then sat on the divan with her legs crossed under her.

“I expect to see the kathana performed soon,” she said, and suddenly her voice and her features were sharp in a way they hadn’t been all day. “How soon, do you think?”

“I, uh, wish I knew, Renatha,” I said, “For my part, I’m working as fast as I can, but focusing on my own work means I don’t know very much about how the rest is progressing. But I know everyone is performing to their utmost abilities.” I prayed to the true God that I hadn’t inadvertently said something that would condemn every mage to a sudden, neck-snapping death.

“I see,” the God-Empress said. “Then I will allow a little more time. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”

“You’re welcome,” I said. Talking to her really is like maneuvering a maze of knives blindfolded, though that might be easier. At that point I just wanted to run back to the Sais’ wing and tell Cederic that we now have a deadline—though he and Vorantor probably already know this better than I do. I’ve resolved to be more diligent and to stop complaining at Terrael, now that I understand what’s at stake.

The God-Empress just sat looking at me, and I belatedly realized I was dismissed. “Thank you again for the generous gift of your time and company, which I do not deserve,” I said, and backed out of there as rapidly as was polite and sensible. Then I ran. I only made one wrong turn before reaching the Sais’ wing, and the safety of my bedroom, and then I’m not too proud to confess that I ripped the robe off, stomped on it, then stood there in my underclothing and cried. That poor woman. All those people. Had the God-Empress decided the men and women at the eating place had paid her too much attention, and sent her soldiers back to burn it to the ground? It was just so overwhelming, all the tension of worrying about whether I was going to say or do something wrong, and could I turn the pouvrin against someone in defense of my life, because I hope the answer is “yes” and I don’t want to only find that out when my life really is in danger.

After I finished crying, I dressed in comfortable clothing and wadded up the God-Empress’s robe and stuck it in the back of the wardrobe. Then I got it out and hung it up instead. She might expect me to wear it again. I don’t want to call her Renatha again. She may not have hurt me today, but I’m convinced she is my enemy, and for me to use her praenoma…it’s degrading to my true friendships to put my relationship with my enemy on the same standing. Even the thought of it makes me feel uncomfortable and a little sick at breaking that taboo, after all I’ve done to keep those customs. But I don’t have a choice, do I? The God-Empress might take lethal offense at my rejecting the gift of her name. And she might not direct that lethality at me. But as far as I’m concerned, ‘God-Empress’ is her aenemica now, her name turned curse, and I’ll think it every time I’m forced to say ‘Renatha’ instead.

Well. I feel better now that I’ve written all of this down, but I think I won’t go exploring tonight; I’m still a little on edge. And I’ve just realized I have more to tell Cederic about what’s happened, not just the part where it sounds as if the God-Empress is losing patience with her pet mage-priests; I have to tell him about feeling like I should recognize the th’an. And I have questions for him. And I’m starving because I forgot to go to dinner, I was too busy crying. At least all I have to look forward to tomorrow is failing to work th’an with fire. No, I can’t afford to think that way. If the kathana really only lacks my part to be ready, I have to redouble my efforts or I could cost many people, some of whom I care about very much, their lives.

Writing What You Don’t Know

Here’s a not so secret fact: I have virtually no sense of smell. I can only smell the strongest, closest odors, and since the strongest odors are usually the most unpleasant (gasoline, ammonia, the baby who’s just filled her diaper) I tend to think of my sense of smell as an enemy. What’s more, my brain often translates what I do smell into other smells, or sends me phantom scents that no one else can perceive. All perfume smells the same to me. All flowers smell the same. That aforementioned diaper, about half the time, smells like peanut butter. (The reverse is thankfully not true.)

This affects my sense of taste, too. There are a lot of flavors that other people love that to me are just—empty. They taste like a cup of hot water. That means I like strong, spicy flavors like chipotle, or bittersweet like dark chocolate. Even more do I like lots of flavors mingled together, so if one is missing, I don’t notice it. My favorite dessert is English trifle, chocolate and custard and berries all mixed together…and now I’m hungry.

