Eleven Weeks of Trying to Write and Keep On Keepin’ On

I haven’t posted an author’s update since my father died on January 8th. I want to thank everyone who gave their support and expressed their condolences here on the blog. It was a hard time, and in the immediate aftermath while I was grieving, those thoughts and comments helped. They really did.

I wrote the obituary for my father a few days after his passing. For something so short and often formal, it was one of the hardest things I’ll ever have to write. You may read what I wrote in my hometown newspaper if you wish.

Love you, Dad.

The months following Dad’s passing haven’t been peaceful, and I’ve been drawn along with my siblings into on and off skirmishes with his girlfriend. She and Dad had a casual relationship during his last few years that didn’t reach the level of a domestic partner, and both said they didn’t want to take it further than that. Even within that framework, there were still problems between her and the rest of the family. She did not try to build relationships with us and, in fact, engaged in gatekeeping behaviors between us and Dad that were intensifying in what turned out to be his last months.

Following Dad’s death, she attempted to usurp control of the situation as if she were his widow. But she wasn’t. Legally she isn’t anything, and Dad didn’t mention her in his will. Going through his papers and records, it’s clear that Dad went out of his way and put up with inconveniences to keep her out of his finances. She simply isn’t entwined with his estate, anywhere.

Things fell apart with her rapidly. After a minor disagreement the day after my father’s death devolved into her screaming at his grieving family, she stormed out of the house and rammed my wife’s parked car with her own.

No, seriously.

She claimed it was an accident because she was “flustered”, and the scratches of damage were so minor they weren’t worth reporting. But her car was parked directly behind my wife’s, driving forward, and my sister-in-law saw everything. There’s no way it wasn’t intentional. She had a hard time even apologizing.

From there, this woman’s disrespect towards my family has just kept going: She harassed us with texts and phone calls as we tried to process our grief. Her obstructionism transformed the simple act of reclaiming Dad’s personal things at her house into a battle. I’m not talking about claiming property she shared with my father. What we cared about were gathering family items like photographs of us as children and pictures of our mother who died in 2012. They had no right or attachment to these possessions, yet she stonewalled us on retrieving them.

Once she relented and we did gain access to collect Dad’s things, many items were “Missing”. My Mom’s wedding ring that Dad kept by his bedside at her residence was one of these items. She “Found” it weeks later… just in time to send abusive and incoherent text messages after baiting us in using Mom’s ring as a lure. We had to get a lawyer involved before she returned the heirloom. Numerous other items are still unaccounted for and assumed lost.

I’m sure you can imagine how painful this has been for my family. She maintains a narrative that the issue is our unwillingness to “accept her and the fact that our father loved her”. But even if that were true, her actions aren’t justified. If she wants our love and respect, bullying and harassing us will not get it. And relationships weren’t something she wanted with us when Dad was alive. Her argument rings hollow, so I suspect it is something baser, like fulling a desire for vengeance at not getting anything from the will. And if indeed her only goal was to make us miserable and our grief deeper, well, she succeeded.

After two hard weeks of dealing with the girlfriend’s stunts, I started a slow return to my writing goals in late January. A return to what is good for my soul and sanity. But I took it slow and didn’t push myself as my aim was for recovery, not word count productivity. Heavy writing wasn’t my focus, and I spent a lot of time on entertainment and projects like organizing my Magic: The Gathering card collection.

My wife and I had pulled the collection out of storage as something to do and play with together in pandemic self-isolation after a six-year break from the game. Dad fell ill days later, and in the ensuing chaos of his hospitalization and death, the cards and their storage boxes were constant clutter around our house. In the aftermath, I started organizing the 30,000 cards in the collection as it gave me something to do that calmed me while my psyche processed recent events. I also played a lot of the game with my wife to take my mind off things.

