Welcome back for part three in our 2021 Women in Horror Roundtable! Today we talk all about how the upheaval of the last year has affected our authors’ writing as well as the self-care rituals that help keep them on track.
So let’s take it away!
How has the upheaval of 2020 affected your work? Do you find yourself writing more or less often, and have the themes of your writing changed at all?
JESSICA GUESS: I’m writing less. I don’t have any other answer. It’s crazy because I have the motivation to write as well as the ideas, but the will isn’t there. Everything that’s going on plus work, plus taking care of my mom has pretty much taken all the energy I have. Right now, I’m reading more and watching more horror movies to distract myself.
GEMMA AMOR: Gosh, my writing life changed in every single way imaginable. I am a mother, and schools have been closed, so my day job quickly became my second job that was often carried out in the small hours of each morning and that grew so draining my writing certainly suffered as a result. I likened it to trying to wade through cold porridge- everything felt stodgy and bland and just lacking in any spark or vitality. That being said, I did manage to push through and meet most of my obligations, but it was the toughest work year of my career and the toughest year of my life on a personal level, so yes– it came out in my work, which I think was a lot bleaker in tone now I come to think about it. I plan on addressing that with future works, and I want to get back to what I think made my writing pop before this giant coronavirus shitshow came along– having fun with the words again. Because if it isn’t fun, what’s the point? Perhaps easier said than done right now, but it’s there as a goal– have fun writing again.
L. MARIE WOOD: I just finished writing my second novel of the year last night and, while waiting for the manuscript to print because I am old school and intend to mark it up with my red pen, I took stock of my output in 2020… and… I’ve written A LOT. Just under 300k words and they were a mix of novels, short stories, essays, presentations, screenplays, novellas, and even a poem stuck in there for good measure. I wrote because I had the ideas. I wrote in the middle of the night because that was when I had time –- that is usually when I have time, so nothing really changed there. I did not write about the pandemic or its effect on me or the world around me. That is not what I normally write about -– it is, indeed, too realistic to provide the escapism I strive to provide and look for in my own reading selections. So, even thought we suffered considerable strain this year, I did not let that worm its way into my work. The writing itself – the normalcy of it – was cathartic.
ANGELA SLATTER: I found in the first three weeks of lockdown in Australia, I was kind of lost. There was no inspiration to write, everything felt like we were living in a horror novel – which is very different from just imagining it for the purposes of writing! Like pretty much everyone, I wasn’t sleeping well, lots of nightmares, the constant stress sitting on your chest when you were awake, and of course watching a lot of income dry up as face-to-face teaching and appearances were off the table. But gradually I just kept pushing and the words started to return, so it became a kind of therapy – the only thing I could do, I guess! So, in the end I’ve been pretty productive this year. I’ve probably written more out and out horror this year, with less shall we say metaphorical padding to take the edge off? “The Wrong Girl” (Nightmare, 23 Dec 2020) is one of those stories with a lot of blood and flesh in the teeth.
K.P. KULSKI: 2020 was one hell of a century. I have hopes for 2021 but with this last year under our belts, I’ve learned to be extremely anxious about having hope. My writing time has been dented by what a lot of parents are experiencing, virtual school and trying to balance it all. I also moved in 2020, so that was added craziness.
With that said, I spent a lot of time thinking about racism in particular, which led to thinking more about my own hapa experience and of how much my immigrant mother went through. I poured that pondering and emotional energy into a novella. I’m finding the theme popping up more in my stories, along with a subsequent sense of isolation.
DONYAE COLES: I wrote a lot less in the beginning of everything but I’ve been writing a lot more since September. The themes in my writing haven’t really changed because the things my writing deals with (race, gender, poverty) haven’t really changed.
LAUREL HIGHTOWER: My writing has ebbed and flowed a bit this year –- part of it is the mental grind of worry about the pandemic and political situation, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It’s impossible to be unaffected by that, and on top of it, my toddler son has been home from daycare since March. My husband and I are both working full time from home, so my days are long with no breaks until late. I’d been writing only during his naps on weekends, but then his sleeping got erratic and I panicked. I really felt like I’d have to put writing on hold, but then I listened to writers like Hailey Piper, Red Lagoe and Jonathan Janz, who (without the slightest judgment on anyone else) are committed to making it work into their schedules. I found time in the mornings, and in the evenings, and since I’ve been writing everyday now, I feel much more in the flow of it.
Whether it’s fully related to the upheaval of the year or not, I do think my work has become a lot more personal, and observant of the frustrations of my situation. I love being a woman, and I love being a mom, but there are unbelievable rifts between what’s expected of women versus men. I’m not saying that in a man bashing spirit, or writing that way either, but out of a desire to examine my own feelings, express them in a horror palette, and maybe find ways to improve my situation.
HAILEY PIPER: I probably wrote about the same amount of work, but the shape certainly changed. I spent 2019 largely writing short fiction. In 2020 though, I wrote only a few short stories and instead channeled the time and energy into three books. The energy to it changed, too, maybe from lack of public socialization. My approach has become wild and unapologetic. The world is a chaotic place, so why hold back our own feminine chaos?
Writing is a tough business to say the least. Do you have any particular self-care rituals or ways that have helped you cope with being part of an often difficult industry?
JESSICA GUESS: I try not to take things personally. I learned that early on with doing workshops. You can’t take anything anyone says about your work personally. You have to remember that readers are coming to your work with their own perceptions and worldviews and sometimes they’ll put things on your work that you didn’t intend. Or they’ll have expectations that you weren’t trying to reach. I’ll never forget one workshop experience where the instructor accused me of having a racist stereotype of Asians in my short story when the character in question was actually a Black Trinidadian. She accused me of other stuff too that had nothing to do with my story. I was hurt for a while, but I kinda knew that she was putting her own stuff on my work. It wasn’t me. She didn’t even read the story carefully to know the ethnicity of the character she was mad about and she’s a famous writer and creative writing instructor! If she can do that, what do you expect of the average reader?