So what does this have to do with writing? In my book The Smoke-Scented Girl, the senses of smell and taste are essential to the story. Taste, because one of the side effects of each magic spell is a phantom flavor; immobilizing someone is like biting an ice cube, clairvoyance tastes like strawberries. Smell, because the spell Evon creates to track Kerensa enhances his sense of smell. And about half the things they smell and taste in that book, I have no personal experience of. I had to be able to write convincingly about those things because my readers would know what charred toast smells like.

Probably the most famous piece of writing advice is “write what you know.” I’ve always thought that was both true and incredibly limiting. On the one hand, if you write about things you don’t know anything about, you’re going to sound like an idiot to the people who do know about them. On the other hand, our experiences in living don’t allow us to know and feel and do absolutely everything in the world. That’s one of the reasons for literature: books give us a window on other lives and encourage us to understand, even in our limited way, what other places and people and times are like. If writers take that advice in the strictest sense, we might as well give up on writing anything that doesn’t reflect our own narrow experience. For those of us who write speculative or historical fiction (or in my case, speculative historical fiction), it might as well say “don’t bother.”

But I think “write what you know” contains a wealth of advice beyond the obvious, and advice that broadens the possibilities of writing rather than shutting them down.

  • Research, study, learn. There’s nothing that says you can’t expand what you know and then write about it. Thanks to the Internet, research is easier than ever before (though also more perilous when it comes to establishing the veracity of a source). Libraries that participate in interlibrary loan are an author’s friend. I spent three weeks collecting information on the Bow Street Runners before I came across a book via interlibrary loan that had everything I’d struggled to learn, plus about a hundred more things I never thought to investigate. These days, you can become an expert on virtually anything if you’re willing to take the time.
  • Talk to experts. This isn’t just a variation on the above. People who are experienced in the things you want to write about can not only give you knowledge, but also a sense of what it feels like to have that knowledge. They live what you’re writing about and you owe it to them to do your best to reflect that experience in your writing.
  • Expand your own knowledge. Everyone has things they’re good at; getting better at those things gives you more material.
  • Talk to people. Writing what you know isn’t just about facts, it’s about people—about how they think and feel. Learn what motivates others, what they love and hate. Getting to know others makes for better characterization and a solid emotional basis for your story.
  • Read for pleasure, both inside and outside your genre. Share the experiences of other writers. Explore character motivations. Look for ideas you might want to pursue. And above all, remind yourself why you got into this field in the first place.
  • Be consistent. If you’re making up a world, you know everything about it—make your readers believe you’re writing what you know by keeping the rules logical and consistent. And if they’re not logical and consistent, have a reason for that, too.
  • Learn to fake it. Some things you’re never going to be able to experience. That’s where everything above comes into play. Compassion, empathy, imagination—all of that bridges the gap between what you know and what you can only guess. Then get your writing into the hands of someone who knows, and see what they think.

I will never be a secret agent, a warrior woman, or an ageless, deathless queen. I don’t have any personal knowledge of what those lives are like. In that sense, I can’t write what I know. But with some study, empathy, and a lot of imagination, I can write what I don’t know. And that opens up far more worlds than my limited one.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 58

14 Lennitay (continued)

Around noon, the collenna stopped in front of a single-story red-roofed building (honoring the virtue of Patience) that had arched doorways opening onto a central courtyard filled with little tables, which meant it was an eating place, and half the God-Empress’s soldiers went inside. We waited for about ten minutes before they returned, trailing an elderly man who didn’t meet anyone’s eyes. The God-Empress stepped off the edge of the collenna’s seat exactly as if she expected to be caught, which of course she was, so I mimicked her and was conveyed to the ground with barely a wobble. The moment the God-Empress’s foot touched the pavement, the elderly man prostrated himself before her and said, “It is an unlooked for honor, my God, and I hope you will be satisfied with my humble offering.”

The God-Empress walked past him without a word, and I followed her into the cool darkness beyond the courtyard. Here, there was only one table, an oblong thing about six feet long with chairs set at the far ends, and it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that it was bowing under the weight of a feast that could have fed twenty. I realize now that the man knew the God-Empress was coming that day, but my first thought was astonishment that he’d pulled the meal together so quickly. We sat, and her soldiers ranged themselves around us, and more people came out from what smelled like the kitchen and began serving us. I thought it all looked delicious and only realized that I’d let myself become complacent when I was startled by the crash of a plate the God-Empress knocked out of the elderly man’s hand.

