Your Strongest Support Is Still Temporary

(for Mark)

Last month, I wrote about, among other things, not getting attached to your writing routines, and being able to carry on when the rug gets pulled out from under you. I didn’t realize as I hit “publish” how relevant that advice was going to be for me, nor how suddenly.

I’ve been seeing my therapist since 2004. We’ve moved the day around a couple times, when my work schedule or his required it, but apart from vacations it’s been a cornerstone of my week that I have a place where I can go for forty-five minutes and talk about whatever’s on my mind. Getting married, getting my first book published, getting a job, getting restructured out of a job five months later, getting another job, getting emotionally hammered by that job… Mark would hear me out, ask me follow-up questions, and nudge me in a direction where I could fix things for myself.

So, on the first week of April, when I went in for my regular sessions, we talked about how I’ve started to do some more educational things, from teaching writing workshops to writing this newsletter, alongside my freelance writing and editing, and about what I could do to keep the momentum going on that. At the end of the session, I reminded him that I’d be out of town the following week, but we were still on for the week after that. He told me to have a good time while I was away, and said he’d see me then.

Two weeks later, I showed up five minutes before my appointment and buzzed to be let into the reception lounge, but there was no response. That happens sometimes, so I waited a few minutes and buzzed again. Still no response. Five minutes after our scheduled start, I texted him a friendly “We’re still on today, right?” By now, somebody else had been able to get his therapist to buzz him in, so at least I was sitting down for this. There was no response to the text, so I tried calling his cell phone, but the voice mail was full. So I tried calling his office land line, for the first time in at least a decade, but it had been disconnected.

And, you know, the penny probably should have dropped then, but honestly I figured, well, yeah, who bothers with a land line in 2018 if they can help it? I mean, when I talked about Mark’s no-show with my wife, we both expressed hope that everything was okay, but my initial reaction was either that he’d simply thought I’d be gone for two weeks or, more likely, something had come up at home that he’d had to deal with and he’d be apologetic the following week and everything would carry on as before.

Except that he never answered my text, and he didn’t answer my (slightly more concerned) email, or the follow-up email I sent after the weekend had passed with no response, or the text explaining that I’d like to hear back from him before I came into Manhattan again later in the week. By now, of course, I’d run a search in Google News to see if I could find out whether anything had happened to him, but nothing came of it. Finally, a few hours before my appointment, I was on the phone with my wife, observing that I still hadn’t heard from him, and she had the objectivity to look him up on, where we learned that he’d died while we were out of town.

Which, as noted previously, I probably should’ve figured out by then, but of course it wasn’t a possibility I really wanted to acknowledge until the obituary was right there on the computer screen in front of me.

As you can imagine, this has weighed on my mind more than a little since I found out. Fortunately, as a sympathetic friend said as I was telling her all this, “after fourteen years in therapy, you’ve probably got the major issues sorted out, and were just working on routine maintenance.” And it’s true: I’m in a position where I don’t feel like I’m at any immediate emotional risk, where I can explore my options calmly and carefully. Not everybody gets that, and I realize how lucky I am that I do.

So I want to turn the focus away from me now, and look at our writing lives. I’ve always stressed how important it is to have people around us who are truly supportive of our writing, starting with our friends and families. If we’re fortunate enough to segue from writing for ourselves to working with the publishing industry, it’s also important to align ourselves with supportive professionals—not people who will do whatever we want, of course, but people who will help us recognize what’s best for our writing, even if we don’t see it ourselves at first, and will work with us to achieve that. Literary agents, for example, or editors, or publicists, to name a few.

Even when we’re lucky enough to find them, though, people like that won’t be with us forever—and I don’t just mean that everybody is going to die on us eventually. Literary agents retire. Editors sign up your book for their publishing house, and then they take a job somewhere else, and you’re reassigned to somebody who isn’t nearly as familiar with your work. Heck, I know authors who’ve had four different publicists assigned to their book from the day that the publisher acquired it to the day it hit bookstores. (Usually, it’s more like two, maybe three, but this house had particularly high turnover.)

These things sting when they happen, but you can’t take them personally, and you can’t let them knock you off your game. Just do your best to keep moving forward, and hope that the people with whom you’ll be working next can be as helpful (or more so!) than the ones before. And remember that even when people are no longer in a position to help you directly, they can still be informal advocates for you and your work. You might have an editor who’s so enthusiastic about your writing that she recommends your books to friends long after you’ve stopped working together, or a publicist who assures her successor that you’re a pleasure to work with on getting the word out about your writing, or… The point is, even in setbacks, positive possibilities exist.

Cherish the great relationships that you make over the course of your writing career, and be mindful of how they’ve helped you advance toward becoming the writer you want to be. At the same time, though, remember that they didn’t make you that writer. You did that, by putting in the work, and if you should find yourself in a position where their help is no longer available to you, you’ll have to find a way to keep doing that work without them once you’ve finished mourning the loss—or, to be more honest about it, as you’re mourning the loss.

I can tell you from experience, it’s not like you’ll just be able to wake up one morning and get back to work as if nothing had happened. Of course not. You just have to be able to get back to work as if all this has happened and you’re dealing with it the best you can, by being the writer your agent, your editor, your publicist, your partner, your friends, or your therapist have helped you become.