GEMMA AMOR: Lots. Having strict rules about what I am comfortable engaging with on social media has been the most significant act of self-care I could have initiated for myself and I continue to hold to my rules every day. I have extremely firm boundaries surrounding who I want to communicate and interact with, and that is okay– often throughout my life I have felt apologetic for not enjoying something, or not getting along with certain people. But it’s ridiculous to assume you are going to get everyone to like you or be everyone’s cup of tea– the world just doesn’t work that way. So I stick to my boundaries and it makes me a lot less anxious about myself and my place in the world as a result.
Other than that, I walk, a lot, to take care of both my brain and my body, I will often figure out a tricky plot point that way, or else, in a scalding hot bath. I love baths. I think I might be part-mermaid or eel (or manatee).
I also have about three or four dedicated beta readers/editorial type folk who often help carry me through the difficult part of writing a novel or anything of great length– particularly that stodgy middle bit of a novel that everyone hates– I find that reaching out to them for reassurance and feedback is an incredibly important part of my creative process, and I value them enormously.
It sounds a little hippy as well, but one of the best ways I find to be kind to myself in this often emotionally charged and rather cutthroat industry is to enjoy the work of my peers and help promote them where possible. I literally jump for joy when I see a fellow writer land an exciting contract or tv show or whatever– it gives me hope and a real sense of community, which I personally find really inspiring and fuels me on. I think sometimes people can find that ‘Pollyanna’ attitude disingenuous or frustrating, but one thing I have learned is that the feeling of being isolated (a huge issue for me at the moment what with multiple lockdowns in the UK thanks to corona) really does exacerbate imposter syndrome and your creativity by a significant amount– only the other day I was talking about always feeling on the fringes of things, and never quite belonging to any one place. This is a nasty and insidious ideology that can nip a burgeoning writing career at the bud, and one way I get around these feelings is to immerse myself in other people in my genre. I mean, I just prefer to try where possible to think outside my own personage– having said that, writers by nature spend a lot of time thinking about themselves and talking about themselves because they are quite literally selling themselves to their readers, and as I get older I am increasingly aware of this. I’m not a huge fan of me, me, me, so I try and interact with others as much as possible.
Having said that, the last year has been an absolute slog. I have found reading anything longer than a few hundred words almost impossible, so I feel I’ve fallen behind in purchasing and reading the works of my peers– but I hope to get back on the case soon– the apocalypse can’t last forever, right?
L. MARIE WOOD: Interesting question! I think that, at the beginning of my career, I would have answered quite differently than I will now. I can remember going out to dinner to get my mind off of a rejection letter or getting my nails done to try and drive away my frustration over my perceived lack of progress. Not so anymore. Rejections will come – they are part of the cycle, and while I don’t like them any more now than I did before, I recognize their role in the general scheme of things. I still get irritated by them but if I had intended to write when one came in, I don’t throw in the towel for the day and come back later. Writing time is precious these days, so write, I will… after a few sips of wine and a few deep breaths.
ANGELA SLATTER: I try really hard to recognise when I’m grinding my gears: if I haven’t had a proper rest or just refilled the creative well by reading, going to the movies, binge-watching tv series, taking walks, talking to the dogs, etc. Just generally making a point of stopping until I catch up with myself and feel more focused and inspired.
K.P. KULSKI: Alone time is important to me and can be a challenge to obtain, but I have learned that my introvert soul doesn’t do well without a solitary well refill. I have to take time to myself just to be alone with my thoughts. I take as many opportunities to do this as I can. Reading is always a good source of self-care, either dark fiction or history is my jam.
Another thing that always gives me a sense of peace is reading to my kids. We’ve enjoyed a lot of stories together especially mythology from around the world.
DONYAE COLES: I do a lot of art but I don’t think that’s self care really because that’s just. . . the other thing I do with my time. I read a lot. I knit and crochet. I am a creative or I am a cozy creature doing soft things wrapped in a blanket, there is no in between.
LAUREL HIGHTOWER: Stepping away has been the biggest, and most effective way I’ve cared for myself this year. Things happen in the world, in our community that need addressing, and I’m all for that. I don’t believe in putting on a good face and keeping things surface level so that resentments and straight up wrongs fester. But everyone has their threshold. I reached a point of anxiety this summer that stopped me from sleeping for about a month. That’s simply not feasible – it’s miserable, I have no childcare, and there’s no way to take a day off and rest. I realized it’s not healthy for me to be connected all the time, and that I need to protect myself from certain situations. In the same vein, I stopped reading reviews of my work, because it got to the point where it was hurting my feelings. I don’t believe in censorship of reviews – people should feel comfortable voicing their opinions about what they read, and even if my best friend hates my work and gives it one star, we’re still cool. But when it’s taking up head space, it’s time to stop. Oh, also massage, when possible. I am horrible at relaxing, so making myself leave the house and lay still for an hour is immensely helpful.
HAILEY PIPER: Having good friends who understand has been truly helpful. We keep check on each other, hear each other out, offer advice and solace. I’m tremendously lucky to have made friends with such wonderful people in the community. Reading also helps. I crave reading time desperately; it helps shut away everything else. A good reading session is especially cleansing.
And that’s it for Part Three of our roundtable! Join us next week for the conclusion of our Women in Horror feature for 2021!