12 October 2021

Protect Your Inner Life

Reacting to Lan Samantha Chang’s essay on LitHub.com, “Writers, Protect Your Inner Life,” Trey R. Barker (my Guns + Tacos co-creator/co-editor) posted on Facebook:

Michael, dressed for the
convention that never was.

The essay “at least partially misses what is actually the death of a writer’s inner self: the outer world. The world must take precedence, which makes it incredibly difficult to find time to do the actual writing, much less time to: A - think up the story, and B - do the foundational thinking that leads someone to the questions that become the basis for any writing. That is the inner life writers need to protect. It seeps away little by little and most often, a writer doesn’t even realize it. Not until it is nearly completely gone do they recognize what they’ve lost and by then? It can be too late to get it back.”

The loss or significant constriction of a writer’s inner life, which results in a reduction in creative output, is not the same as writer’s block. Writer’s block is an inability to write. Losing one’s inner life degrades, and potentially eliminates, one’s desire to write.

I should know. Events the past several months have wreaked havoc upon my inner life.

The eighteen-hour-a-week job that provides a steady base to my wildly fluctuating freelance income turned, for several months, into a thirty-hour-per-week job; health issues (nothing life-threatening, thank you for asking) demanded time I didn’t have to give and attention I didn’t want to give; and editing projects that I voluntarily took on consumed much of the time not otherwise filled.

When I wrote—and I did write—the stories I completed were adequate, probably even publishable, but lack a key element that comes from a rich inner life: They lack heart.

Without a rich inner life and the time to explore it, one loses heart, the quality of one’s creativity diminishes, and, thus, the desire to write evaporates.

Temple has noticed the light fading from my eyes—she says I’m happiest when I’m writing and happiest of all when writing is going well—and she’s asked what she can do to help me re-engage with my inner life. She’s even offered to use part of a recent bonus to fund a weekend getaway so I could lock myself in a room somewhere and do nothing but write. Though tempted by the offer, I know now is not the right time. I would likely spend much of the weekend mulling over the many outer-world concerns that have already invaded my inner world.

As Chang writes in her essay, one must “[h]old onto that part of you that first compelled you to start writing.” She further notes that “[t]he single essential survival skill for anybody interested in creating art is to learn to defend this inner life from the world.”

So, I think what I need to do is regain a firm grasp on the part of me that first compelled me to start writing—the youthful exuberance that made me think other people would be interested in the stories I had to tell—and combine it with a careful rebuilding of the inner world that allowed me to write so many stories over the years. Only then will my stories have heart, and only then will I regain a compelling desire to write.

My story “Remission,” first published in Landfall (Level Best Books, 2018), was reprinted in the first issue of Black Cat Weekly as a Barb Goffman Presents selection.


  1. That explains a lot. Yes, it makes sense. It's regrettable making a living interferes with making a life. Navigation might be trickier for you because so many people look up to you.

    On the positive side, support of a wonderful wife and backing of teammates might help alleviate some of the pressure. Some of us may comprehend, some may not, but in our own ways, we have shoulders to lean on.

  2. I tend to subscribe to the hydraulic theory of creativity- sometimes you just have to let the reservoir fill up again.

  3. There are SO MANY necessary distractions, it's a wonder any of us can get any writing done at times.

  4. I'm sorry you're going through this. I figured something was up. But I have confidence that you will regain that light in your eyes, little by little if necessary. You'll get there. And we're all standing here behind you, lifting you up.

  5. While it's a 'nice' idea to think one could simply protect one's inner self, when it comes to unforeseen stress, that's not always possible. I didn't write for many months after my younger sister suddenly died six years ago. That was a sudden, overwhelming stressor. Other stressors may be cumulative, but the effect is the same. All we as writers can do when we hit this kind of a wall is give ourselves time to recover from whatever stressors we've encountered and accept that the writing may be delayed until we have the emotional energy for it again. Give yourself time and try not to be too hard on yourself.

  6. I've had more than one period like this since the pandemic started. I believe you will get through it, and I know you've got stories to tell yet that will truly excite you.

