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WARNING: I will be comparing writing to childbirth in this post. If you're squeamish about that sort of thing, don't worry. I'm going to get too graphic on you. Just thought you should be forewarned!
There is a marked difference between burnout and exhaustion. Burnout is always a negative experience. It speaks of things unfinished and dreams reduced to ashes. Exhaustion on the other hand often speaks of completion, of a job finished with the last ounce of energy left in one's body.
I wrote my first draft of Guardian (now called Rivers Underneath) in four months. I had a burst of energy and I launched right into it. Since then, I've gone through 10 major edit passes. I've taken in feedback from crit partners and beta readers. I've polished and rewritten.
This week, I passed this 10th draft into the hands of a few readers and now I'm exhausted. I've drained myself of everything I have to put into this manuscript. I've give blood, sweat and tears to it. Literally. I get paper cuts every time I print the darn thing. I'm empty. And that's a good thing.
I'm not athletic. I can't run, I have no stamina or coordination. I had a gym teacher accuse me of deliberately failing a volleyball because no one could actually be that bad. At any rate, I'm terrible at all things physical, so I can't really compare writing to running a marathon or an intense workout or anything like that. But I have been through childbirth and I think giving life to a book is much the same.
Two days past my due date, I woke with contractions about 8 minutes apart. They quickly moved to 4 minutes apart and stayed at that interval for 60 HOURS. 60. Not 6. Almost three days. When things started, I thought "This is it! Just a few hours and I'll have my son in my arms!" I thought I'd miss picking my mom and sister up at the airport and frantically made backup plans to have friends get them.
But hours passed and nothing changed. My body moved through labor, slow but steady. We didn't go to the hospital until hour 54. My water didn't break until hour 57. I never screamed or swore at my husband or begged for drug. But in those hours, my body worked harder than it had ever worked before. I remember my doctor telling me that it would only take one more push and he'd be out. And I couldn't. I knew I needed to rest until the next contraction hit. Four minutes later, it did, and there he was. Beautiful and perfect and worth every draining minute of that labor.
I've never been more exhausted in my life. Or exhilarated. I depleted myself of everything, gave every bit of energy I had to bringing this child into the world.
Here's the crazy part of the story. The part I didn't fully understand until weeks later. My son's umbilical was about 1/3 of the length it should have been and it broke during delivery. That's something that should have been picked up during one of the many ultrasounds I had during my pregnancy, but no one ever saw anything wrong. Had my labor been any more intense, it would have been shorter, but the strain likely would have snapped the cord before he was born, depriving him of oxygen and possibly killing him. The miracle of my long, exhausting labor is that my son is healthy and whole and alive.
How does any of this relate to writing? I look at the last three years of editing much like I do those three days of labor. Working and waiting and hoping, thinking with each draft, "This is it!" And then knowing at the end of each that it wasn't. I could have started querying after the first draft or the third draft or the seventh. But it wasn't time. Maybe it's not time now. Maybe this is that moment, when I know I have nothing left and need to rest for the final push. But I know the labor is worth it because the exhaustion tells me I've done something with my whole being. I've poured my life into this and because of that, I am empty but it has a chance to live. If I'd rushed, it might have broken. Instead, I've slowly breathed life into my words and now I wait to see if it takes it's own first breath.
Creating a story, a world, characters, is exhausting. It is all consuming and gives little in return. But at the end, it is a thing of beauty that leaves the writer exhausted and exhilarated, drained and yet full.
I've let my computer rest these last few days and immersed myself in everything other than writing. I read both Shift and Recast by Elle Beauregard (I highly recommend both) and I read the complete Hunger Games Trilogy (I know, I'm late to that party). I've cuddled with my son and finally went to see a chiropractor to get my neck fixed. I'm beginning to catch up on housework. I feel much like I did in the months after my son was born. I know one day I'll have to get back to writing - words burn inside me, compelling me to write - but for now, I'm going to rest and let my head fill with stories again. I'm going to soak up life so that I'll have more it pour onto paper (or a keyboard) one day. Probably next week.