Blessed with a Curse (Or Cursed with a Blessing)

Try to think of writing as a gift — more complexly put: it is the curse and the cure.”

—Julianna Baggott

Last month, a fun challenge circled among 2020 debut authors on Instagram, encouraging us to share interesting tidbits about ourselves and our upcoming books. I enjoyed the posts from my fellow authors and participated occasionally as well. But one question in particular so intrigued me, that instead of making a brief insta-post about it, I decided it deserved a full blog piece. 

The question was: Is writing a blessing or a curse? 

As if that’s a simple, black or white, yes or no question. 

I believe writers all have a moment when they realize it’s not as easy as they thought it was going to be. When childhood dreams of high royalties, movie deals, and crowded book signings are extinguished like a king tide over a bonfire. Dreams burn hot and big, but the reality wave is bigger. Perhaps they were pipe dreams, but still—it’s a blow.

My moment came when I took my first creative writing class in college. I must clarify, however, that becoming an author was never a serious ambition of mine. Before age 32, I had never written a full story. I wrote constantly, but in the form of poetry, song lyrics, or journal entries, which became a creative outlet for me. I thought about becoming an author until I heard repeatedly that “writers starve.” Then I entered college and learned that not only do writers starve, but anyone majoring in English does too. So like any rational person, I pursued other interests. 

That being said, I’m not quite sure how I ended up in a creative writing class. I believe it was either a distraction or an urge I couldn’t repress. Maybe both. But the first thing it taught me was that I. Could. Not. Write.

Perhaps this came from observing the great talent of other students in the class, which prompted me to shove my work into dark corners of my backpack and avoid sharing it at all costs. Maybe it was my teacher’s comments on my work—helpful but candid suggestions about what it lacked. He kindly never read my story to the class (he reserved that honor for more promising talent) but once described a scene of mine, which inflicted great torture on me and probably the rest of the class as well. This confirmed my growing suspicion that I wasn’t cut out to be a serious writer.

Which makes the fact that I wrote a novel only a decade later that much more astonishing. It was a miracle. And like all miracles, it’s been a tremendous blessing.

Writing a story brought an exhilaration into my life that has never been equalled, before or since—except through more writing. It pushed me out of constrictive comfort zones and helped me develop thick(er) skin and a broader view of the world. Creating a piece of art, especially one that requires significant effort and sacrifice, brings incredible satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. This is especially true when after a discouraging and seemingly unproductive day of writing, I return to my manuscript to find it doesn’t sound so bad after all—and might even be good. 

For all these reasons, writing is a blessing. I might even call it the greatest blessing of my life, after my faith, family, and friends. So how could it be a curse, too?

I’ll try to give a short answer.

I’m extremely uncomfortable in the limelight. Like many writers, I’m content, happy and comfortable behind the scenes. Essentially, that’s what authors do—we put our characters out there to face the conflict, the daring adventures and frightening failures. They get the attention, we don’t. But we find joy in providing this excitement for any reader who connects with them. 

Writers are often introverts who think and feel deeply. We’re profoundly observant and love to analyze and ponder the workings of the world. We get excited by imagery, metaphors, and complex emotional intricacies. We avoid confrontation and conflict, sometimes at detrimental costs—yet thrive off writing about them. Because of this, I’m often torn between the longing to share my work and the horror of not just rejection and criticism, but praise and recognition as well. It’s unreasonable, but I’m sure many writers can relate. That Catch-22 is part of the curse of writing.  

And then there’s the reality of building a writing career. Some authors whip out a book a year, or more. They make a good living off the brand they’ve established by targeting a specific audience and/or genre. They’ve collected fans and a following on social media. By the stats, they’re considered successful. And yet many of them can’t quit their day job to devote full time to writing. 

Other authors spend years on the same story, hoping to bring it to a publishable state. This can be a curse because it consumes so much time and energy without much to show for it—just that satisfying sense of accomplishment and creative release, with perhaps a few compliments and congratulations. 

That satisfaction is enough to make it a blessing. But it’s also why authors try so hard to get their books out there. It’s not that we thrive off of good reviews or hope to make millions off our work (though admittedly, that would be nice.) It’s that we’ve experienced all the adventures, disappointments, joys, heartaches, and triumphs with our characters, and want to share that with the world. As if anyone can possibly have the same experience consuming it as we had creating it. When an author can convey this, even a little, then he/she has truly succeeded. But this is why we have such a hard time critiquing our own work. We read our story and relive all the emotion and excitement of devising it, and assume the reader will feel it too—when many times they don’t.

