I stopped writing toward the end of 2014. I’d spent a decade-plus of writing in every square inch of my free time hoping that this would lead to being able to write in my Paid Time. That never happened and it appeared unlikely to ever happen. Each year my free time shriveled up a little bit more and each year it grew more exhausting to cram as much writing into a smaller and smaller space in the hope of achieving my poorly defined personal goal of Making It As A Writer.
I’d felt this way many times before. In fact I’d churned through emotional boom/bust cycles about writing so often that you could set your calendar to them. The difference this time was that I’d acquired some physical ailments that made writing literally quite painful. Namely: spinal stenosis. You might know it as the same thing that knocked David Wright out for most of last season. Peep this article if you wanna learn what he has to do to make playing baseball tolerable. It’s a laugh riot.
It’s a condition with a wide range of severity and symptoms. Normally it emerges later in life; Mr. Wright and I are two of the lucky ones to acquire it at a relatively early age. For me it emerged after I finally made a serious commitment to get healthy and lost a bunch of weight. My excess flab was apparently the only thing holding my spinal cord in place.
Without going into all the gory details suffice to say that in my case sitting still for sustained periods of time—such as the amount of time necessary to get any meaningful writing done—hurt like hell. My Paid Time already required me to be sedentary for long stretches and that was barely tolerable. To then come home and sit still some more to write was torture.
At first I knew next to nothing about the condition and figured there was something that could be done about it. I actually went to the doctor (a unicorn-rare event for me) and sought orthopedic treatment that included physical therapy meant to strengthen other muscles and thus take pressure off my ailing spine. I asked the doctor how long it would take for the pain to go away and she informed me that I should not consider this something to treat but something to manage. She said it in the same tone a rental car clerk would use to tell you they were out of compacts even though her answer basically boiled down to You’ll be cured of this when you drop dead.
Here’s the thing about chronic pain: It really hurts all the time. It’s all you can talk about because it’s all you can think about. It colors your view of the universe. I never noticed how many doctors offices were strewn about the streets of Manhattan until I spent several months visiting them and shoving myself into MRI tubes until I glowed in the dark. Then suddenly I saw them everywhere. The city was jammed with tony clinics and shady pain relief basements and everything in between. I’d never realized how many of us were in pain.
Pain pulls you into a bubble where you can see and hear what’s going on in the Non-Pain world you left behind but when you try to communicate the people outside the bubble hear your words as muffled and indistinct. They may want to understand you. They may sympathize with your situation and offer moral support. But sympathy doesn’t translate to understanding and it certainly doesn’t translate into relief.
Pain renders you almost incapable of relating to people who are not in pain. A few months into treatment I went to a pool party with family friends. There were people there in my age bracket and I should have been conversing with them about politics and mortgages and so forth. Instead I gravitated toward the older folks. People of my parents’ generation. Because when I told them I had a spinal issue they would nod in recognition and compare notes on various painkillers. These are your people now, I told myself.
That’s another thing I found out once I entered my World Of Pain: Painkillers work really well. I can definitely see why those things are so popular.
My mother suffered from similar problems at the same time as me and we often discussed Pain as a concept. The point she made over and over again was: No one cares about your pain. Everyone thinks they have pain and to an extent everyone does. Life is pain, as the Dread Pirate Roberts said. But the all-consuming mindset that grips you when you have pain that will not go away no matter what you do is almost impossible to convey to someone who does not share that experience. You might as well try to describe a washing machine to a dog.
I found the physical barriers to writing too high and too wide. If I did dare to write I thought I could only write about pain and it would come across as complaining to those not in pain. I felt preemptively resentful toward an entire world that wouldn’t Get It. I’d always been an angry person but I don’t think I’d ever been so bitter and I didn’t want to share that bitterness if I could help it. And no one was waiting with baited breath for my latest words anyway.
So I stopped.
A year passed. Daily PT helped improve my pain a few slivers but sitting for long stretches remained a trial at best. Other medical issues emerged that are too scary/pathetic to recount here. Morrissey wishes he could write a song half as sad as my visit to the orthopedist—not the one mentioned earlier, a different one, because I know lots of orthopedists now—who instructed me in the halting technique of “how you have to climb stairs now.”) In the interregnum my feelings about Writing In General hadn’t improved at all. If anything they had soured even more.
And yet at the very end of 2015 I wanted to write again. For years I’d had an idea in my head for a novella-length story. I’d made several aborted attempts to write this story in the past but never got farther than a few disconnected fragments. The main character was clear enough in my head that I knew these pieces didn’t work but I wasn’t sure why. The story needed something I couldn’t name but also knew I couldn’t provide. Now I could. The thing this character and this story was missing was some true understanding of Pain.
I worked as much as I could stand every day and churned out pages faster than I thought possible and somehow finished a draft in a crazy short amount of time. Then I immediately jumped onto a few other short story ideas that had also bounced around my head for years looking for that missing something to spark them. I wrote more words during this concentrated period than I have at any other time in my life. Not despite the pain but because of it.
These stories are still in search of a good home. I don’t hold out much hope for any of them ever seeing the light of day. (The rejection notices piling up in my inbox indicate this strongly.) But it’s all there and it’s all real and if anyone wants it they know where to find me.
On the non-fiction tip I wrote a few things on Medium in recent months when the mood struck me and I wasn’t quite committed to restarting this site just yet. I didn’t want to reopen Scratchbomb after a year of darkness only to abandon it a few months hence if my mind took another cruel turn. But I think I’m ready to venture forth again on the web in this space if nowhere else. I doubt I’ll be contributing around the interwebs as I did in days of yore because I can’t commit to doing things in my free time the way I once did (See: above). But again: If anyone wants me I’m easy to find.
I cycle through feelings about The World and my place therein. Half the time I think everything is pointless. The other half I think everything is pointless but I gotta do stuff anyway. I’m doing my best to ride out the former feeling the best I can and produce as much as I can when the latter strikes. Sometimes my best is terrible. It happens.
I think of this idea as Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus via Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown will never kick the football and never win a baseball game and never get a valentine and even Charlie Brown seems to know this. He always greets his inevitable failures not with shock but with resignation.
Yet he tries anyway because what else is Charlie Brown going to do? That’s not hope but that’s not despair either. It’s closer to acceptance.