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I’ve been experiencing the kind of lack of engagement and excitement characterized as ennui. I have a novel and a novella ready for publication in 2022 and another one that I’ve finished drafting scheduled for 2023. So why the ennui? I should be excited, should bask in a feeling of accomplishment.
I keep thinking of the nineteenth-century writer Constance Fenimore Woolson. After she finished a novel, she fell into the same kind of energy exhaustion. This was particularly strong at the end of her life. In addition to having completed her last novel, Horace Chase, I think she understood that the publishing industry was changing. She was worried about money during an economic collapse and she was in Venice, ill, and far from home and family.
I feel a bit like her, exhausted after a marathon of writing and exhausted by the isolation of the pandemic. The publishing industry has changed. So many of us are looking for an audience and feeling like we have to spend more time marketing than creating.
But I’m also quite different from Woolson. I’m far from the roots and family I have in New England, but in Oregon, I’ve found a home near my children and grandchildren. I’m not wealthy, but I don’t depend on royalties to survive. Enough of my investments are secure that I can weather whatever the turmoil over the Ukraine brings. Even as I hear of so many of my friends suffering from physical limitations or dementia or having met the grim reaper, I still feel remarkably healthy.
These differences from Woolson matter. She fell or jumped to her death from her apartment in Venice. Suicide, I think, that she prefigured in a couple of pieces she wrote. She was depressed as she often was during her lifetime.
I’m not depressed. I’m just experiencing a window of ennui. I used to feel this way when I was teaching and we entered the final exam period. Gone was what I loved about teaching–being in the classroom talking about books. I’d get through that week of watching students write in exam books and of grading those exams by reading mystery novels and by cleaning my oven.
I’m still distracting myself with those mystery novels, but my oven now cleans itself, so I’ve substituted deep cleaning my house. That’s finished, so now what? What will I do to re-energize myself? I’ll write a blog like this one, go to the bank to cash my $10. royalty check, walk in the park and hope for inspiration. But first, I’ll wait to take the bread I’m baking out of my self-cleaning over.
Fear vs. Worry
I admit, I’m a worrier. If anyone in my family is on a road trip or even out for the night, I worry until the person is safe at home. Anything could happen––a car breakdown, a crash, even an empty tank of gas. We have cell phones now, but what if they’re out of range? Years ago, a friend told me she’d go to bed before her teenage son came home. If something bad happened, she wouldn’t feel less awful than if she’d stayed awake.
I used to worry about exams enough that I’d dream the wrong answers. If I have guests, I buy too much food to be sure I don’t run short. I leave too early for appointments and buy gifts months ahead of time. I like to have plans made, but I’m flexible about changing them and I can be spontaneous.
It’s the little things I worry about. Here in fire-prone Oregon, I don’t worry about another fire like one that devastated two towns near me a year and a half ago. I’m optimistic. Our firefighters are doing controlled burns. Where there’s smoke, there’s not always fire. I’m not pessimistic or anxious or fearful. I’m not afraid to be home alone. I can watch Silence of the Lambs or the shower scene in Psycho and my heart won’t start to pound.
I realized the difference between fear and worry in August when I was on a rafting trip. No fear in the easy rapids––I even wanted more powerful ones. But then everyone in my family climbed a cliff and dove into the river. They talked me into climbing to where they started. That’s when my fear response kicked in. Rapid heart rate, labored breath. They talked me lower on the cliff, then lower still. Finally I climbed low enough so I was almost in the water. Adrenalin was still pumping when I jumped.
I’m working on a sequel now to my novel Leaving Freedom. Finding Freedom is set forty years later and my protagonist is eighty years old, driving across the United States by herself. She should be fearful, but she isn’t. She says, “Fear is physical. An adrenalin rush. . . .Worry’s more like a steady anxiety. What if I miss my flight? What if the plane crashes? It can be irrational like how I worried about pumping my own gas on this trip.” She’s been living in Oregon where we don’t pump our own gas, something I worried about on a recent trip East.
I mastered pumping gas, but there’ll be no cliff-jumping in my future. All I have left now is to worry about finishing Finding Freedom. No fear involved.
Many years ago, I asked an acquaintance what she was doing for Christmas. She told me she was Jewish. Fortunately she was a wonderful woman and wasn’t offended, but ever since then I’ve trained myself to say Happy Holidays. Some of my Jewish friends observe Hanukkah only; others admit that as soon as they put away the Hanukkah candles, they put up the Christmas tree. Whatever they do, I respect them. Still, whenever I say Happy Holidays, a little part of me thinks Merry Christmas.