A friend of mine later pointed out that was an excellent choice of activity: Puzzles, games and organizing are all modern tools used to fight trauma like PTSD. I won’t argue that it was a simple thing that really helped me get back on my emotional feet. And that was good for my brother and sister, who weren’t coping as well with Dad’s death. They need my strength and support, and thankfully I’d reached a place where I could lend it at the time.

Another creative project was writing the draft for an original card game I thought up in early February. The overall goal was to design a simple, self-contained card game based on my written works as a side promotional idea. It remains an unfinished draft, and I have concerns it wouldn’t be a sound investment for promotion. But it was a fun idea to explore for a couple weeks that I will probably return to. Unfortunately, mid-February rolled into town towing winter storms about every other day.

The constant snow clean-up left me tired. By then, an ongoing battle had developed with the life insurance company as they become difficult about honoring my father’s policy, one he’d held for decades. Fighting with them increasingly left me aggravated, and in the end, we would not receive the cash-out of his policy until late March — when it should have been by the end of January. Then a series of electrical problems started with our car, beginning with it failing to start.

I sensed myself falling into depression again, so I pulled back to reground myself. I reduced my creative focus to basics and kept my attention on self-care. This was a good move, as the winter storms continued to hit every other day and became a continuing pain — literally. After a bout of snow, sleet and freezing rain left an inch and a half of ice on everything, breaking it all up left my hands and arms shaky-sore for days.

But addressing our car’s electrical issues was the biggest time sink. I spent about sixteen hours over two days sitting in the auto repair shop, triple-masked. They subjected the car to every test imaginable to prove that the fault wasn’t with the replacement alternator they installed last summer.

After removing an extensive nest of critters had made inside the dashboard, they were certain a chewed wire was to blame. Yet that wasn’t the case. No, ultimately the problem was…

…drum roll, please…

the replacement alternator they installed last summer.

They are a decent outfit and owed up to it under their two-year warranty. The replacement and labor was 100% covered. Unfortunately, while tearing the car apart and putting it back together, they also found out the radiator is leaking and needs replacement. That’s going to cost a bit more than a grand with parts and labor, and we’re still working on getting that fixed at present.

While the alternator saga was playing out, a good friend ended up in the hospital and was diagnosed with severe spinal disk degeneration in all but a couple vertebrae. This is after they had suffered through a Covid-19 infection early last year. My stress over that stacked on top of the others to reach a breaking point. I suffered another panic attack provoked by an aggravation that didn’t merit the response I had. It was dissimilar to the one I spoke about in November of last year, I think largely because I recognized it for what was right away.

My wife talked me down, and it didn’t last long. But afterwards, I restructured my approach to certain tasks. I realized I’d been avoiding annoying chores, like the one that set off the panic attack. I’ve been doing this in the name of not letting small things stress me out amid everything else going on. But in reality, my behavior only allowed those minor annoyances to grow into large stressors, and let them take up more mental real estate than they deserved while I avoided them.

I spent half a weekend cutting those stressors back down to size, and the rest clearing my head. After that, I started a new schedule to get myself on track. The fruits of that were immediate: I established an almost two-week microfiction media posting buffer, setting up my week-after-next’s content each Monday. Since coming back to posting after Dad’s death I’d been doing this haphazardly or day-to-day.

Before Dad died, I was crafting one-month buffers. Although as a process doing the work once a month is more efficient, as a weekly task it is far less stressful. I can do the work in a single day and still have time for other things rather than have it be my focus for many days in a row. This approach also leaves four days outside of weekends for me to write on extended projects — like books — or attend to whatever current flavor of chaos needs attention.

My new proactive approach to keeping my stressors managed worked so well that I restarted revisions on Tears of the Joyous Mare in early March.

I hadn’t touched Tears since the end of December — a few days before Dad fell ill — so I started with a full read-through of the unfinished draft. The fresh read after a long break highlighted flaws, and I began crafting solutions.