“I will have red,” she said, “red is the color of the day, you will give me red,” and the elderly man looked as if he were going to faint. A younger woman stepped forward and offered the God-Empress a new plate, on which was a slice of beef cooked nearly raw and some slices of tender beets. I breathed a little more easily—even the plate was red. This was a clever woman. The God-Empress allowed her to place it before her, then delicately began cutting her meat and chewing with pleasure. I pointed at dishes randomly and was served by people who clearly had no idea what to make of me, but were grateful I didn’t make any outlandish demands. I was so worried on their behalf I don’t remember what I ate, except that it tasted good. I do remember the final course, which was something sweet and creamy and cold topped with candied cherries, and I asked for seconds and nearly ate myself sick on it.

Afterward, the collenna took us down to the Myrnala Coell River, which has sandy shores and reeds that move with the current, which is faster than the Myrnala’s. We dismounted again and the God-Empress walked toward the river, slowly, removing pieces of her clothing as she went until she was once again dressed only in her thin shift and her ruby choker. And she kept walking. She didn’t stop until she was waist-deep in the river, swaying in part because of the water’s movement and in part because she was caught up in some reverie. I stood watching her from the shore until she said, “You are ungrateful for the river’s gift.”

“Oh!” I said. “I apologize, Renatha, I believed it was…something for God alone.” I struggled to remove my dress, hesitated about my underclothes, then decided to leave them and my jewelry on and waded out to meet her. And it felt wonderful, so cool in the afternoon heat, though I could feel my shoulders begin to burn the way my nose already had. I mimicked her swaying and wondered what else I was supposed to intuit. She could probably have had those soldiers drown me. I wonder what would happen if I tried to use the walk-through-walls pouvra on water? Nothing good, probably.

Anyway, we stood like that for several minutes. Boats went past—it’s a big river—and in the distance I could hear children shouting. I’m glad the God-Empress didn’t take offense at other people using her river, because I don’t think I could have stood by quietly and let her hurt children. But she just stood there, swaying, and I stood there, uncomfortable but at least cool for once. Then she said, “Raise the river.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” I said, and that was true both on a semantic level (because she’d used really archaic language that time) and on a comprehension level. She opened her eyes and looked at me, and I took a step back, because for the first time I saw true madness there.

“Make the waters move,” she said. “I’m displeased with the river’s inability to understand my commands. It is the priest’s job to invoke power on God’s behalf. Make the waters move.”

Now I was terrified. Not just because what she wanted was impossible for me, but because she thought I was a priest the way she did her other mages, and I had no idea what kind of behavior she expected from me. So I said, “Of course, Renatha, but I apologize if my…priestliness is different from what you know. My world is very different.”

She kept looking at me with those mad eyes and said, “Do it, or I will give your body to the river.”

I looked back and saw the soldiers approaching the banks. Of course she meant it. I shut out my awareness of the soldiers, and my fear for my life, and my uncertainty, and used the mind-moving pouvra on the water parting on either side of the God-Empress’s body. There was no way I could move the whole river, but I could do something dramatic that might satisfy her mad whim. I pushed the water where it met her body, shoving it back as if it were running up against something much larger than the God-Empress, and desperation gave the pouvra strength I know I’ll never be able to duplicate. The water piled high, cresting white at the top and making a wave that built until it towered over her like a gray-green canopy flecked with white. The higher it got, the harder it was for me to contain it, and the way it strained against my pouvra felt as if it were alive and desperate to drown the woman beneath it. I was tempted. Her death would be no loss. But I couldn’t guarantee that it would kill her, and there was a part of me, the part that still can’t burn flesh, that cried out against taking even a life so cruel and terrible as hers. So I held onto the wave, and said, “The river knows that you are God,” which I hoped didn’t sound terribly sycophantic, and waited for her to see what I’d done, then I released it harmlessly to flow away to both sides of her.

She beamed at me, happy as a child. “Of course I am,” she said, and waded out of the river. She left all her clothes on the shore, so I did the same, and we got back into the collenna in our underclothing and continued our tour of the city. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life, nor so grateful that the Empress’s insanity dictated that no one pay attention to us. Oh, and incredibly grateful that I was wearing the stupid breast band. I’ve decided never to be without one again.

to be continued…