Click to Subscribe
From Beyond a Dark Age Grave
On Writing Prolifically Under Duress
© 2013 James LaFond
I have just emerged from a nearly month-long illness that has claimed a good portion of the writing that I had projected for this winter; winter being a favorite time for me to compose my fiction. God’s Picture Maker took a hit in the balls.
I have taken some heat for being a method writer. For instance, I wrote Soter’s Way with heading dates, because the weather was very important to the character and I wanted the seasonal nuances to be expressed in the subtext without me having to become a Weather Channel geek or intrude in a narrative capacity. Most notably, one reader felt uncomfortable after reading a sex scene in Of The Sunset World, because it seemed so authentic that he thought it had to be based on my own experience—a very specific experience—and that he felt like he had just walked in on me having sex when he read it, experiencing the associated ‘gross-out’ factor.
I am a ‘method writer’ and the protagonists of God’s Picture Maker: Three-Rivers and Leonardo; are characters with an outstanding capacity for wonder. When I found myself coughing up my lungs as I lay on the floor of my room with my phone turned off, only to drift off to sleep with the hopes that I would not wake, there was not a shred of wonder left in my soul—no tenuous link to connect me to farseeing beings, even of my own creation.
As a writer I had not feared illness. I had written numerous books while injured to the point of immobility. However, I had forgotten how deeply our spirit is intertwined with the chemistry of our organic brain, and how dependent this amazing organ is on the entire biological apparatus of the human body.
Beyond these considerations there is my need for sublimation, which, when I am engaging in it, I tend to forget, me being a selfish little ape and all. Missing work—that being the laboring gig that keeps this roof over my head and this chair under my ass—is not an option in retail food. I am a gear in a gear box, and best not remove myself lest I be replaced and find myself in a plastic bucket collecting dust with the other discards. As I muddled through my work, unwell and dejected—well that is when they pounce, the psychological predators in your life; the invalidators—I found myself experiencing anger.
Anger is something that I have tasted but rarely since reaching the down-slope of life and beginning the descent. It came back though I was hardly well enough to stand. I intimidate fellow laborers by my productivity. When they saw me sick, they circled like hyenas waiting for the lion to fall, wanting nothing more than to see a purveyor of excellence fail to thrive in their desultory corner of an unproductive world. I had been here before, to this dark self-doubting place, when working injured; but had been younger, stronger, irrationally defiant. These days, in my middle-age, I wear my mask diplomatically, having a reputation for shrugging off insults and making peace among my argumentative coworkers.
As I walked through the stockroom a very large man insulted me with a laugh.
I stopped and he stopped laughing.
I turned and he moved back.
I looked into his eyes, wanting with every shred of my being, to strangle him, and he ducked away.
I felt horrible, having let myself get so weak and succumb to such negativity in a place that is really a backwater retail food refuge for me; set aside by an indulgent employer who has forgiven my rejection of his capitalist subculture, and permits me to while away my old age in anonymity, like a member of a discontinued breed of livestock permitted to fade way in a familiar habitat. I had, because of my weak physical state, permitted negative passions to crowd back into what I have come to think of as my ‘Reverse Retirement’, my economic afterlife.
The lack of writing and the lack of combat had stopped soaking off the toxic aggression of my frustrated animal nature and I was left in mental squalor, not wanting to live with myself. I did not want to quit in the morning though. It would be okay to lay down and die at dusk. But when I managed to drag myself out of bed I wanted to be productive. I hit upon a plan to use it, the illness, for writing.
I have spent 30 odd years working in refrigerated workspaces and have noted a reduction in my respiratory capacity and resilience. I decided to let the illness progress to pneumonia and use that to write from the point-of-view of a person my age in the vast span of pre-antibiotic history when humans of my age routinely died of what was called ‘The Old Man’s Friend.’ A stroke of genius that was LaFond! Congratulate me later friends.
If nothing else I would write from the perspective of an ill character. My research and outline capacity was down to zero, so I had to go with existing outlines and just make the viewpoint character sick. The rest of my writing would have to be basic non-fiction.
I got mixed results over this two-week period. I had absolutely no energy for the type of conceptual non-fiction into which this article falls. This has since imbued me with more respect for journalists, essayists and editorialists. The non-fiction I wrote during my illness, like Panhandler Nation and The Streets Have Eyes, are forms that I have refined to the point where I can do them in my sleep; serving primarily as the voice of others as I am. Fiction represented my middle-ground, the place where I could struggle to remain meaningfully productive. I managed to write Old Man Jones, The Spiral Case #1, MTA Mike, and one chapter in God’s Picture Maker: Cacique.
