What’s missing?

Sometimes I read blog posts and I want to comment on them, but I wonder if I can possibly say what is in my head, make sense, be gracious, and not leave a comment the length of a doctoral dissertation (or at least, the length of a decent blog post!) I had that happen today, and I just wanted to share my thoughts.

Today, a writer’s site posted about a writer who, from all accounts, has a superhuman energy level. She produces tons of books under her own name and a pen name, is a songwriter, has a degree in some impressive field, markets her work with incredible energy . . . and has kids. 

The columnist writes that most of the barriers we (would-be authors) face are self-imposed ones. In other words, we make excuses for ourselves. “Well, that’s all very well for that author, but I could never do what she does because (fill in the blank with your favorite excuse).” 

Most of the commenters seemed to take this column as a kick-in-butt challenge, where they felt that if this woman could do all that, then they have no excuses for not doing it, too. (Thankfully, one agent commented that this author adores marketing and isn’t the best role model for most authors, and there are plenty of ways to “do” a writing career.) But I had one question lingering in my mind.

What’s the quality of her relationships?

(I don’t want to knock this author; I’d never heard of her before today. She may be someone who thrives on four hours of sleep, produces massive amounts of quality work, and manages to spend quality time with each child, and the little ones don’t feel neglected at all by Mommy’s work.)

But every time I encounter people with this much energy, I feel exhausted. (Darn my chemical imbalances! Darn my depleted iron levels!) I also remember something an art history professor told me years ago: don’t just look at what evidence a critic uses, look at what types of evidence he doesn’t use. In other words, what is absent is just as significant as what is present.

So I also wonder, as I study their obsessed-with-one-thing lives, what is neglected. What’s missing? When the deadline looms and the publisher is pounding at the door and the marketing efforts call for more-more-more, what’s the first thing to go?

Too often, it’s relationships. The people around us are taken for granted: they’re here to stay (for better or worse), but the publisher might drop us or the book might tank or the deadline might pass and we’re not ready. All those things (urgent! necessary! critical!) are transient. They might disappear. But those people around us: oh, well, they live with me and they’re stuck with me and they’ll still love me no matter what, right?

But that’s not really true. My husband and children and family should matter more than my work because they are people. They are permanently in my life, and because of that, they should matter more than temporary things. That includes even (especially?) my God-given work of writing.

Years ago, when I wrote my master’s thesis on Moby-Dick, I read about Melville’s family. His relationships with his wife and children were difficult; at one point, his wife believed he was insane (as did the critics) and almost left him. One son died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Another died in a bar fight. One daughter died young. Melville was a difficult man. Brilliant, but difficult.

He lingered in obscurity for decades after his death until someone discovered Billy Budd and critics started to sing the dead author’s praises. His remaining child, a daughter, couldn’t understand the new fascination with her father. To her, he was still the difficult, perhaps violent, man who had brought her up. The accolades for Moby-Dick didn’t matter; all that mattered were her memories of a strained, heart-breaking relationship.

Extreme? Yes.

Avoidable? Yes.

As a workaholic, this cuts too close to the heart. I may not be violent, but sometimes when I become deeply involved with my current writing project, I find myself dangerously close to obsession. It’s a short step from there to neglect of everything else, including my family.

I don’t want my children to look back and feel neglected because of my work. I’d hate to have a shelf-full of bestsellers, a couple of literary prizes, and a massive body of criticism about my work, and have my children remember their mother as The One Who Wasn’t There Because She Was Writing. It’s not worth it.

Categories: relationships, writing | Tags: , | 17 Comments

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17 thoughts on “What’s missing?

  1. As someone with a low energy level, I relate! I seem to have inherited my dad’s tremendous drive to “do” along with my mom’s fatigue – a frustrating combination. Some people can just accomplish more, and that does not mean that those accomplishing less are lazy or full of excuses. Well, they could be and sometimes we do need a kick in the butt, but I agree with your thoughts in this post. I particularly like this: “don’t just look at what evidence a critic uses, look at what types of evidence he doesn’t use. In other words, what is absent is just as significant as what is present.” We can neglect what is really important in life in our drive to accomplish things. Thanks for sharing.

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    • Oh wow, I’ve inherited both those “do-more” and “totally tired all the time” genes, too. (I was the person who took naps in elementary school and went to bed before all my college dorm mates did. For that matter, I sometimes go to bed before my daughters do!) It’s hard. Thanks so much for reading!

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  2. Such excellent thoughts here: and what a good question to ask “what’s the quality of their relationships”? This is both encouraging and a warning to me. Thank you.