At this time of year, I think back to my early Christmases. How I felt sorry for my brother because he got a train set while I got a dollhouse that my father built. The year my father made me a desk that I loved to clutter and then re-organize. The year I bought a jackknife for my nephew. It never appeared at our Christmas Eve exchange. Months later I found it in my fireplace ashes.
When I read the scene about a Christmas pageant in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, I felt like he was describing my childhood. I never played Mary. I think I was always an angel from on high, but I often feel nostalgic for those days of Christmas gatherings in church. When my children were young, we’d have an evening service that highlighted the Christmas story, then gather in the church function room to eat cookies, drink hot chocolate, and sing Christmas carols. I especially remember the woman in her eighties who couldn’t carry a tune, but sang the loudest of us all. She was feisty enough that when she was asked for a third time to move away from a politician who was visiting the town, she refused. The police picked her up in her wheelchair and brought her to jail. She was dismissed unharmed and uncharged and lived for several more Christmas celebrations.
At Christmas, I also think of the opening line of Little Women, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” This year, we’re going light on presents. Everyone has drawn a name and will buy just one gift. We’ll have more time to enjoy a family game and more money to donate to those less fortunate. Whatever a person’s faith or lack of faith, the holidays matter to be. They’re a time to gather together with tolerance and understanding and love. As the poem “The Night Before Christmas” goes, “Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays to all and to all a good night.”
I just did an early shopping for Thanksgiving staples and await my daughter who will deliver the fresh turkey she ordered. It will cost more than my royalties, but no matter. I love Thanksgiving. I even still like cooking the dinner–as long as I can find the right kind of stuffing mix to replicate what my grandmother used to make. Success today.
I’m a traditionalist when it comes to Thanksgiving. Turkey, squash, potatoes, stuffed celery, olives, and, of course, cranberry sauce. Pumpkin pie and apple crisp for dessert because I can make that gluten free. I remember the days when we could talk about the first Thanksgiving. I’m a New Englander. In school we made pumpkins and Pilgrim hats and Indian headdresses. Sure, the first Thanksgiving is a myth, but it’s a good story. The Wampanoags weren’t invited, but when they appeared, they were welcomed in. This was before their fragile relationship with the Pilgrims descended into war.
I just watched a PBS special called, I think, The Great Dying. I knew about it–disease that had wiped out all the population in the area of Plymouth. No one was to blame for that except maybe the unsuspecting rat or sailor from a French or Dutch ship. I liked the Native American speaker who said that we can’t alter the past but we can go forward and see that no more tribes are wiped out.
I’ll celebrate this Thanksgiving with family. The turkey will be humanely raised, though there’s nothing humane about slaughtering it. The cranberry sauce will remind me of the cranberry bogs in Massachusetts. I’ll celebrate that no one has Covid and that my immediate family will all be together. Maybe I’ll think of a way to incorporate the holiday into a story or a novel. Or maybe not–I tend to write about macabre things I haven’t experienced. Another thing to be thankful for.
It’s a rainy day, something unusual in my adopted state of Oregon. I have a new novel coming out in less than a week and I need to be marketing. Not one of my strong suits. I spent two weeks in September traveling around New England and reminding myself how much I love that area of the United States. I saw family and friends in Massachusetts where I was born, in New Hampshire where I lived most of my adult life, in Maine where I have more friends, and in Connecticut where my brother lives. I reminisced, ate lobsters and clams and corn on the cob and ignored what I should be doing about marketing. Should I mention that I drank a bit of wine?
When I returned to Oregon, I seized some beautiful weather and continued to avoid marketing except for a few hours of posting the title and publication date of The Wicked Bible (October 27, 2021). Then I seized another excuse and entertained my brother-in-law and his wife for a week, wine included. I also got distracted by working on plans connected to my academic life. A group of us will have a conference in April 2022 on Constance Fenimore Woolson, who’s been a ghostly character in some of my fiction. More on that in another blog.
Meanwhile, I have no excuse to avoid marketing except to clean my house or go for another hike between the raindrops. But I’m making progress–a post on Booksirens, one on Facebook, one on Goodreads, one on Instagram. Truth be told, that’s more procrastination because I really need to work my way through a difficult transition section of my novel in progress, Finding Freedom. I have until September 2022 to submit the first go-around. If I can stop procrastinating, I think I can make it.