But my productivity kept falling, and I was, in my capacity as a boxing and stick-fighting coach, letting my fighters down. So I contacted my doctor, and announced my ‘medieval death’ that point at which I, as a Dark Age peasant, would have been beyond hope, and he plied his trade. My flirtation with ‘The Old Man’s Friend’ had ended but I was still crushed at the base of my output curve. I could write little more than news and reviews. My ego took a body blow when my output hit 200 words a day. But then it took a slap in the face when I reread some of what people have told me is my best work.
One night at work, I actually got stronger, and by the time I came home an article had completely written itself in my mind. I loaded the coffee pot and got to work, churning out the first strong piece of non-fiction I had written in a month: Rhee, Ali, Lee and Me. I felt as if reborn. But looking back now, after the expiration of my medieval life-span, what have I learned as a writer about working sick? How will I remain productive up until the end when ‘The Old Man’s Friend’ decides it is my time to feel his final embrace?
This is important for a writer; a question of the soul. When I emailed a fellow writer about the crushing of my word count he wrote me back with such concise compassion that a non-writer would think he was offering condolences for the passing of a friend. He essentially was: my ‘writer’s best friend’ was not yet emerged from a coma after his near-death experience. And, as a writer who had followed other writers, he knows that most muses die before their human mate leaves this life. A writer whose muse deserts him is like an old man whose loving wife of 50 years has died, leaving him alone on the porch they once shared.
What is my plan for writing into extremity, and can it help you, my fellow writer, by being expressed as a method?
Below is the format that I plan on using the next time I get sick. This is not an invention but an adaptation, forced upon me by my biology and brain chemistry. What I have listed below is essentially a failing-writer triage contingency plan.
Forget essays. This format is too costly in terms of mental energy, and too demanding in terms of mental acuity.
Forget fiction outlines. This is the hard part; when you burn all of those amino acids in your brain.
Write previously outlined fiction, preferably from the perspective of an unwell or perhaps morally groping character, or from the perspective of a protagonist undergoing an identity crisis.
Write information-based non-fiction. Self-help writing is essentially a mechanical communications exercise, with the subject matter already well-known to the author. The writing speed may be much reduced but you should still put out good work.
As I got really sick I was limited to the following writing pursuits:
1. Book reviews, and apparently the ability to be a critical little primate, must be among the last of our inquisitive gifts to dissipate.
2. News and reporting of research is just the repetition of extant information. You might not win the Edward R. Murrow Award, but you can still do it.
3. I was, even at my sickest, when the room spun and I could barely follow a moronic movie plot, able to find typos and grammatical inconsistencies in some of my work. I suppose that since I am a lousy proofreader to begin with, that my ability level in this area has a limited free-fall potential, like a penny dropping out of a pants pocket that has already hit the floor.
Overall the lesson for me is that the type of writing that I have the longest experience with [memoirs, self-help] and the ancillary activities that I am not good at [proofing and editing] will yield results, when undertaken in poor health, at or near my accustomed level.
The areas that I have been most noted for [high productivity, a ‘weird poetic taint’, and a ‘dark humor’] seem to vanish almost immediately, like a mirage on a desert horizon, when my body and mind begin to fail in unison. During the seven darkest days my productivity was only 3,000 words; 10% of my best, and 20% of my median output.
For the curious, the trajectory of this illness-induced failure to write, reached its nadir when I sat shivering in the middle of a ten-day fever and wrote Under a Black Robe: The Spiral Case #1, a piece that I outlined six months previously. I attempted to begin writing a novelette the next day, from the point-of-view of a terminally ill character attempting to redeem himself at the end of a life of crime. I was barely able to get through the outline, before giving up. It is a noir piece titled Shoebox, based on the life of a close friend who is now deceased. I intend to write it one day.
Near the base of the compressed articles on this blog is a piece titled My Ugly Muse. If the article you have just read has maintained your interest for this long, than I suggest you check it out.
Through a Glass Darkly
author's notebook
The Fighting Edge
son of a lesser god
time & cosmos
z-pill forever
winter of a fighting life
when you're food
  Add a new comment below: