Monday, May 20, 2013

Full Catastrophe Writing

One of my favorite feel good books (you know, from that section in the book store* nobody wants to be seen in) is Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  In it, he recounts the line from the movie of Nikos Kazantzaki's novel Zorba the Greek:

Zorba, have you ever been married?

to which Zorba replies...

...Of course I've been married.  Wife, house, kids, everything...the full catastrophe.

So, maybe if I heard my husband refer to our life together as a catastrophe I might get offended, but actually the term 'full catastrophe' here and in John Kabat-Zinn's book is meant to express the richness of life and all its many faces —good, bad and the gray stuff in between.  It speaks to the joys and sorrows, our personal trials and triumphs.

If that isn't a perfect metaphor for the writing journey, I'm not sure what is!

My editorial letter came at what was probably one of the worst times in my life. Or better put, if I had laid out a timeline of my life in front of me, I certainly wouldn't have consciously chosen to have my editorial letter arrive when it did.  I was literally one foot out the door to an extended weekend trip to Florida when I checked my email. Part of me wanted to ignore it...the wiser part of me thought, well, read it through and do an awful lot of thinking on your road trip! (as if not opening it was an option when I saw my editor's name in my inbox!)  I read through it quickly (not too bad!), got back to my editor and told her I'd begin working when I returned home the following Wednesday.  Then I took off for the eight-hour road trip to the Sunshine State.

The next morning, in NJ, my father was put on life support.
He passed away later that same evening.

Oddly enough, in the jumble of figuring out logistics, keeping my own grief at bay so I could deal with my children's grief and questions, and booking a flight to NJ, my edits were still in the maelstrom of my mind.  I contacted both my agent and editor, who were understanding beyond words, and went about making arrangements to get home.

The death of a family member is certainly one of those times when your writing doesn't take priority.  There are too many business-like arrangements to make and feelings to work out and in the quietest moments, all I could do was sleep or eat or watch something mindless and fun on TV, so as not to visit the darker places in my mind. 

When I finally returned home to North Carolina the following week, I wasn't sure if I was really up to the task of editing my novel.  It all seemed so silly and trivial in the face of my father's death.  But what choice did I have?  This publishing opportunity was what I'd been working so damn hard for, for so long...and my agent and editor were working damn hard for it as well.  I couldn't wallow in the injustice of the shitty timing.  I had a deadline.

I wrote, or to be exact, I revised.  Having my book to dive into, being able to spend time with characters who I loved, helped me get through a rough time.  It gave me something to focus on.  In between all of that, there was the stuff of every day life to contend with as well.  School, meals, laundry, college planning, dance classes, doctor visits, professional photos...the full catastrophe.

My second set of edits arrived the day before my daughter's birthday.
My copy edits arrived on my wedding anniversary.

Yep, at some point, I had to laugh Zorba-like in the gale of the full catastrophe.**

Because the truth is —there will never be the perfect time to write, or revise, or edit.  There will always be school, meals, laundry (there's always freakin' laundry), weddings, funerals, big stuff, small stuff, Orphan Black marathons, bills to pay, the Yankees getting off to a slow start and rain on vacation.  And there will be writing, and whether you can give it chunks of time or little sips of time here and's there.  Always.

So what are you waiting for?

*self-hell...oops, self-help!
**page 5, FULL CATASTROPHE LIVING: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D.


  1. So very sorry about your father, Robin.

    What a wonderful phrase, "the full catastrophe". It definitely could describe my writing journey as well.

    I got an email offer from my wonderful to represent me while I was up in the middle of the night with a sick child, and I wrote my first published book while dealing with the very difficult months of my youngest son's life. (I also remember dealing with writing business right after he ended up in the hospital after dehydration due to pneumonia.)

    I used to wait for life to get out of the way, but now (most of the time), I just don't wait. I write in the time I can find. I'm certainly much more productive!

    Thanks for an awesome post!

    1. I think there must be some Murphy's Law of writing too - think of the least convenient moment for that 'email' to arrive and it will, lol, but such is life, and if anything I've learned from the last few months (which were also full of really great times too) is that there will never be a perfect time!! Gotta snatch it when you can!!

      Thanks, Brianna!

  2. Oh, I know exactly what catastrophe you speak of! I, however, didn't do such a good job of keeping up with my writing while life got in the way. But now that life has returned to a new normal, I am so happy to spend time with my characters again.

    I never stopped thinking about them, even if they were stuck in a state of arrested development.

    Now we're all moving forward.

    1. Judy, I know! I kept wondering if I hadn't had a deadline would I have written? Honestly, some of the parts I love the most came through during these edits. And *thinking* is just as important too. Makes it easier when you do get back.

      Can't wait to see where you take your characters!!

    2. Judy, the progress you've made is amazing, all things considered. And inspiring!

  3. I'm sorry about your dad, Robin. It sounds like a crazy year! But it's so great that you kept on writing, and at the end of the day, no matter what else happened, that part of your life continued to thrive. Very helpful and inspiring to hear about. I'm trying to make it a habit to write from 7:30-9:30am every morning, after my daughter leaves for school and before I leave for work. My hope is that even I screw up a day, I can go back to my schedule if I have one to go back to.

    1. Ariel, thanks! I love the sound of the project you're working on and how you are using Pinterest, btw!! I think it's important to commit to a time, especially when you have children. It's so easy to get caught up in other things that need your attention that our creative selves often get forgotten. Keep at it!!!

  4. Sometimes I think that after times of extreme sadness or joy, one might actually write with deeper emotion than usual. I know I wrote Pajama Light at a time of emotional turmoil in my life - I was describing a special, beloved place in the hope of bringing balance to my world.

    1. Gale, so true.

      I love Pajama Light. Such a simple (and gorgeously rhymed!) story with profound, deeper meaning!! Truly a testament to your beloved place!!

  5. Robin, so sorry to hear about the loss of your father.

    Something has to get you through the hard times, and I find writing can be cathartic -- when I can get myself to do it. It's hard to focus the writing though on something you might not feel like concentrating on. But the writing that does emerge tends to be deeper and more heartfelt -- a small consolation.

    I love your point -- life goes on, and so must the writing for those who want (need?) to be writers.
    Thanks for the inspiration Robin. And can't wait to see your book on the shelves!

  6. Okay, just have to say, I'm loving this conversation! I miss you guys!!!