So we put our heart and soul into our work, we neglect household or even vocational duties, forgo movies, television, social media or other interests, all to make almost nothing off of it and get ripped apart by critics, or if we’re lucky, ignored. (That was written in jest, by the way. I’m not that pessimistic.) Of course there are rewards along the way and encouragement from readers who discover and enjoy our story. And there’s hope for producing something better, if we work hard and don’t give up. But the truth is, there are so many books for readers to choose from. They can afford to be picky. They don’t care how much time authors spend brainstorming and researching and revising and hoping and crying and refusing to give up. They only care if it holds their interest long enough to turn the next page. And this is so subjective, that any guess as to what will sell is as good as the next. As authors, we can’t write with that hope in mind. No reader can be relied upon, which means we can only write for ourselves. 

This may be a curse, it may be a blessing. In the end, it’s irrelevant. Because true writers can’t stop writing even if they wished to. Maybe we’d stop typing or putting words down on paper—but the prose, the dialogue, the imagery would reverberate continually through our minds, generating metaphors and exposing the ironies of life. Characters would come to life and ideas would still flitter through our heads like vibrant, enticing butterflies. 

Eventually it would beg to come out. Like the time I found myself, a college student immersed in a science major, enrolled in a creative writing class.

That is the greatest blessing of writing. 

And the greatest curse.

Grief = Love

“You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.” 

Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt 

What would our world be like without death?

This was the central question that inspired my novel, The Perfect Outcast. It led me to characters and circumstances and conflicts I did not expect. When submerged in the dark sea of grief, it’s tempting to wish for a world without it.

I’ve heard many analogies about grief. Each is powerful in its own way, but the one I relate to most is “the cup that refills.” When someone you love dies, your heart feels like a cup placed under a waterfall where a flood of pain rapidly spills over. The flow is so torrential, you may feel as if you’re drowning. Over time, the flow subsides and takes longer to fill your cup. But it always reaches the top eventually and at some point, often unexpectedly, the tears and emotions pour over. Whether or not the cup fully drains, it immediately starts to fill again. Even if it slows to a drip at a time, someday it will overflow—because grief never completely goes away. Although that’s a sad thought, it’s also a comforting one. It means the love and memories you have for that person will never go away either.

Last week my cup spilled over which it hadn’t done for some time, and hit me so hard it stole the breath from my lungs. The trigger came when a sweet woman from my church suffered a stroke. Naturally, many people were deeply concerned about her and her family. For many days, her condition was critical and uncertain. As I prayed fervently for her recovery, my thoughts took me back nine years to this exact month and time of year. A memory so painful, I don’t revisit it often. I mourned for this family because I understood what they might be feeling. That aching feeling of dread, intermixed with periods of peace and hope. Will she recover? If she does, will she be the same? What kind of therapy and special care will she need? Is it better to take her off life support and let her go? What is God’s will? If I have enough faith, will He provide a miracle?

Another blow came only a few days later when the father of my dear friend passed away quickly and without warning. In this case, there wasn’t time to ask those heart-wrenching questions—whether or not he would pull through or if God would provide a miracle. It felt so irrevocable, non-negotiable, and devastating. 

I believe in miracles. I believe in a God who loves us and hears our prayers. I also believe He knows what is best for us. I know, firsthand, the peace He provides during times of indescribable pain. But that peace doesn’t lessen the reality of grief. The loss of a parent is a critical event in our lives. It cuts to our soul, to our very identity. Mothers and fathers are the first people we come to love and trust in the world. We first smile, laugh, and discover the world with them. They provide comforting boundaries and security from the things we fear. Even if our relationship with one (or both) is less than ideal, we still care about them and defend them. We’re bound to our parents because they gave us life. And when they’re taken from us, it can feel like a part of us goes with them.

Sometimes, the loss of a parent is expected. They develop wrinkles and body aches or more serious conditions like adult onset diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. As their health declines, we prepare ourselves little by little. Sometimes they die sooner than expected, and we feel robbed as others thrive into their eighties or even nineties. But unless we lose a parent at a tender age before we leave home, most of us are accustomed—more or less—to living independently of them.

I believe grief cuts deepest for the children who lose a parent early in life, for the parent who buries a child, and the widow/widower who loses a beloved spouse—no matter the season of life. The more constant a person’s presence is in our daily lives, the more profound the void when they’re taken from us—because we’re used to having them with us always. We’re accustomed to seeing their faces, hearing their voices and laughter, and doing monotonous but blessed tasks like picking up their dirty socks, making their favorite meals and reading stories together. We all know people who have faced this kind of loss, whom we revere because they’ve endured where our minds won’t let us go. We marvel as they survive a day at a time, painfully placing one foot in front of the other—not because they feel strong but because they have no other choice. These deaths rattle us because they remind us how fragile life is—how quickly lives can be changed forever, how little control we have over the people we love. We know, deep down, this nightmare could happen to us—and may likely one day happen to us.

