When I was 13 years old, I remember attending a (then) California Angels game excited to see All-Star Angels starting lineup catcher and one of my favorite players, Brian Downing, sitting not 20 feet away from us in a reserved section, his leg encased in a heavy cast and resting high on the bleacher seat in front of him, cheering on his team. I never forgot this – he couldn’t play, and would be unable to for some time, but he showed up. He can’t know the example he set for me in that simple act.
When a baseball player is placed on the DL (disabled list) for an injury this represents a serious curveball. The player has been operating on a set routine day in and day out, practicing his skills and working in community with the rest of the team to perfect his game. His success depends upon his participation in the routine and consistent practice. But an injury sets his whole routine off balance, effectively severing it along with the player’s accustomed role in the team community. A new routine is necessary to deal with the curve – often slow recovery from the injury and then physical therapy before a gradual return to practice, with the hope of eventually returning to the original routine and communal role. In the case of Brian Downing, his recovery from that break brought with it the additional curveball of being unable to return to his position as catcher — instead he needed to work and train up to lead the outfield in the starting lineup. Through these life-altering, game-changing curves, Downing and other players stay connected — they make the effort required to join the team and be present for the games and to move into all new territory if that is what is required – they remain committed to being a part of and participating in community to the extent they are able and to the best of their ability.
When the curves come in fast and hard for writers and other artists, they can leave you feeling disoriented and out of the loop, maybe even completely out of commission. This can be especially hard and discouraging, especially if you were writing regularly and now are finding it extremely difficult or even impossible to sustain the kind of work or level of commitment you have been used to demonstrating. As you work to weather the curves and figure out how to deal with them, it is important to stay connected to both the craft and practice of writing, as well as to the larger community of writers.
One way to keep your hand in the game while you manage the curveballs is to read a book on writing that speaks to where you’re at now, or maybe re-read an old favorite. Perhaps an idea will be presented that speaks to you in your current situation, which helps you make better sense of the thing you are struggling with. Or maybe the book serves as inspiration to continue on at all, even in the smallest, most seemingly insignificant way. Choose carefully, however; not all books on the craft of writing are appropriate sources of inspiration and encouragement if you are struggling with life-changing issues. You don’t want a book that discourages you by setting up impossible expectations which you can’t hope to achieve right now. Rather, you need ideas and options, encouragement and support. I’ve already mentioned one of my favorite books, Pen On Fire, by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett. One other book that I find so inspiring and nurturing is If You Want To Write, by Brend Ueland. bird by bird by Anne Lamott is also a favorite. These books are humorous, fully aware of the curveballs LIFE can let fly at you, and offer practical inspiration and workable ideas to help keep you writing and staying connected when things get really hard.
Another way to stay connected is through craft publications like Poets & Writers and The Writer. These provide articles about what a real writing life looks like and offer many different ways of approaching your craft and working with and through life changing situations. One recent article in Poets & Writers dealt with a writing couple whose child has severe special needs and examined the ways they both manage to stay connected to their craft while managing the challenges of their child’s illness and taking care of their marriage. Other articles have dealt with figuring out how to write while dealing with the death of a family member, experiencing divorce, or navigating serious illness. These have provided invaluable encouragement to me in my own situation since some of my curveballs have recently made it impossible for me to write consistently. Reading craft publications also helps to keep your project front and center, even when you can’t get to it right then by providing ample inspiration during those down times.
If you are able to get out — which might do you good — perhaps you can find time to attend a writing event or conference in your area. Professionals in all fields take time for development, networking, and meaningful conversation with colleagues. I recently attened a Q&A session with a literary agent through a local writers salon which was both informative and relaxing. It provided a nice break from the elder care issues I am juggling and was concluded early enough for me to meet the rest requirements for my health issues. If your curveballs prevent your from leaving the house or committing much time to extra-curricular events, consider staying connected through some of the great places for writers on the web (for some ideas, see my sidebar “Clean, Well-Lighted Places For Writers,” as well as some writing-related blogs I follow). I’ve also gotten very addicted to podcasts on writing. Writers on Writing and Writer’s Voice are two of my favorites — I can listen while I’m folding laundry or cleaning the house or making dinner. I love listening to these interview shows with authors and agents, discussing every aspect of living a literary life. They provide great inspiration and encouragement, especially when you hear how other writers have worked through the curveballs in their own lives.
Staying connected to the larger writing community via these avenues reminds me that I am not alone in my struggles, that I can still find a way to work on my art in a manner that works for the way my life is NOW, that I need to stay hopeful, and that I need to persevere to whatever extent I am able. Staying connected means showing up, even if I can’t play, and showing that I am part of the team, part of the community. This is the life-lesson I learned by the example set for me by that hall-of-famer with the cast sitting in the next section. In his quiet example, Brian Downing left a legacy he doesn’t even know about. And after all these years, I am grateful.