  7. I think you voiced what a lot of us are going through, Michael. With the pandemic, especially, I'm feeling like there isn't enough time left to do all the things I want to. And yes, that means to write the stories I dreamed of writing when I was very young. I hope you can figure out a way to balance all of this, because I know from experience that it can wreck your health if you can't. Hang in there, and take Temple's advice; she's a smart woman. :-)

  8. Well, in the immortal words of someone or other, shit happens. Between the pandemic and my husband's health crises - both of which meant I had a lot more necessary work to do - I am only now getting back on my feet with writing fiction. But it will come. The dreams are getting strange again, which is a good sign. ;)

  9. To completely agree with Eve, and yet phrase it in terms of some of the higher educated bikers at the Sturgis Annual Motorcycle Rally: "Crap Occurs."

    And thanks Michael for saving me thousands of dollars worth of reclining on some shrink's couch trying to figure out where the Hell the music went. I owe you one.

  10. This is one of the essays I want to save, to remind myself occasionally that this happens to all of us and we can recover.

  11. Sorry to hear about the health issue(s), Michael ... and I'm glad they weren't life-threatening!

    I think this is something we all face, at one (or more) times in our writing life. As we all know, only a handful of people in the entire country can support themselves through their writing (Patterson, Deaver, Child, Oates, and the rest of the NYT Best Seller list) ... the rest of us have to have "real jobs" and/or a spouse whose job can provide benefits ("health insurance? We don't need no stinkin' health insurance."). In my situation, I have a more-than-full-time job practicing law, and then a 2nd gig as an adjunct professor - so I have LOTS of weeks where, between the hours and my own exhaustion, very little writing gets done (except in my head, where all of my words are brilliant!).

    And yet ... it's a lot like keeping a fire alive on a camping trip ... you do what you can to keep that one spark alive, so that when conditions improve, the flame can come roaring back. So I take those few minutes where I can and jot down a possible plot idea, or a description I like (character or setting), or I read a great line from another writer and make a note of that. As long as I'm doing "something," the spark flickers but is never extinguished. And that's what I hang on to, for those weeks where Life interferes and intervenes.

    Take care ... I hope to see you in a few weeks!

  12. Michael, as others have said, this is indeed something that probably happens to all writers at some time or another. Hang in there, and thanks for your honesty in talking about all this.

    Looking forward to many more of your stories!

  13. Amen, and I hope you're feeling better.

  14. Michael, well written. Is it life coming at us, or us letting a version of life take over? Perhaps a little of both, some of which you can do nothing about and some of which you can do something about if you have the guts to grab the bull not by the horns but by the huevos and squeeze as hard as you can. The diminishing light makes it harder and harder to squeeze, or even want to bother finding the bull in the first place. And to whoever commenter it was used believes the tank must be allowed to refill, I wholeheartedly agree. That tank, that reservoir, is what lubricates the brainbox that creates the stories. Unfortunately, I don't always know how to refill that tank and protect that inner life.

  15. Man, I feel ya. I've heard that hardship makes for creativity but personally I've only seen that in a few extraordinary people. Creators transfer energy into creative works and that energy is recognized and appreciated by the consumers of that work. But most creators have many energy-draining responsibilities. Just like jalapeno peppers need sun and water and all that, writers need their time, money, health, relationships, etc. in such a place that enables them to channel energy into their spicy stuff. If you're super stressed about some area of life, or the whole of it all grinds you down, absolutely nothing of much value is growing out of that soil.

  16. Michael, sorry to hear you are struggling with this. I’ve felt this myself and know many writers who have expressed something similar, especially during the pandemic, when it seems like feeding our inner lives is very challenging. Really enjoy your stories and I look forward to more of them as you find your way to the other side.

  17. Smita Harish Jain16 October, 2021 06:16

    Just adding my support for you during this tough time, Michael, and my thanks for taking on a tough issue. As isolated as writing can feel sometimes, you have reminded us that we really are all in this together.


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