This is no. 104 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Most days my eyes pop open around 3:30 AM. If I’m lucky, I’ll fall back asleep until 4 or 4:30. What wakes me in the wee hours of the morning isn’t a child, chirping birds, or the siren from the nearby firehouse—it’s pain. I’ve had chronic tailbone pain, coccydynia, for half of my life. It’s at its worst when I’m sitting or lying down, but lingers when I stand. I also have Hashimoto’s disease, which causes, among other things, stiffening, swelling, and joint pain, and I was most recently diagnosed with a rare but benign tumor, which has impacted my mobility.
My book tour(s) this spring bookended my myriad attempts to relieve my pain. A few weeks before my essay collection, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change, was published in April, I had a medical procedure to relieve my tailbone pain. (Unfortunately, it failed.) In June, I ended my book tour for my novel, The Parted Earth, with a surgery to remove the tumor. (It succeeded.) Over those two months I spent countless hours at five different doctors’ offices, and in the evenings I tuned into online events for my books.
I’m not alone. Many writers write while in pain and find ways to produce compelling work. In the Paris Review Daily, Nafissa Thompson-Spires described writing with chronic illness this way: “It means something to me to be able to produce when something is daily trying to take me out.” I couldn’t agree more. Some days I can’t get out of bed. Often I have to write while lying on my stomach, propped up on my elbows in a modified Sphinx pose, my back covered in ice packs. Still, I manage to find a way to write words that I’m proud of.
Chronic pain has made me reassess what it means to maintain a creative writing practice, and what this creative writing practice can or should look like. When my three children were little, I figured out how to write around their sleep schedules and stomach viruses. But chronic pain tosses my intentions to write at a certain time or on a specific day out the window. It has therefore forced me to challenge traditional notions of writing productivity.
In a piece for Literary Hub, Sonya Huber, author of Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays From a Nervous System (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), arrives at this conclusion: “I now think of my writing practice far more holistically, as a season of time, rather than a hard deadline. Thinking of time more broadly accommodates my physical needs on a given day, while still ensuring that I keep moving forward.”
I have been following Huber’s lead for years, dividing my creative writing goals, literally, into seasons. By this winter solstice, I hope to complete the first rewrite of my next novel. Finishing up just before the holidays is my goal, even though I know that I may have to go weeks without writing due to pain. And what happens if I do not succeed in meeting this self-imposed deadline?
Absolutely nothing. There is always another season.
What I have also built into this “schedule” (if it can be called that) is grace and forgiveness. My body has earned rest and restoration. My mind deserves the space to process the trauma and grief that comes from a life in constant pain. As a writer in pain, I can’t afford to yield an inch to guilt or regret for not writing.
Perhaps, while writing in pain, I have learned a valuable lesson that I never would have learned otherwise. I’m still a writer, even if I spend entire days lying on a heap of ice packs instead of chipping away at a manuscript. I’m a writer no matter how many or how few words actually make it to the page.
Anjali Enjeti is an author, teacher, and organizer. Her first essay collection, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change (University of Georgia Press, 2021), and her first novel, The Parted Earth (Hub City Press, 2021), were both published in the spring. The recipient of awards from the South Asian Journalists Association and the American Society of Journalists and Authors, she has written for Oxford American, USA Today, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among other publications. She cofounded the Georgia chapter of They See Blue, an organization for South Asian Democrats, and served on the Georgia AAPI Leadership Council for the Biden-Harris campaign. She teaches in the MFA program at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia.Thumbnail: Joyce McCown