Right now, I’m stuck. I used to think this was a temporary condition, with my brain caught at top dead center.1 Now I feel like a fly in amber, with my brain trapped in a hopeless yellow fog.
The trouble started on Christmas Eve 2019, when I fell while walking the dog and broke three bones in my left hand and wrist. Aside from the pain, the inconvenience slowed my writing process, where my brain speaks directly to the keyboard and screen through my fingertips. One hand spider-typing interferes with this, and so I gave myself a break from the current book. And in January I got a helluva cold, or flu, or something—maybe an offshoot of the coronavirus, but probably not—which has resurfaced every couple of weeks since then. So I’ve had reason to delay my writing and give myself a longer break, extending into a dispiriting couple of months.
The truth is, to begin with, I’m not sure about the book I was working on at the time of the accident. I had just started outlining and doing initial drafts of the story about a young American army officer who gets punished for an international incident with reduced rank and a posting to Mars in the 22nd century, where he will head security at the nearly defunct U.S. embassy. Fortunately for him—or not—he arrives right when the various factions on the planet plan and pull off a revolution or a war for independence, and he has to deal with that in military fashion. Great stuff! Future stuff, with AIs, evolved politics, and a mysterious female! Except … as much as I know about Mars, I don’t know, or can’t imagine, much of anything new that any other writer hasn’t used before. And I’m not really sure I believe in colonizing Mars in the first place.
I mean, it’s a rock. The atmosphere is carbon dioxide with a surface pressure about one percent that of Earth. Open a window on a jet at 100,000 feet, and you’re dealing with the same pressure, except in a mix of unbreathable poisons.2 Because Mars has no magnetic field and such a thin atmosphere, solar wind and radiation are deadly on the surface without additional shielding. And if the planet has water, there’s not much of it, or not enough in any one place for human habitation to exploit casually. If you want some new land to colonize, go to Siberia, Patagonia, or Antarctica—they’re all a lot warmer and you can still breathe the atmosphere. It would be easier to build a five-star hotel with Olympic-sized swimming pool on the South Col of Mount Everest: the atmosphere is better and the logistics are much more manageable. Aside from the glory of the achievement, Mars is a really hard sell. For that matter, the Moon’s logistics and travel times are better than those of Mars, and the atmosphere is just a little bit harder vacuum.3
But in my mind, the soldier’s story was set in space, on Mars, from the beginning. And the more I planned and wrote, the hollower—more facile and silly—the story became. At a certain point, I just didn’t believe or trust in my own imagination. And so the writing process just … stopped.
Last year, when I finished The Divina in the Troupe, which is the sequel to The Children of Possibility and completed that three-book mini-series, I was casting around for what story in my imagined lineup to work on next. The young soldier on Mars was neck-and-neck with a third book in the ME group, which would address not two but three copies of the program and deal with some crisis in the network. But that story is still undeveloped in my mind, and I’m not sure the world really needs another dose of a smart-aleck AI who first endangers and then saves the world.
I have other book ideas, but they are even less developed, just glimpses of an idea without plot or characters. And frankly, with the way sales have been going on my previous books, my sense of urgency—if not my dedication to the writing craft—has begun to wane.
But through all that I was still able to write and post my weekly blog on this website. Except … the coronavirus shutdown has me heartsick over both the growing death rate and the effects on the economy, as I wrote in my last blog. My own life situation hasn’t changed all that much: get up, walk the dog, eat breakfast, clear my emails, check the web, do a bit of writing—or, these days, not—then walk the dog, eat lunch, check the stock market, read or nap, do a bit more writing, walk the dog, eat dinner, binge-watch a few shows or a movie, walk the dog, then go to bed and read until it’s time to roll over and turn out the light. Once or twice a week I shop for groceries and go for a motorcycle ride. Once a month or so, I visit family—now in abeyance because of the quarantine. Otherwise, I was already pretty much locked in place.
But when the novel in hand died out, and the whole world went into quarantine and, well … amber, my impulse to write about politics and economics, science and religion, or various art forms just died out. My blogs usually start with some persistent thought that intrudes on my mind, usually related to one of those three topic areas, that I then need to sit down and write out in order to explore my thinking. But the word-generator in my brain that throws up these proto-discussions just … shut down. The closest I’ve come in months was a few nights back, when I woke up at two in the morning to list the various transfers of kingship in England through the War of the Roses and the reason why Henry VIII was so eager to get a male heir. And that’s a story anyone can read about without my help or insight.
I’m trying, charitably, to think of myself as being in a fallow period and not indulge the D-word, let alone the B-word.4 After all, since I was laid off at the biotech in 2010, I’ve been writing hard, producing approximately one novel and fifty blogs each year. So perhaps I’m due for a break. And perhaps, after I give my brain a rest, I will come back with a fresh view on Mars, or the ME character, or some other future war for that young soldier, or something even better and more exciting to write about.
Or that’s my hope.
1. “Top dead center” refers to an internal combustion engine that stops with the piston all the way up at the top of the cylinder—or down at the bottom, which also works—so that any pressure on it just pushes against the vertical connecting rod and bearing without forcing the crank to move one way or the other. Modern, multi-cylinder engines almost never get caught this way, because while one cylinder might be at top or bottom, others are at different positions in the cycle and can move the crank.
2. The atmosphere on Mars would pass for a pretty good laboratory vacuum on Earth. The “air” is too thin for any kind of airfoil or rotor to lift any appreciable mass. So traveling across the Martian surface would be by ground vehicle or some kind of short-hop rocket. This would make human travel and physical commerce between different sites difficult, time-consuming, and expensive—about equal to, say, going from Boston to New York or Philadelphia in colonial times by horseback and wagon or stagecoach.
3. However, the thin atmosphere on Mars—only a partial vacuum—might allay the problem of electrostatic dust precipitation that clings to every surface and plagued the astronauts on the Moon.
4. The “D” is for depression. I’ve never actually been diagnosed with or treated for it, but my late wife once suggested that I might be suffering from depression. And since her death I’ve certainly had my down periods—but those are situational and not clinical.
The “B” is for writer’s block—which I don’t actually believe in. Supposedly, when this strikes, a writer has lots to say but is inhibited from saying it for some other reason. I’ve never felt that kind of stoppage. If I sit down at the keyboard and can’t write, it’s because my subconscious knows that my thinking on the subject is not yet complete or fully developed, and whatever I tried to write would be a waste of time and would have to get ripped up and rewritten anyway. And that may be what’s going on here: my subconscious isn’t happy with the books that my forebrain and my strength of will have put on the writing schedule, and so it wants me to do something new.