Writing, Grief, and Stress

You can only do as much as you can do, and there’s no point beating yourself up over the fact.

Two years ago yesterday my grandmother died. She was a wonderful woman and the person most responsible for me making it through to adulthood relatively intact. For reasons I’m not going to go into here, my parents were not the stabilizing presence in my life that they are for many children. For me the anchor of my childhood was my grandmother and I miss her very much.

She died at the end of a year that had just seen me starting to recover from two years of hell that involved serious mental illness in my immediate family. Which brings us to a total of five years. Coincidentally, those five years overlap the greatest success in my life as a writer to date, with the hell years beginning very shortly before I had my first novel sale.

Life is funny sometimes. In both senses of the word. One of my chief coping mechanisms has always been black humor—learned from my grandmother, who had an extremely hard life on any number of levels. Laughing reflexively when it can’t get worse does is a good part of what kept me writing through the last five years. That and the fact that I simply can’t not write.

But even with good coping mechanisms, the incentive of my first book contracts, a naturally fast writing speed, and a very midwestern tendency to take refuge in work, I lost a lot of production. Between three and five books worth at a conservative estimate.

Grief and healing take time. Stress takes time. Sometimes that time is going to come out of your writing. If you add guilt over not getting the writing done to the pile, the effect is only going to make the whole compound heap of ugly worse. I know, I’ve been there, rather frequently, and all too recently. But mostly only briefly because of lessons learned from my grandmother, who almost seems to whisper in my ear sometimes:

You can only do as much as you can do, and there’s no point beating yourself up over the fact.

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  1. 1. Kelly McCullough

    Speaking of funny things, this post is totally unrelated to Diana’s below except in terms of a coincidence of timing and subject.

  2. 2. Angela Korra'ti

    Thank you for this post. I think a lot of us writers out here need to hear this sometimes; certainly I myself have had a few very stressful years lately and that’s taken a big chunk out of my ability to get regular writing done.

    So thank you for these words of wisdom. They’re much appreciated. :)

  3. 3. Clothdragon

    I think I’m finally learning how to really accept that issue as well. My problems haven’t been familial, but personal and health related as I go to specialist after specialist looking for a diagnosis — and a close call that still has Hubby grabbing me unexpectedly every few days for renewed promises that I won’t leave him — and where “never intentionally” doesn’t seem to help anymore.

    But worrying about lack of progress only seems to make the bad days last longer. Then I have to worry about whether I have an excuse or if I’m just making excuses. Someday, probably someday soon, I’ll switch from one to the other and hopefully I’ll be able to see the difference. Thankfully, I’m not in a hurry and I don’t have contracts anxious for delivery of work I haven’t done. — Though that might have been helpful to push me back into working. :)

    Hopefully your dark days are ending and you’ll be able to remember real happy again soon.

  4. 4. Kelly McCullough

    Thanks, Clothdragon. I’m actually in a pretty happy place at the moment with projects moving ahead on a pace that’s close to what I think of as normal and most days being good days. I don’t know if I could have written this otherwise. I have a great deal of sympathy and empathy for you on the health front. My wife has celiac disease and it took us ten hard years to finally get a diagnosis and plan of treatment, which happened a number of years ago. She’s doing much much better on that front now, and I hope that you likewise find the answers on your health issues soon and that those answers bring you to a good resolution.

  5. 5. Kate Elliott

    Thank you. This is all so true.

    btw, I know two other people who were essentially raised by their grandmothers/parents. One is my dad. That he is the kind of wonderful parent he is, was due entirely to his mother’s mother.

  6. 6. Elias McClellan

    Mr. McCullough, yours was the first essay I read here or responded to, (anywhere) and you were incredibly patient and supportive. I do not wish to offend with my observations. Having not encountered anything like your trials, my little pain and dissatisfaction have been a great source of inspiration or at least provided nuance to set my story apart from others.

    The message I take from your statements is to not seek or avoid the pain; can’t anyway. Not to force the pain into the work or vis versa but to allow each it’s time. This is a good lesson for me as, 1 I love to wallow in pain and missery and 2 my initial question was: Isn’t the work you do, that we aspire to based on fear, pain, and dissatisfaction?

    Thank you, yet again.

  7. 7. Kelly McCullough

    Kate, you’re welcome, and thanks for the comment. It’s always nice to know that something came through as intended.

