Deborah J. Ross on Writing through Crisis (Writing for the Long Haul series)

Science fiction and fantasy writer Deborah J. Ross has been publishing novels and short stories for more than three decades. When she sent me this post, I knew immediately that it was the right post to resume the long haul series with. So please welcome Deborah as she talks about a subject writers sometimes hesitate to discuss: those times times when, for one reason or another, we simply can’t write.


Writing Through Crisis

For much of my early career, I used to joke that I couldn’t afford writer’s block. I began writing professionally when my first child was a baby and I learned to use very small amounts of time. This involved “pre-writing,” going over the next scene in my mind (while doing stuff like washing the dishes) until I knew exactly how I wanted it to go. Then when I’d get a few minutes at the typewriter (no home computers yet), I’d write like mad. I always had a backlog of scenes and stories and whole books, screaming at me to be written. The bottleneck was the time in which to work on them.

I kept writing through all sorts of life events, some happy, others really awful and traumatic. Like many other writers, I used my work as escape, as solace, as a way of working through difficult situations and complex feelings. I shrouded myself with a sense of invulnerability: I could write my way through anything life threw at me!

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

I hit an immovable wall. My mother had been raped and murdered when my younger daughter was but a wee babe. The DA accepted a plea bargain and so, 9 years later, the perpetrator had his first parole hearing. I put on my psychological armor, marched into San Quentin, and spoke at that hearing. A year later, I found myself in a full-blown post-traumatic crisis. I kept having waking nightmares of both terror and revenge. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t stop crying.

Also, I couldn’t write fiction. Stream-of-consciousness journaling helped me get through the darkest days, but the creation of an actual story was beyond me. That creative paralysis added another dimension to the meltdown. If I couldn’t write, who was I? Where were my secret worlds, my journeys of spirit and heart where people healed and things got better? Gone…and I didn’t know if I’d ever get them back.

 I was fortunate to have a lot of help during those dark weeks and months, some of it from fellow writers. No pep talks, just friendship, constant and true. Eventually, I was able to return to fiction writing as well, although by then, I found myself a single working mom and had a new set of demands on my time. I was able to draw on two models for personal writing success — the first being the technique of “pre-writing” (during my lunchtime walks at work) and to use small amounts of time. I carved those out by getting up 10 minutes early, opening a file on my computer, and adding something – if only a couple of words – to the current work. I earmarked part of weekends and holidays for writing time, which worked because that younger daughter was old enough to have her own interests. More than that, however, having recovered this precious part of my life, my writing, gave me the determination to never lose it again. That was essential on those mornings when I’d rather sleep in, or sunny days when the beach was calling. I had to find a new balance in my life, and it was up to me to give writing the priority I wanted it to have.

Writers stop writing for all kinds of reasons. In my case, it was personal and emotional, part of a larger crisis. Other times, however, the well runs dry when the rest of life is going smoothly. Quite a few years ago, I ran into a writer I greatly admired (I think it was at an American Booksellers Association convention way back when my publisher would send various authors, including me), and I’d not seen anything from this writer in quite a few years. I introduced myself and asked when the next book would be coming out. Only when I saw the change in the writer’s expression did I realize how difficult the subject was. I was probably the hundredth person that weekend to ask. (Eventually this writer did come out with several new books; I wonder now if the appearance at the ABA wasn’t a way of trying to get the head back into writerly-space.)

I don’t think it’s at all helpful to try to “cheer up” a writer in the middle of a dry period. The specific reasons — creative paralysis, personal crisis, discouragement — vary so much, I think it’s safe to say that each of us has to find our own way through. For me, it’s helped immensely to know I’m not the only one to go through it. That’s the operational term, to “go through it.” To come out the other side. To talk and write about what happened, in the hopes of being the light in the darkness for someone else.

I don’t know what lies ahead for me. Just because there are no thunderclouds on the horizon doesn’t mean unexpected tragedy cannot strike. I know that no matter how strong I am, I can be overwhelmed. However — and this is the big point — I’m the only one who can make me stop writing permanently. I have the ability to recover from no matter what crisis. To build my life, to return to the work I love. So perhaps instead of talking about Writing Through Crisis, I can reframe the concept as Writing Aroundabout Crisis. Remaining true to what’s important to me, knowing it’s waiting for me at the other side of the storm.


Deborah J. Ross has been publishing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her latest novel, Shannivar, goes on sale this week and is a sequel to the The Seven-Petaled Shield. Other recent books include Collaborators, Azkhantian Tales, and The Children of Kings, which is the latest in her continuation of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series. Deborah has also published more than 50 short stories in magazines such as Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Realms Of Fantasy, as well as in almost all of the Sword & Sorceress and Darkover anthologies. As Deborah Wheeler she previously published Jaydium and Northlight.

An editor as well as a writer, her most recent anthologies include Mad Science Café (with Pati Nagle) and the forthcoming Stars of Darkover. She’s served as Secretary of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, has taught writing and led writer’s workshops, and is a member of the online writers’ collective Book View Cafe, where you can find multi-format ebooks of her work.


Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts

Sharon Shinn on managing time
Marge Pellegrino on feeding the restless yearning to write
Sarah Zettel on embracing ignorance and writing your passions
Uma Krishnaswami on honoring unreasonable exuberance
Jennifer J. Stewart on finding community and support
Sherwood Smith on keeping inspiration alive
Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity

6 thoughts on “Deborah J. Ross on Writing through Crisis (Writing for the Long Haul series)”

  1. I noticed that even though there was a time when she couldn’t write fiction, Deborah kept writing a journal, to get through the darkest days, to pull herself forward. I wonder if fiction no longer felt safe during that time, just as life no longer felt safe. I’m glad she wrote her way back, found a way back in.

  2. WOW. Just, wow.
    I have periods of panic when I feel like I’m spinning my wheels, and I feel like I’m going to lose my writing ability due to stress and circumstances. I’ve lost it before, but never for very long. I cannot imagine what it took for Deborah J. Ross to get it back. I appreciate the insights that she shared, and the reminder that WE are the only ones who can make us stop writing for good.

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