I love this soothing quote from the book Tuck Everlasting: “Do not fear death, but rather the unlived life.”

Loving others is what brings a full, “lived” life. There’s a connection between this love and death. In my immortal world of Pria, there are no illnesses or accidents that lead to death. Because of this, people are not inclined to reach out and help one another because no one is in need—at least not physically. This perpetuates their vain and self-centered culture where love waxes cold.

We treasure our loved ones when they are absent from us, when they face illness, hardship, or injury. We serve them in their times of trial, which makes our love grow. If we never had to worry about losing our family and friends, would we love and appreciate them as much?

After the death of her grandfather, I witnessed a young girl embrace her grandmother and comfort her as she grieved. They leaned against one another, and a visible change come over this woman as she relaxed and her tears eased and breath steadied. When we lose someone close to us, others we love, particularly family, can provide the healing balm we need to endure and move forward. Our life would be nothing—truly unlived and unlivable—without these precious connections. The loss of a loved one can be a sacred time when hearts soften and relationships are strengthened. It prompts us to look outside of ourselves, serve and lift each other, and expand our hearts to care more deeply—even as the waterfall is roaring down upon us. We experience the vast depths of grief so we can understand the bottomless extent to which we can love.

So as difficult as death is, it makes our world livable. We grieve because we have loved. We reach out to others in their pain, which reminds us of what truly matters: our relationships with each other. These acts of service build more love. The cycle continues, occasionally bringing the worst pain we can experience. But also the most joy.

And that is what we live—and die—for.

The Beauty Paradox

I knew I had power when I was eight. I climbed a tree and four boys helped me down.” —Marilyn Monroe

I can’t verify Marilyn Monroe said those words. But nonetheless, they are true. If it didn’t happen to her, it happened to someone else. This fascinating video on the halo effect explains why.  

I wanted to title this post something along the lines of “Looks Don’t Matter.” I searched well-researched articles and videos, hunting for evidence that personality is more powerful than appearance, the halo effect is a myth, and good looks don’t bring any special advantages. But everything I found seemed to refute these ideas rather than confirm them.

Beautiful people are often viewed as more intelligent, confident, outgoing and likable, among other things. Though every part of our brain screams this is unfair, we often make these judgements without realizing it. Appearances influence how people are treated in public, who is promoted and hired in the workforce, who wins political elections, and how children are treated by peers and teachers at school. Looks do matter—sometimes a lot.

I wish it wasn’t that way, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised—I built two fictional worlds in the Perfect Outcast, intertwined with each other, where beauty and appearances impact the experiences my characters face. They also impact the experiences we have in our own world, until we mature enough to realize how much they don’t matter. 

If that sounds like a paradox, it is. This brings me to my point: there’s a beauty paradox. Although appearances impact our lives, and beautiful people have certain advantages, looks aren’t crucial to success and happiness. To demonstrate this, I’ll name some people I admire, mostly women, who have accomplished extraordinary things and influenced many people for good—even changed the world. And it had nothing to do with their looks. In fact, most of them were considered homely.

Susan Boyle. Many of us saw this talented woman light up the stage with her beautiful voice and fun personality on the third series of “Britain’s Got Talent.” At the time, the judges admitted they didn’t expect her to have any talent at all—simply because of her looks and demeanor. In the video we glimpse audience members grimacing and rolling their eyes when she introduced herself. We know the rest of the story. Susan nailed the song and left the audience and judges cheering and clapping on their feet. Since then she’s enjoyed a successful singing career and has persevered in spite of social challenges, including Asperger’s Syndrome. This hasn’t been easy for her, but she’s touched many lives through her music.

George Eliot was an English novelist who wrote popular novels such as Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Henry James wrote these words to his father after meeting her: “She is magnificently ugly. She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth, full of uneven teeth…Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her.”

This brings to mind the first line of one of my favorite novels: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” Clearly, there are traits more powerful than beauty, and men can be smitten by these qualities. (Yet Hollywood portrayed Scarlet as gorgeous, along with Melanie—the true heroine of the story—who’s supposed to be very plain. Maddening!)

Catherine the Great was said to be “a woman of little beauty, but she possessed considerable charm, a lively intelligence, and extraordinary energy.” Abraham Lincoln’s appearance “disappointed everybody” and he was known to make fun of his looks in an endearing way. And Jesus Christ, who we may consider one of the most influential leaders in all history, “hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2, King James version.)

