When Life Gets in the Way: Writing through Tough Times

Four months after my debut novel, Kat Greene Comes Clean, was published, my father went missing. It was late December, bitterly cold, and he left without a coat. And his cane. At 95, my dad was extremely frail, and he suffered from dementia. I called 911 in a panic.

Within minutes, NYPD detectives flooded my parents’ Manhattan apartment, asking questions and taking notes. They issued a Silver Alert, and promised to find my dad. “The old guys never get far,” the lead detective assured me. “Don’t worry.”

My mom wasn’t worried because, like my dad, she has dementia and had no idea what was going on. But I was a nervous wreck. New York is a big place, and my dad was probably confused, hungry, and cold. I feared the worst.

Afternoon turned into evening, and then into night. Finally, my father was located at the Empire Hotel, two blocks from Lincoln Center. He had taken a cab, the fare paid in coins from a velvet Alexander McQueen makeup bag. If I found this detail confounding, imagine my surprise when the hotel manager informed me that my dad had checked himself into a room, raided the minibar, and owed $685 plus tax. I would have paid anything, of course. My dad was safe.

But then, four months and three health-care aides later, my dad went missing… again. This time, he was found wandering the streets of SoHo, with a broken finger and lacerations on his face. He was rushed to the hospital, where I met him in the ER. He wasn’t as lucky this time. He developed a severe kidney infection and, after half a year in hospice care, passed away at home. He was 96 years old.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: This story is depressing! You write funny stuff. BE FUNNY!

I wish I could. But at the time, there was no room in my life for humor—or for writing. I tried, but I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to succeed. I was always on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it did. Again, and again, and again.

I’m still dealing with my fair share of stress (my mom now has advanced dementia), but I’ve found a way to balance life-related responsibilities with my writing. Here’s how you can, too:

Adjust your expectations. If you’re going through tough times—and, like me, juggling a zillion things at once—there’s no way you can be as productive, or as focused, as you were before. Think about it: Your brain has to work overtime just to keep up! Plus, stress has a sneaky way of sapping your emotional and physical energy. So, if you can, cut yourself some slack. Set realistic, manageable writing goals. If you’re used to writing 2,000 words a day, write a thousand. Or five hundred, or 250. Or whatever number your schedule, and emotional energy, allows. If you don’t hit a specific target, that’s okay too. Just write every day, even if it’s for 15 minutes. You’ll feel good for having done it.

Try journaling. Expressing your thoughts and feelings in written form is an excellent stress-management tool. It’s also been shown to be highly therapeutic. So, if you don’t keep a journal already, now would be a good time to start. You don’t have to write pages and pages; just a few lines a day. Or one line, if that’s all you’ve got in you. Just get your thoughts (and more often, your frustrations) down on paper, and see where it leads. There are many ways to journal, but if you find that journaling is not for you, give yourself permission to stop. You can always try again later. Or don’t. Make (or break) the rules as you see fit. This is something you’re doing for you.

 

Limit social media. It’s tempting to mindlessly scroll through social media—or binge-watch Netflix, or spend hours searching YouTube for cute-kitty videos—when you’re stressed and in need of distraction. (When my dad was sick, I played Wordscapes until my vision was blurry.) But the hours you engage in unproductive phone activities are hours you can’t get back. Plus, screen time wreaks havoc on your concentration. Removing apps from your phone is the obvious solution, but it’s unlikely you will do this (I still have Wordscapes on mine). Instead, think of screen time as a reward for writing time. Five hundred words = fifteen minutes of Wordscapes; one thousand words = an episode of 90 Day Fiancé (or pick your poison). The point is, you’re allowed to zone out when the time is right—but don’t make a habit of it. Your time is too valuable to waste. (For advice on how to walk away from social media completely, check out this post from Salon.)

You do YOU. Writers often compare themselves to others. That’s what we do. But as Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He was right. Knowing that your friend’s debut MG novel sold eight billion copies and has been optioned for a movie starring Kylie Jenner (or Kendall Jenner, if you prefer) while yours is languishing in a bargain bin at Costco is a fact of life—but don’t dwell on it. You have enough on your plate to worry about! By all means celebrate your friends’ achievements, but don’t let their success(es) overshadow your own. Sometimes getting out bed in the morning is enough.