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  3. Paul Lanier

    It very true that our relationships with people are the very heart of our lives, and our work tasks often pull us away from those relationships. Tasks versus people seems to be a perpetual tug-of-war for me. I consider myself to be a person of moderate but steady energy. I get frustrated many times because when I try to take good care of people around me, my tasks get short-shrifted– and work is what pays the bills and gives me the means to take care of people– but when I try to take really good care of work, my relationships and friendships tend to suffer — and people are the heart of any life. I’m afraid I haven’t found the exact right balance, but I seem to muddle along well enough trying to take care of work and of people. I remember however one professor of pyshcology telling that stress was caused by trying to do more things in less time, and suddenly realizing the truth of something my father tried to teach me years ago, that to be productive you often have to do things in between the waiting times of getting other things done. I doubt that’s what my professor was trying to convey, but paradoxically enough, it made my life a little easier to realize I could stuff more things in between and not just wait. I do realize that one must still take some rest anyway, because there is some point at which more in less can only mean collapse. When I feel myself approaching that point, I put things aside and try to just enjoy life for a little while. :-)

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    • It’s hard to find that balance, isn’t it? I seem to reach the collapse-point earlier than I used to; I had mono in college, and ever since, I’ve found that when I hit a certain level of fatigue, I have to go to bed immediately and woe be it to the person who tries to keep me awake!

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      • Paul Lanier

        For my part, I’m blessed to have the ability to do a lot before I hit the “collapsing” position. However, I do find balance hard to achieve. I went through a bit of psychological depression in early college as I went about figuring out how to balance work with social life and with the need for solitude and the need for rest.
        I don’t keep a “perfect balance” even now, but I’ve figured out for me what will keep me functioning well enough and be productive.
        I’m still a night owl, and fortunately my work and life schedule will generally allow me to get up relatively late in the morning. I do take “power naps” from time to time; and when I feel my occasional bouts of insomnia, I get up and organize things, make lists, read, and generally chill until my body finally relaxes and lets me sleep.
        I find it interesting that I need to balance personal solitude and people-time with work and close relationships. I’m at my best when I get to have both solitude not connected to work and people time with family and friends and do all my work too! This isn’t always easy to accomplish! Still, I’ve figured out that it’s okay to not be perfectly balanced– after all we are frail creatures, we humans. :-)

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  4. I feel exhausted by those people too, Laura. My introversion just doesn’t do well in their presence! Your reflection on that article and your cautionary advice here is a welcome corrective to the voices that try to kick us in the pants, telling us to try harder, get things done, and be more productive.

    People are forever. It’s a good thing to keep in mind.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    P.S. Tweeted a link to this post. Hope writers will come by and read!

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  5. There is a work/life balance that we all need to address. Some people have very high paying careers but little time to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Others have lots of spare time but no money because they are unemployed or on part time low paid jobs. Isn’t there a middle ground we should be aiming for? Does anybody really need billions, does any individual really need $5billion dollars and if so for what purpose?

    The Anglo Saxon cultures like the US and the UK are winner take all societies where wealth is all and working yourself to death proves you have worth as a human being. The Mediterranean cultures are more about enjoying life and working to enjoy life. So, we might ask, do we work to live, or live to work?

    The French now work about 33.5 hours a week which they say is affecting their industrial and economic output but I see no mad rush for them to want to change it at the moment; they are too busy enjoying their food and wine and laid back lifestyle! We learn from each other, and there is something to be said for different approaches to life, work, relaxation and so many other things. I seem to get the feeling that many Americans feel guilty if they aren’t justifying their existence by being busy or doing something, whatever they are doing. Perhaps for some people in that frame of mind they are restless and just cannot relax.

    This is actually an incredibly thoughtful and intelligent post and topical for me too. I am working towards getting a writing career up and running and have been frustrated recently because I cannot write at all, and just now have been leaving comments on blogs and writing a post myself. But I noticed that even when I made the time to write, I couldn’t write even when sitting at the keyboard. I also noticed that God was speaking to my soul too. I am putting Him in the picture now and things seem slowly to be coming into some order.

    As for Melville, well ‘Moby Dick’ is a great story without a doubt but captain Ahab is a man bent on his own destruction and the destruction of his crew merely to get the white whale. Does that represent wealth, success, ambition at all and any cost? Is Melville writing about his own life? Something to think about.

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    • Thoughtful comment, Tim. I’ve been there with the frustrated-with-writing (usually when I’m depressed and read about SuperWriters who do “everything”), so I can identify with what you’re saying. Glad you’re writing again, and finding how to put God into it all. I’ve been wondering: is there a way to subscribe to your blog by email? I do that for a lot of blogs I like. :)

      As far as Melville goes, I remember reading that he was frustrated with his publishers constantly harping on him to write something commercially viable (NOT Moby-Dick type of work!) and he had the constant pressure of trying to support his family (which included several unmarried sisters as well as his wife and kids). At one point, he wrote, “Dollars damn me,” implying that he felt the pressure that lots of serious writers feel, being torn between commercial success (which he’d experienced at the start of his career) and what they longed to do artistically. He eventually stopped writing and let his artistic voice be silenced. I find this very sad and troubling. (Sorry, I can go on and on for hours about Melville even years after getting my master’s degree. My husband suffered through many impromptu dinnertime lectures about whales during those long months of thesis-writing!)

