Relax, If You Can (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)
In September 2014, I had a baby and published a novel within a two-week period. I have not written, much less published, another novel since. People think it's because of my child, and I cannot tell you how much this annoys me to no end.
It annoys me because I hate that people automatically assume that if you have a child you can't have a creative career, but it annoys me more because I promise you it is not for lack of trying.
I have plenty of time to write, thanks to being able to afford childcare and having a husband who is not only not a Neanderthal but who also doesn't expect me to do all the housework, which I hear is still a thing in a lot of households. He does his own laundry and makes our dinners. He told me to stay away from his Father's Day meal prep, lest I ruin it. (#gladly)
I have written and published many smaller pieces in this time, but no novels. I've done a bunch of research. I've had several false starts.
About halfway between then and now came November 8, 2016, a date which will live in infamy.
Like many of you, I cried off and on and used sleeping pills for a month (or maybe longer). My already bad anxiety frequently became crippling. Since then, as our country has gone from one dumpster fire to another, as I have watched people I once loved turn into people I do not recognize, EVERYTHING has felt so high-stakes that I have really questioned what possible good I am doing as a writer.
Because, let's face it, I am not a big deal. No one is hanging on my every word. I am in no way a leader in this space. I am hopeless at social media. Maybe 2000 people read my first novel. Maybe. I am being generous because a lot of libraries own it; I know because I checked WorldCat. I got some good reviews. I even got a shiny medal. But what good did it actually do? What good would my writing another novel do?
I have no idea, but here I am writing another novel, a story that came to me so powerfully that it demands to be written whether it does any good or not.
It's an "adult" novel, this time, though I really hate those distinctions.
The Fates are laughing at me because it might be considered a "Civil War novel." I was born in South Carolina and have been running fast and hard from the Civil War my whole life, with the result being that I keep tripping over it and have already written two theses on Civil War literature. (I blame my advisors, who constantly said, "Build on work you've already done," and other things that made sense.)
I believe in this story so much that I spent this past weekend immersed in a "book boot camp" while my family went to the beach. (I kind of hate the beach, so that helps.) In some ways, the Civil War is the obvious place to go at this historical moment, but I hope I have taken it in some less obvious directions.
And meanwhile I am despairing at the state of our country and at the same time beating myself up about that despair because I know that I have it so much better than so many people, so is it fair for me to feel like I can barely function because of the madness?
I don't know.
I've always loved Mary Fahl's "Going Home," which was the opening theme for the 2003 Civil War epic Gods and Generals. My book does not in any way resemble Gods and Generals, but it is very much about the meaning of home and of exile, and I've taken it as the first song on my novel playlist. Faults of the film aside, I find it to be a healing song, and one that is useful to me in terms of thinking about themes. (My working title is The Cold Months of the Year, and it is a little bit about what life is like when everyone you grew up with thinks you are a dirty liberal who has betrayed them, and when that is in fact true. Ahem.)
All of this, I guess, is a roundabout way of saying I wish I hadn't been so concerned about shoving out another novel immediately to prove to myself and others that I'm a real writer.
Sometimes, stories just come when they're meant to.