Practice self-care. This should be a given, but if you’re busy looking out for others’ needs, you tend to ignore your own—or put them last. This is understandable (I’m guilty of this, too), but try to put yourself first once in a while. Squeeze in a run, or have coffee with a friend. Get a massage, if that’s your thing, or sneak out to a museum or art gallery. Catch up on your sleep; eat Frito’s Corn Chips. Dance. Whatever it takes to bring you to your happy place, do it!

And finally…

Expect setbacks. It’s important to remember that most things in life are out of your control, like when a parent develops dementia–and dies. When a child is sick or disabled and needs constant care. Unemployment; bankruptcy; a house fire; divorce… You can only do so much to keep afloat emotionally. Sometimes, it will feel like an impossible struggle. You’ll miss deadlines. Bills will go unpaid; birthday cards unsent. For every step forward, you can expect two—or fifty—steps back.

Grieving isn’t linear, and I miss my dad every day. Still, he would have wanted me to keep writing, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I hope you will, too.

Melissa Roske on EmailMelissa Roske on FacebookMelissa Roske on InstagramMelissa Roske on Twitter
Melissa Roske
Melissa Roske is a writer of contemporary middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, Melissa interviewed real ones, as a journalist in Europe. In London, she landed a job as an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine, where she answered hundreds of letters from readers each week. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest, and got certified as a life coach. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and the occasional dust bunny. Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge, 2017) is her debut novel.
15 Comments
  1. Melissa,
    Thanks so much for sharing your very personal journey. Big, gigantic hugs to you. My sympathies on losing your father. That is so hard. I will definitely bookmark this post. It was so good for me to hear that others have had struggles in their writing life. Just at the time I broke into trade publishing with my first big contracts and my books were both due, my mother, who had stage 4 kidney cancer, took a turn for the worse. She very quickly ended up in hospice and passed away 6 days later. My first draft was due the following week. It was a very difficult time for me as I was very close to my mom. Of course, my editors were understanding. But it took me awhile to figure out everything you have posted here. So THANK YOU! I, too, am now taking care of my parent, right now. So some day I will need this post again. I will treasure this post… always. <3

    • Jen, I know we’ve exchanged a few missives already, but I wanted to thank you heartily for reading–and for sharing your story. I can only imagine what it was like for you while your mom was sick, and what an ordeal it was to work through the pain. You are a champion because you persevered… and continue to persevere. Let’s continue to support each other through this. Having friends who understand–FULLY understand–is so important. Big hugs to you, Jen. xoxo

  2. I’m sorry this has been such a tough period, Melissa. Thank you for sharing your heartfelt and inspiring words. Wishing you all the best.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Susan (and for your email, which I will answer later this afternoon). I’m glad this post was helpful to you. Sending you all the best!

  3. Melissa, thanks for this sharing. Your love for your dear parents is so clear. I appreciate and admire your emotional honesty. That is a skill you clearly are able to bring to your writing.

    • Hillary, thanks so much for your lovely note. I adored my dad, and it was hard to go through this. But if it help other writers to feel less alone, then I think I did my job! Thanks again for reading my post. I appreciate it so much! xoxo melissa

  4. Thank you for your kind comment, B. I know you know what it’s like. Big hugs! Melissa xoxo

  5. Thank you so much for sharing from your heart. I’m so sorry for your loss of your dad and now caring for your mom with dementia. Sharing these wonderful strategies are so very helpful. Your words from the heart will touch and inspire someone. Sending a hug and much love, sweet friend ❤

    • Sending hugs back, Kathleen. I know how much you miss your lovely mom. It’s not easy, but having strategies to cope does help. Thanks for reading! M xoxo

  6. Thank you for sharing your story, Melissa. Keeping an untraditional journal is one of my favorite coping mechanisms. And knitting!

    • Laura, Funnily enough, my daughter tried to teach me to knit. I was hopeless. Maybe I should try again. It seems to be a great way to relax, for so many people. Thanks for reading and commenting. Hugs! Melissa xo

  7. <3 <3 >3

  8. You’ve taken your pain and struggle and turned it into wisdom and guidance for us. Thank you, Melissa, from the heart.

    • Bridget, my comment seems to have ended up in the wrong place, but many thanks for reading — and relating! xoxo Melissa