Tears started life as a short story, and revisions have grown the yarn into a novelette. Rereading it in sum now, I became concerned about a lack of action. There’s emotion, drama and development going on. Some humor, too. Those seem to work, and that’s good. But there’s also a definite sense of drag in the second half.

The story is classic fantasy, its superficial setup being a small party of adventures reuniting in a tavern after a year apart to discuss a new treasure hunt. However, the reader is aware of more than just that transpiring early on. What that is exactly under the obvious pretext isn’t clear from the start, but when revealed I think the emotional hook is strong. What is causing the drag story-wise is wrapping that hook into a satisfying ending: It is taking up most of the second half and proportionally too much of the tale, causing an imbalance and throwing the pacing way off.

So I plan to expand the draft with a few chapters’ worth of action, and by adding a true antagonist. After milling over several approaches and ideas, I have a great idea on how to do this. I got excited about integrating the new concept into the story because it increases the emotional intensity with a thematically relevant villain. These additions will make the piece longer, but a novella length story will be a stronger one to sell. Plus, I love writing action packed scenes with magic and mayhem.

As part of refining new plot points for my revision of Tears, I revisited and expanded on the worldbuilding lore I’d laid down years ago for Burus: The setting for many of my fantasy stories, including Tears of the Joyous Mare. This revealed that I’d generated enough background material and notes since I started writing about Burus in 2014 that compiling a “World Bible” is becoming a need. It also rekindled my interest in producing maps of the setting. My wife has long requested that I make some… I’ve written nine stories set in Burus, and we could reuse a single map of the continent in each book as bonus content.

I started a “Burus Mapping Project” back in 2016, but it soon got shelved after becoming daunting and time consuming with the tools I had at hand. Damn it, Jim! I’m a writer, not a cartographer! Yet if Tolkien made his own maps with pen and paper like I did for decades playing D&D, I’m sure I can create something decent enough to publish too. I just don’t want to devote months to the task. So I did some searching and found Wonderdraft. I’m still learning the $30 program, yet I can tell the intuitive Wonderdraft software is a far superior tool compared to anything I had in 2016. With a few solid days or a week of work, I think my Burus Mapping Project might produce something usable.

It started rough with only an overlay of my old continental outline getting filled in:

But after some further progress, it started to shape up:

I have a long way to go until it’s finished, but I’m going to keep at it.

Mid-March found my authorly path full of twists, turns and new interruptions. After avoiding hospitals and doctors as if a plague was going on — hey wait, a plague is going on — multiple physicians were threatening to cut me loose if I didn’t get my check-ups. The follow-ups thereafter revealed my blood sugar was two-and-a-half times normal, and I needed to start taking insulin.

I’ve suffered from low-level diabetes for over a decade, but until then I’d been able to manage my condition with diet, exercise and other medications. No longer. Despite cutting carbs and biking six to nine miles daily, it just wasn’t enough anymore.

It felt like a personal failure. Certainly not a rational reaction, but it was my emotional one in the moment. In truth, my body working differently as I get older is out of my control. My wife also pointed out to me that if not for my actions and hard work, I would’ve started insulin years and years ago. And she’s right.

I still got depressed for a couple days. Adjusting to daily insulin injections was a complication I didn’t want. I hate needles, and now I must stab myself each morning before breakfast. But I manned up and did it. If I don’t step up and start, I was tempting fate with my health.

Despite my reluctance, the injection pen is easy to use. I didn’t encounter the major side effects starting treatment beyond a few days of feeling “off” with fatigue and passing incidents of blurry vision. It will be an ongoing process as we slowly increase the dosage to get my blood sugars to a normal level, but I’m getting the morning ritual down. Now a few weeks in, my energy and focus seem a little better, even though I’m still testing far higher than I should.

Tackling my new medical situation was disruptive enough to my writing by itself. Then renewed family drama came in the last weeks of March.

