If you’ve ever seen a doctor about an injury, I bet you were asked to rate your pain. Was that hard for you? If your injury wasn’t obvious (no gushing blood, broken bones, blisters from burns), did you hesitate to confess the number that popped into your head? Did you fret you’d come across as a liar? As dramatic, pathetic, or weak? Did you worry giving too high a number would make the doctor suspicious your emergency was a ploy to get a pain meds prescription? Did you dread facing skepticism, doubt, a lecture? Did former experiences complicate your pain-scale answer, how you were raised, how you were taught to shrug off pain, how you were told to be grateful you weren’t so-and-so who was worse off than you, how, after expressing pain in the past, you were accused of being self-absorbed, a sissy, how you were made to feel ashamed of your pain? Say you’re a woman who’s had children and experienced the pains of labor. How did those pains compare to this one? How do pains differ? How do we describe pain? Throbbing, shooting, stabbing, burning, dull, sharp, nagging, intermittent? Say you’re a person who struggles with depression or anxiety or PTSD. How does emotional pain compare to physical pain? Say you’re a person experiencing both emotional and physical pain. (If the physical pain is chronic, how can you not be in emotional pain?) No doubt this injury, invisible to others, is taking its toll on your mental health. “Where do you hurt? How much do you hurt?” You don’t know. Everywhere. A lot. You’re tired of the pain. Tired of having to convince people of the pain. You want to be alone. Leave me alone, you think. You want the pain to go away, but it won’t. Since the pain won’t leave you, you start to believe you must leave the pain, leave the body that hurts.
The Beloved Wild just celebrated a birthday, its third; Unleaving celebrated its second. Their birthdays have me thinking about 2016, two years prior to TBW’s publication. 2016, the year I found a wonderful literary agent. The year my wonderful agent helped me win a two-book deal. The year I injured my back. My dream-come-true year. My year of pain.
Pain, plus chiropractors, doctors, pills, surgeons, neurological exams, X-rays, physical therapists, different pills, cortisone injection, more pills, MRI, and finally surgery. Pain, plus not walking without limping, not sitting without crying, standing carefully or resting on ice or heating pads, sleeping alone so nobody tilted the mattress or jarred me and stirred the nerve pain that traveled like electricity down my back, butt, leg, and foot. Not bending. Letting my husband wash my lower body and shave my legs. Letting my husband clean the house and drive the kids to appointments and lessons and do, well, everything. Missing school concerts and recitals. Missing how I used to haul, tickle, and wrangle my kids. Missing them. Missing my husband. Missing myself, who I used to be. But also wanting to be alone. Telling friends and family, I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now. I need to be alone.
I lived two lives in 2016, a nightmare overlapped by a dream. In a drug daze and pain haze, I teetered toward achievement and the fulfillment of a fantasy. Before my agent could submit The Beloved Wild to editors, I needed to revise it. She and I went back and forth on the changes I made, three rounds of revisions. Since I couldn’t sit at my desk to work on the manuscript, I stood at the kitchen island, usually in the early hours of the morning, two o’clock, three o’clock, after my pain woke me up. I’d limp around the living room and struggle to get a handle on the hurt. Then I’d try to think past the hurt, so I could concentrate on the revisions.
I didn’t ask my agent for more time or even mention my injury to her until after the publication contract was signed. Honestly, I didn’t want to blow it. Agents, book deals: They’re hard to come by. Before TBW secured me representation, I’d written seven novels and queried agents with three of them. I’d had years of trying and failing.
Success comes at different stages in writing: the excitement of the writing itself, of growing an idea and inhabiting another world, the thrill of finishing the tale, and the satisfaction of editing and revising it. But most writers want to share their creations, which means the culminating success is publication. That’s hard to finagle. The fact that I’d made it so far with TBW and was working with an incredibly talented agent who could help me get published seemed unbelievable and also tenuous, dicey, and reversible. This was my One Big Chance. I believed that, and I still do. I seized that chance as well as I could with my pain-racked body. I picture myself now, how desperate I was, like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, protecting the flimsy bridge over the stream, a wobbly wooden board to the other side. This was my plank to publishing. I had to guard it from my foe, which happened to be my body, falling apart, jangling with pain.
This story of my bad back and my books has a happy ending, two actually: surgery and publication. But the plotline that culminated in the discectomy (and profound relief) sucks. I was made to do pointless things. Indeed, I was sometimes assured they were pointless by the people prescribing and administering them. But I couldn’t access more specific treatments and tests without hurdling my pained body through the hoops. So many bills and (oh, I know I shouldn’t think about it this way, I know there are reasons for the hurdles, I know folks who work in the health profession are wonderful people, and yet…) so many people making money off my pain. Months passed before I was allowed to get an MRI. The fact that the results of this procedure incited immediate action and a quickly scheduled surgery, though a relief at the time, in retrospect, aggravates me. I suffered for the better part of a year. My situation wasn’t deemed an emergency until after that imaging procedure proved it was one. That upsets me.
The publishing plotline is certainly sweeter than my sad back tale but also not particularly character driven. In other words, it was out of my hands. Writing and publication, though both beautiful castles, are not connected by a straight road. They’re the start and finish of a maze, and this maze is constructed by others. Though the writer can enter it by writing well and revising wisely, the maze, itself, is a convoluted, mysterious mess of luck, chance, taste, timing, and dozens of other stipulations, considerations, and circumstances. Stars must align. Miracles must happen. That’s why there are countless novels written that will never be widely read or shared. Some of these novels are exquisite, insightful, life-affirming, and life-altering. They remain beautiful secrets.
Pain is a lonely experience, consuming and exhausting, and I suppose the same can be said of failure. They happen to everyone but feel, to the sufferer, uniquely awful and isolating. Acknowledging their ubiquity isn’t especially consoling. Death, too, after all, is ubiquitous. But I had a year, a very odd year, when my body, quivering around a ten on the pain scale, was mired in hell, even as my writing career seemed to be going somewhere at last. After years of successive failures, I was finding a way through the maze toward the door to paradise. This was a ten, too, but on the joy scale. I’m lucky I found that path and my agent found me. The promise of passing through the portal to publishing was a bright light, and I was in such a dark place. Following that brilliance probably saved my life.