By Lori DeBoer
The road to publishing can take years to travel, and it comes with a steep learning curve. Sometimes, the obstacles to success seem insurmountable. Life gets hard.
Everyone has off periods, when your writing time gets waylaid by other responsibilities. And it’s a real kick in the teeth if, when you do finally find yourself in your writing chair, the work itself turns out to be hard going. Like hauling rocks.
When I feel like I am hauling rocks, it helps to pull out my list of authors who had to overcome problems, the kind of problems that would make me roll up in a ball and never get out of bed. These are not the kind of first-world problems I currently have, such as, coffee hurts my gut and I can’t drink milk in it anymore. I whine about it a lot, but it’s not a genuine problem.
The authors I am talking about had great Dickensonian personal tragedies to overcome. (You’ll see how ironic my use of the term “Dickensonian” in a moment.) Some of them are modern, of course, but the fact that they were born into a time with electricity and flush toilets does not make their problems trivial.
Lauren Hillenbrand was just nineteen years old when she became bed-bound with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In an interview with Beliefnet.com (“What Price Glory?”), she says that her biggest challenge has been exhaustion. “I’ve spent about six of the last 14 years completely bedridden,” she said. “At times, I have been unable to bathe myself. I have gotten so bad I couldn’t really feed myself and a couple of times I needed someone to spoon feed me. I have had trouble rolling over in bed.”
Nevertheless, in 1988, after watching the Kentucky Derby, she was inspired to submit a piece to a racing magazine, Turf and Sport Digest, who asked her to keep writing. In 1996, while doing research, she gravitated to the story of Seabiscuit, one of the greatest racehorses in history, and his trainer and owner, who all overcome extraordinary odds. The book became a New York Times bestseller and was made into a movie. Hillenbrand said that writing the book was difficult, on the physical level, but that it fed her emotionally and spiritually.
Jean-Dominique Bauby dictated his bestselling book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking his left eye. It’s a beautiful little book that was made into a motion picture and is well worth picking up for anyone who loves transformative storytelling. Bauby, a former Elle editor, wrote it after a stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome. The dictation process took around ten months. His assistant recited the French alphabet in order of its most frequent letters and Bauby blinked to chose letters. Each word took approximately two minutes to formulate. Three days after the book was published, Bauby died of pneumonia.
This list goes on: Barbara Kingsolver wrote her first book while suffering from insomnia while she was pregnant; she had to hide in the closet while writing so she didn’t disturb her ex husband. Victor Frankl wrote one of the most influential books of this century, Man’s Search for Meaning, despite having spent time imprisoned in concentration camps and having his wife and family killed by Nazis. We all know that J.K. Rowling was a struggling single mom when she created the Harry Potter series, although she really downplays that story these days. John Milton wrote “Paradise Lost” after he went blind at the age of 43. He was also poverty-stricken.
You probably don’t know that, two days after his twelfth birthday, Charles Dickens was sent to work for a little over a year at the Warren’s Blacking Factory in a desperate attempt to keep his father out of prison for his failure to repay a debt. It failed, and the entire family, except Charles and his sister Fanny, moved into his father’s cell at Marshalsea Prison. His books capture the straits in which the lower classes found themselves at that time, because he lived it.
I’d like to add to my list of tragedy-surmounting, butt-kicking authors. Who inspires you?
Lori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and director of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have been a Top-25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open as well as being shortlisted for the Bellevue Literary Prize. She’s been published in Arizona Highways, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, The New York Times, Iowa Woman, Pithead Chapel and America West Airlines Magazine. One of her clients was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and four of her clients have been finalists for the Colorado Gold Award. For more information, visit her website and blog.