    Elias, no worries on offense, and there’s no need to suggest that pain a lesser pain isn’t a pain at all. I think Diana’s post below this one addresses the fact that it can actually be quite comforting to know that other people’s lives are going on, both the good and the bad no matter what happens with yours. Jay Lake mentioned on his blog that he recently said to a friend who was embarrassed about complaining about the flu to Jay while is going through chemo for cancer “My cancer doesn’t make your flu any less unpleasant,” which is both true and very insightful. Everybody’s suffering is their own to deal with.

    As to the question, I would say that parts of the work certainly are, but only inasmuch as a writer’s whole life inevitably becomes grist for the mill. There’s a subplot bit in my most recently published book that deals with the pain of losing someone you love, and I certainly drew on my experiences with my grandmother for that, but it’s only one thread in a big story that’s mostly a happy one.

  8. 8. Tracy

    I agree laughter can be the best and easiest stress buster we have available sometimes. It doesn’t always come naturally to some people, who tend to go in the opposite direction and worry all the time, compounding their stress levels.

    Changing the way we think about and approach difficult times in our lives can be a up hill struggle but it is like anything else and will become easier the more we practice it. So the next time something bad happens, try to think of the funny side :)

  9. 9. heteromeles

    My small addition: While I was going through grad school, half my immediate (and small) family died.

    The metaphor that kept me going was the idea of being the iron on the blacksmith’s forge. So long as it’s for a purpose, getting pounded on is okay. It’s what you have to go through to be turned from a rusty hunk of ore into something useful and valuable.

    Also, someone (I think it was aikido founder Morehei Ueshiba) pointed out that steel gets some of its strength from iron, but pure iron is soft. What makes steel hard are the impurities (particularly carbon) in it, plus the efforts of the blacksmith. That lesson stuck with me too. You need some impurities to be strong.

    To extend the metaphor slightly but importantly, too many impurities, and the steel become brittle cast iron. And that’s my final point. You’ve got to let a lot of it go and remember how to have fun with your work. I’m no longer doing the stuff I got my PhD in, and part of the reason is I associate it too much with suffering to want to make a career out of it.

  10. 10. Kelly McCullough

    Heteromeles, thanks for adding to the conversation. That’s a lovely metaphor and I’m glad it helped you through some hard times. Having helped my wife through the incredibly wearing experience of grad school I find it difficult to imagine making it through to the Ph.D under the circumstances you describe. You must have developed into very strong steel indeed.

  11. 11. Kelly McCullough

    Tracy, didn’t mean to leave you out there, I just hadn’t gone through and pulled comments out of moderation yet. BTW, your posts should just show up from here on out. Moderation mostly catches first posts.

    I firmly agree with you on looking for the funny side. It’s something I had ingrained from a really young age as my grandmother had a fantastic sense of the ridiculous which she passed on to my mother and my aunt as well as to me. It saw us all through some pretty bleak moments in my childhood, and has helped see those of us who remained through the death of my aunt and then my grandmother. Catching a moment of the absurd in a bleak situation can be the difference between collapse and soldiering on sometimes.

  12. 12. Kelly McCullough

    Angela Korra’ti, you’re very welcome. Sorry you got hung up in the moderation queue. I wasn’t as on top of that as I ought to have been.

  13. 13. David B. Coe

    Thanks for this post, Kelly. I lost both my parents early in my career. they died within about a year of each other, just at the time I was working on my first series. Actually, they both knew that I had signed contracts on the books, but neither of them lived long enough to see any of my work in published form. I lost about a year to grief, to dealing with the estate, and to trying to figure out who I was in a world that didn’t include my mother and father. This was long ago, and I’ve healed and moved on. But I still remember those days as if I was still living them. And on my parents’ birthdays or the anniversaries of their deaths, I still miss them terribly.

  14. 14. Kelly McCullough

    You’re welcome, David, and I’m very sorry for your loss. My grandmother lived long enough to see my first couple of books, which is a huge comfort to me since I’m a third generation fan and she was so proud to see me start selling books in her beloved genre.

    The thing that brings on the memory of loss for me is usually travel. For twenty-five years the first thing I did when I got in at the far end of a trip was to check in with my grandmother. And still, every time I get in somewhere I think “I should check in with…oh.”

  15. 15. Dianna

    Kelly,

    Beautiful post. I lost my dad just over four years ago, and I have a wonderful grandmother who’s repeatedly saved my butt in the years since. She’s a wise woman, but I think she really needs to learn this lesson even more than I do.

    ~Dianna

  16. 16. Kelly McCullough

    Dianna, thank you. I’m glad you appreciated it.

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Author Information

Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough is a fantasy and science fiction author. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series—Penguin/ACE. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Writers of the Future and Weird Tales. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star—part of an NSF-funded science curriculum—and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited—funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Visit site.

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