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      • Knowing you struggle with depression/bi-polar is something I can obviously relate to. I lost about twelve years to depression from about 18 to when I was about 30. This of course affected everything, my work, my education, my relationship with God and family and friends and it affected my whole outlook on life of course too. Briefly, what it did though was make me more honest, more liable to speak my mind and perhaps it also made me realise that what is often important in life is not necessarily being wealthy or having lots of success or a high paying career, although not bad things in themselves, but being happy, having peace and emotional stability and well being and using those true riches as springboards for anything else we might want to do. If making wealth or success robs us of peace or happiness, or we have to be ruthless to get what we want, isn’t that really failure? I cannot do anything that might kick off another episode of depression but I sometimes do anyway because of pressures of life and so on.

        I have a number of friends who are published authors, one mid level successful and the other just scraping by to be honest; they are both lovely people however and are always there for advice and guidance and suchlike. I also wrote to a guy many years ago now, who mentioned that he had been depressed and was now a published author, and the upshot was he phoned me for a long chat and sent me a load of his books. He is a regular kind of guy and was told by someone before his success that ‘you want to write a book?! You couldn’t write a shopping list!!!’ and yet his first book is excellent because I read it and couldn’t put it down. In the phone chat we had he said that depression was actually his ‘gift’ and although I don’t entirely agree with that view, I understood what he was getting at. It drove him on in some way and he was determined to be a published author. Now, I don’t think we should make ourselves ill with something to prove a point to others or even ourselves because of the fear we aren’t going to make it, but I do feel that sometimes we have to accept certain things in our lives and work with them or around them rather than against them all the time. I just got a rejection slip for a book I just submitted but I am not worried in the slightest. Writing is the easy bit, convincing others to publish it is a little harder! But they all started somewhere whoever they were. Deep down my biggest fear is that ‘who on earth am I to get my books published’ or ‘who the hell do I think I am to get this out there?’ or words to that effect. I have a real downer on myself and real serious issues of low self worth that I am getting help with. I can analyse it because I am well educated, well read and articulate but somewhere deep inside is someone who feels a fraud.

        Now I am still kind of stuck on the book I am currently writing but I am writing my blog a little and commenting on my friends blogs and doing other things (I am often busy all the time if I am honest) but if I feel like some time out, I am taking it and not stressing over it. If you can’t write, then enjoy the downtime until you can. And if you can’t write, then read through what you’ve written. That’s what I do anyway. I don’t know how you got into writing but my foray was through realising that I am always coming up with idea after idea and wanting to do something with it. I used to send all kinds of ideas to TV companies but they never got back to me, so I thought why don’t I do something for myself.

        As for Melville, well his most successful novel to most of the world is ‘Moby Dick’ but in the end isn’t that always the way? A novel that seems to attack pig headedness and ruthless ambition at all costs is what made him world famous. Go figure is the expression I believe is popular on your side of the Atlantic!!! Here we might say well I never or gobsmacked!!!

        As for my blog, I don’t think Google blogger can be subscribed to by email but I have your blog on my blogroll as I have a number of interesting and varied blogs. So I am not sure what you can do about that; sorry!

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  6. Hello Laura! I’m here via the link Tim tweeted. I’m a mother of five young kids, wife of a small business owner, and I’m blogging about my journey through the greatest hits of classic literature. Like Laura above, I seem to be made up of that frustrating drive/fatigue combo. I’m learning how to keep my project on a low simmer during this precious, fleeting season. Great post!

    P.S. You wrote a Master’s thesis on MD? I read it last year and enjoyed it more than I expected, though I agree with you about Herman Melville –“difficult” is the word! I’d love to read more of your thoughts on MD.

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    • Hi, Adriana!
      I’ve read some of your posts on your blog; I found it through Tim’s blog. :) It’s been years since I’ve read MD, but I constantly think about it. I read it during my last year of college, and it (and my American lit professor) influenced me so much that I chose to write my thesis on it. It was called “Annihilation in Moby-Dick”: nice and cheerful-sounding, huh?!

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  7. I’m so glad you two are reading each other’s blogs!

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  8. Hi Laura,
    I concur with you on this, this days family loved ones are just pushed away in favor of that one big deadline, project, work and such … our loved one’s should not be taken for granted…

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    • Definitely…we shouldn’t take our loved ones for granted! After all, at the end of our lives, we won’t be wishing that we’d spent more time at our workplaces, but we will regret missed opportunities with family/friends, especially if they never heard from us how much they meant to us!

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