It was my deceased father’s girlfriend again, this time announcing a “Celebration of Life” event in my father’s name — done without our family’s consent, and months ahead of our planned event for him in July. She’s even told invitees that Dad’s immediate family wasn’t invited and not to tell us, which was stupid because she also announced it publicly. In effect, it was an attempt to hijack and weaponize my father’s memorial into another emotional attack on us.

There was nothing we could do to stop the event legally. Instead, announcements to friends and family in my hometown that the competing event wasn’t the official one was the best we could do. That sparked Facebook fighting from the girlfriend’s online old bag proxy posse. I’d blocked those people months prior, but my siblings wouldn’t stop engaging with them and it got ugly. Finally, my sister and sister-in-law listened to me and blocked them to end the fracas.

That brings us to this week.

The family drama has petered out, at least for now, and I used the quiet after the drama storm to pause and reflect. While I want to get back to writing long format fiction as it’s an important life goal and what I love to do, I also need to be realistic about the incessant interruptions that keep coming my way. In the short term, they will not stop. I need to accept that from now until July — when we have Dad’s memorial — I’m going to be busy. My writing will need to take a backseat to getting my father’s estate taken care of in coordination with my siblings. We must organize things, have the family items divvied up, and get the rest liquidated and fairly shared between us. Once we’re vaccinated against Covid-19, June will be full of trips to my hometown and back attending to these affairs.

The amount of writing I’ll be able to get gone attending to that will be inconsistent. There’s only so much time in a day. Therefore, I am going to back away from set writing objectives and plans until August. Adding such goals on top of everything else only sets me up for more frustration and regret when I cannot meet them.

Instead, I’m going to write what I can, when I can. I’m going to work on projects, books and whatever else I damn well please to ease my stress during this once-in-a-lifetime event.

I’ll also use the opportunity to get my health and home in order ahead of an August return to full-time writing. Over the course of the pandemic my house has gotten cluttered, and places of wear and tear in the one-hundred-year-old domicile need attention. I’m going to take some time and address that. Some simple additions and work elsewhere will also remove stress from inconveniences and make it more livable. Many parts of the house also seem incomplete. This is no doubt related to many of our possessions still being packed in the basement after the traumatic loss of our prior home and hurried move here in 2015. My wife and I are going to tackle the ghosts in those boxes, and exorcise them with unpacking.

In that spirit, I started by cleaning and rearranging my writing study where I spend a lot of time. I also braved the basement ghosts and reclaimed the last of my books still down there to restore them to my library. Many of these were comics and fanzines from my youth. Digests and magazines of science fiction and fantasy defunct and not for whom I still keep the writer’s guidelines. Did you know a teenaged writer’s inspirations and dreams that traversed the late 1980s into the 90s return, aged in time, with the smell of musty paper?

I did… but had forgotten and needed the reminder. Now I not only possess a clear head in a clean author’s space, but I’m writing with a few old pieces of me restored.

Take care, everyone. Be safe and keep writing!

~Jason H. Abbott

7 thoughts on “Eleven Weeks of Trying to Write and Keep On Keepin’ On

Add yours

  1. Charlee: “You sure have had a rough year so far! We’re very sorry to hear about all the trouble with your dad’s girlfriend on top of it.”
    Chaplin: “We are sending you lots of purrs for less stressful times ahead.”
    Lulu: “And I send fluffy tail wags!”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sorry you’ve been going through so much during an already difficult time :( I didn’t write for about 8 months after my dad died. Take care of yourself, and get back to it when you feel ready :)
    I love the map design software, definitely something I need to check out!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Louise. It’s been a lot, on top of losing my job just over a year ago now and being unable to find a replacement due to the pandemic… and likely a changing industry that’s left my skills outmoded. But there is hope. There is my writing.

      The software is very good. You could do the same with a good art program, but Wonderdraft puts specialized tools at your disposal that speeds everything up significantly. It’s like having the right tool for the job instead of making due with a set off generic tools that you need to improvise and invent solutions with.

      Liked by 1 person

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