(Once again I’d like to point out how movies and pictures depict these people as more attractive than they were. We like to reshape our heroes to fit our romantic ideals. But that’s a post for another time.)

Others revered for their achievements and not their appearance are Queen Victoria, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, and Malala Yousafzai. Yet, despite their average looks, many of us would argue they are beautiful—as is any woman we love and admire. I agree! This further cements my point. It’s a person’s character and admirable qualities that make them beautiful, even as they grow old and their youth fades. Sure, some women became icons simply for their beauty—Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and a few others—mostly movie stars. But did they change the world for a better place? If they did, it was because they had more substantial gifts to offer.

So if beauty eventually fades from memory and mind, why do we emphasize it so much in our culture? Clearly, it’s the lure of what it provides in the moment—the gratification of being well-treated, sought after, and admired. I’ve fallen into this trap many times and it consumed much of my thoughts when I was a young, insecure teenager. Too often this preoccupation with beauty robs our young girls of valuable energy which would be better spent discovering and developing their talents. We must help our girls (and boys—they feel this pressure too, though perhaps not to the same extent) focus on what unique gifts they can offer the world. When it comes to things of enduring importance, beauty comes in dead last.

It’s difficult to fight against an established culture, but small changes in attitudes and behaviors have enormous impact. We may not be able to convince our young people that looks don’t matter. But we can start by convincing ourselves.

Persist and Conquer

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” ~Albert Einstein

The idea for the Perfect Outcast came to me during the hardest year of my life. September 27, 2010 was a busy Monday. My youngest was five months old and had significant health needs due to a genetic condition called 22q deletion syndrome (though I didn’t know his diagnosis at the time.) He was born with a cleft palate, polydactyly, hypotonia, and other developmental delays. I spent more than one hour out of every three, round-the-clock, pumping my milk and feeding him through a Haberman Feeder. I also had a two year old with behavioral challenges and three older children in school. I taught weekly music classes, with around 20 students. We moved into a new home a few months prior, and packed boxes still cluttered the rooms and hallways. My husband helped whenever he could, but as he was the breadwinner of our family, I didn’t wish to deprive him of too much sleep. So I trudged on. I had little time to do anything more than teach my classes, care for the children and feed my baby. Yet somehow, the impression broke through my sleep-deprived fog and took hold: I was going to write a book.

The idea should’ve died when dinnertime rolled around. Or at least been shelved for that (fictional) season of unlimited free time when my baby started kindergarten. But instead, it developed into a supernatural world much like our own, with themes, plot twists, and characters arcs. A selfish narcissist ruled his world free of physical pain and death, simply to keep his subjects weak and dependent on him. One girl, Alina, wasn’t beautiful like the other immortals. And she didn’t know why.

The story unfolded in my mind, and that day I began to write. This creative outlet sustained and lifted me through the heartbreaking months that followed, which included my mother’s unexpected death from a brain aneurism, an ectopic pregnancy and emergency surgery, and my son’s diagnosis, with his endless therapy sessions, doctor appointments, case manager visits, and day trips to meet with surgeons and specialists. Eight months later I had the rough draft of book one, and an aspiration that has daunted and exhilarated me for nine years since.

My book seems like a miracle, and it certainly is. But it also makes perfect sense. If I ever needed an escape, it was during this time. People frequently ask me how I found time to write a novel. The answer is cliche—you make time for the things you love. Even if it’s a little time—like 30 minutes daily while the baby is napping. When times are hard, steady persistence may provide the healing we need most. Small, consistent efforts accomplish much more than big, inconsistent ones. As Steve Martin put it: “Persistence is a great substitute for talent.”

I wrote the Perfect Outcast through persistence, not talent. Though I’ve always loved to write and took courses in college to improve my skills, that talent simmered on the back burner until it stewed into a congealed, rancid mess that threatened to set off the fire alarm, then required days of soaking just to save the pan. But while the pot was simmering, I was busy learning lessons no college course could teach me, such as: a potty trainer and evil dictator have similar psychology, character motivation drives sibling rivalry, and sedentary hours spent drip-feeding a baby brings ample opportunities to reflect, ponder, and read, read, read.

In my fictional world of Pria, the inhabitants are accustomed to an easy life of pleasure that hampers their ability to improve, progress, and have meaningful relationships. In this way, adversity is crucial to happiness. I agree with Albert Einstein—in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. We choose whether we notice and take those opportunities, whether we open our minds to new ways of seeing the world and the people in it. We decide whether to persist in our goals, or let them die.

Recognize the opportunities, and choose to persist. Who knows, if you do it long enough, you may even come across as talented.