Afterbirth

This past weekend, a month after the official launch of The Burning Light of Two Stars, I taught my second in-person pandemic retreat—a writer’s work weekend at a mountain house in Bonny Doon, California, twenty minutes from my home in Santa Cruz. I teach these 3-4 times a year.

A dozen writers (mostly my current students with a few newcomers thrown in) gather for three days to deeply immerse ourselves in whatever projects we’re involved in. I create the ideal conditions for deep creative work, and we all focus in silence, whether we’re writing, editing, researching, reading old journals, re-envisioning a plot, or drafting marketing copy. In the evenings, we share communal dinners and gather in a big living room to hear and respond to each other’s work. Saturday mornings, people meet with me for little laser coaching sessions, but for most of the weekend, I work right along with everyone else. During my final years completing The Burning Light of Two Stars, I worked on various aspects of the book, always pleased with what I could accomplish even while holding space for others.

But this past weekend, I couldn’t accomplish anything. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t push myself anymore. I just couldn’t. I arrived with what I considered to be a modest goal—reading through a bunch of sample curriculums that I thought I might be able to adapt to create discussion guides to encourage the use of The Burning Light of Two Stars as an evergreen teaching tool in organizations like Hospice, the Alzheimer’s Foundation, recovery groups, grief support groups, and the like. My plan was to go through my book and mark passages that would make great prompts for thoughtful discussion. To throw a little something together that would uplevel the value of the book and get my foot in the door. Just a bit of writing, repurposing what I’ve already completed, a little marketing—no big deal, right? I could knock that off in a weekend. No problem. That’s what I told myself.

The first day of the retreat, I forced myself to read the curriculums and facilitation resources I’d brought, not that I wanted to. It was definitely an act of sheer will—purposefully shoving my energy in the direction of my intention. Forcing myself to sit in the chair. I kept at it for a couple of hours, with dread and heaviness rather than enthusiasm or excitement, until the idea of looking at one more curriculum drove me so deep into lethargy that I could force myself no longer. There’s no way in hell I want to do this. I just had to close my eyes. I fell into a deep slumber.

Each time I’ve stopped my momentum since the big launch, I feel my exhaustion. How tired I am. How empty. Vacant. Null. No wonder I’ve been binge-watching old seasons of Dexter during long evenings with Karyn at home. We even got our daughter and daughter-in-law into it over the Thanksgiving holiday. All of us watching our favorite serial killer do his thing. I couldn’t have been happier.

Book launch. Makeup. Interviews. Pitches. Guest posts. Facebook Live. Ads. Readings. Events. Social media. Finally, the huge book launch push was waning. I’d given it my all. I’ve given The Burning Light of Two Stars the best launch I could with the resources I had. I’d been jacking up and wired for months, always poised for action. Now my body was letting down. No wonder I was exhausted.

I had just given birth.

And what a strange birth it is. Birthing a book means birthing a fully formed independent being with a future I can’t control. Can barely influence when you come right down to it. When I sink into my deep fatigue, I ask myself, what has this year of driven effort been for? And the ten years of writing before that?

Don’t get me wrong—I love The Burning Light of Two Stars. I’m proud of it. In my 30+ year career as an author, I believe it’s the best work I’ve done. But I am going to drive myself insane if I keep checking reviews and sales figures, longing for the fluky mega-success I had as a 31-year-old incest survivor when The Courage to Heal sold hundreds of thousands of copies and went viral—years before there was a “viral.” I remember those early years well, collecting bag loads of fan mail—and a smattering of hate mail—every week from the post office.

That was more than 30 years ago and, in the decades since, The Courage to Heal has opened countless doors for me; it’s attracted thousands of students to my classes, workshops and retreats. I know the power of a book that changes lives—including my own. But that kind of meteoric success was a once in a lifetime thing, being at the right place at the right time with the right message. The books I’ve written in the decades since have all been good, they’ve all had value, but none have had the impact of The Courage to Heal.

Right now, The Burning Light of Two Stars is still a newborn; I can’t predict its future trajectory: where it will go or where it will lead me. Will it lead me anywhere? Will it change my life? Or will I have the same exact same life I had before? I’m not complaining—I have a great life, full of blessing and privileges—but it’s hard not to be seduced by messages arriving every day: “Before you get as famous as Mary Karr, can I just ask you one thing?” Or “Your book should be on the list of top ten memoirs of all time.” And from noted memoir teacher, Marion Roach Smith, “Your book is as good as it gets” and “It’s perfect.”

I don’t know what to do with these accolades, especially juxtaposed to the disappointing weekly sales figures I know I shouldn’t be checking. The ups and downs of external reinforcement or the lack thereof—waiting for the next hit of glittering eye candy or the gold ring—is a trap I know I should avoid. But like any addict, I want the next fix of praise, validation, acknowledgement. It’s the definition of misery. Yet it’s hard not to look.

My coach, Joshua Townshend, says that there are three parts to the creative cycle: create, release relax. People struggle with all three. I seem to have no trouble creating—my whole life has been an endless flow of creations—radio shows, columns, books, workshops, classes, and more. Release? I seem to be able to do that, too—to bring things to completion and send them out into the world. I trust myself as a teacher, a workshop leader, as an author. I have no trouble asking people to buy my book, attend my retreat, take my class—I have confidence in the value of what I offer.

But relax? To let go of the hype, the push, the glitter, the uncertainty, the list, the doing. To not do. To not create. To not generate a new list. To embrace the fallow field. To rest. That clearly is the place I get stuck.

Thank God Karyn and I are going on our first pandemic vacation over the Christmas holiday—to Mexico. I look forward to swimming in the ocean, playing with our grandchildren, napping, wearing sundresses, reading novels, and doing whatever comes along. To let everything else go.

The only thing on my list will be relax, relax, relax.


The Burning Light of Two Stars is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook wherever books are sold. There are links here to buy signed copies, bulk copies, and to support independent bookstores with your purchase. You can also read the first five chapters for free.

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