The Finite Well of Shits

Last year I gave a luncheon speech at the New England RWA’s annual conference, which I concluded by advising my fellow writers to respect the fact that one has only so many shits available to give, and to be mindful to save enough shits for what really matters.

I was talking about finding an energy balance between actual writing and the various other demands of being an author—promo, social media and so forth. But lately this concept of the Finite Well of Shits has moved into a larger context, for me.

As most folks in my social orbit are aware, I am thoroughly knocked up at the moment—precisely thirty-seven weeks, and due to burst around July 23. I’ve been lucky, thus far. It’s been a very kind pregnancy, with no puking, minimal queaze, only moderate aches and pains, and, though I’ve slowed down a lot since entering the third trimester, I still walk two or three miles every morning and feel generally hearty. Don’t get me wrong—I’m ready to be done with gestating, especially given this PNW heat wave. But I’ll miss my gigantic, spherical gut when it’s gone. It’s great fun to ram it into my husband, and I’ve never felt so unapologetic about my body ever before in my adult life. Plus this is the closest I’ll ever come to achieving the figure of a rotundly fat, stick-legged songbird.

But there have been a few developments during my preggening that have thrown me for the unexpected loop, and that loop seems to be affecting only one aspect of my life aversely—my writing.

It’s a perfect storm of factors. Hormones don’t help any—I’m not having one of those wildly frisky pregnancies I’ve heard tell about, and considering that my current work-in-progress is a ménage story that’s roughly 70% sex, I’m coming to realize what a hindrance a lack of perversion is, in this line of work. It’s been a struggle to empathetically muster the preoccupation with boning that my characters are all feeling, which makes the process of writing kinky sex scenes feel disconnected and robotic, sort of soulless.

Add to that a sharp dip in energy, both physical and mental, a long to-do list regarding preparing myself for childbirth and the transition into parenthood, and greatly impaired concentration, and I’m struggling.

Only a couple months ago I had little trouble writing for a few hours in the morning then switching to edits on a different book in the afternoon, but now that kind of gear-shifting sounds all but impossible. I’m so deeply in my own head right now—what with so-called real life suddenly feeling more dynamic than the fictional worlds I play in—it takes a major effort to get inside my characters’ brains and up to speed with what they’re dealing with or, indeed, caring much what they’re up to.

This is a new experience for me. I’ve constructed my everyday life to be pretty chill and minimally demanding, and I’m usually only too excited to go and play around in Fortuity or Darren or wherever my characters are busy messing stuff up and falling in love. Except in two, three, four weeks, something’s going to happen that’ll likely change my life more drastically and more suddenly and more permanently than any other event has or will. And that’s making it a little tough to care about a made-up three-way that needs to go down in Pittsburgh.

I don’t know why I was surprised by any of this. For whatever cosmic reason, it feels like everyone I know, both in and outside of the writing sphere, has gone through a dramatic life change in the past eighteen months. Marriages, divorces, new babies, losses and grieving, illnesses, major relocations and job changes, mental health struggles—you name it, somebody’s been dealing with it. I knew that my writer friends navigating these transitions were finding the day job really challenging, yet also really trivial, set against the dynamism and demands of “real life.” Nevertheless, I hadn’t thought to bank on pregnancy curbing my creativity. My energy, yes, but not my productivity and drive, surely! I would power through.


All of this came to a head three weeks ago, when I found myself crying uncontrollably all morning, while chipping away at my 2,000-word daily writing goal. This wasn’t the first time during my third trimester that I’d cried while writing. It seemed like every other day was like this, and at first I brushed it off as mood swings. But there was no denying that writing now felt like work in a way it rarely had before. The words felt flat, the characters felt wooden, the sex felt dimensionless and mechanical. On good days, I could bank my 2,000 words in a couple hours’ time, and feel relieved that it was over. On bad days, every letter was torture.

I was filled with a self-doubt I hadn’t experienced before, not even back in the summer and fall of last year, when a cross-country move saddled me with a few months of situational depression and I’d burst into tears every time I opened up revisions for Give It All. Back then, once I’d admitted to myself that something wasn’t right, I’d had to do something I hadn’t before—I’d had to ask for an extension.

I think I asked for, like, four days or something ridiculous like that, and my editor gave me three weeks. I was a) super stressed out and despairing and b) an overachieving teacher’s pet, so as a result I felt both deeply relieved and somewhat ashamed, but the pub date didn’t have to shift, so I got over it. And I found the revisions far less painful after that, just having admitted to my “boss” that I was struggling. The isolation had made it all much harder.

This time around, however, the deadline is more complicated. I pretty much needed to finish drafting this book before the baby arrives or bust. Even if somebody handed me an extra three weeks, it wouldn’t help—a person would be falling out of my vagina by the end of July whether I finished the book or not. And while I can be a bit of a workaholic, even I wasn’t naive enough to think I’ll be doing any writing in that first month of new motherhood. I’ll probably be lucky if I bathe myself, most days. But I was more miserable than I’d felt in ages, and when my husband pointed out that this really wasn’t the state to be spending the final weeks of what’s likely to be my only pregnancy in, I saw his point. Physically, it probably wasn’t the best for the baby and, moreover, I really would like to be able to look back on this time fondly, and remember being excited but also calm—not psychotic and frustrated and freaked out over a deadline, and crying so hard I have to keep throwing out my ruined contact lenses.

So I broke down and called my agent, and sobbed snottily into her ear for forty minutes or so. I didn’t mind doing this. I’m not apologetic about my emotions, plus I was sure she’s seen and heard it all from her clients. I told her I wasn’t sure which route was best—to finish this book by the skin of my tear-salted teeth so at least I wouldn’t have it looming over me post-birth, or to ask for an extension so I’d be less stressed now, but then have to deal with the book later this summer. She agreed that neither option was ideal, but we formulated a plan: check in with my editors and see if an extension was even an option, and also ask them to read the half of the book I had drafted so far, as I really had zero clue if it was even worth finishing. My objectivity was nil.

In the end, my editors (who’ve also seen and heard it all) were highly sympathetic. They read the manuscript-in-progress over the weekend and assured me it was perfectly salvageable, if lacking a certain spark—nothing revisions can’t fix, once my brain returns to some semblance of normal. They voted that I take a four-month extension. I was a little terrified, as this not only bumped up the pub date on this particular book, but also two others, and created this big hole in my release schedule and sent me into a panic about fading into obscurity in readers’ eyes. I mean, publishing is tough and it’s tight, and it took years of work and proving myself reliable to inch my way as deeply into this field as I have; I was scared of undermining all that effort by falling down now.

My editors also ordered me to take a couple weeks off the work-in-progress, as I was clearly coming to dread and resent it. Maybe with some time away, I could come back and see the good bits and get excited about the story and characters once more. I grudgingly agreed, and spent those weeks weathering a release day, taking my time with two other books’ edits, tackling some promo, and otherwise doing the part-time-author thing in between midwife appointments and birth classes and general frenzied nesting. And watching three seasons of Law & Order in as many weeks.

In time, I forgave myself for what felt at first like a failure. I admitted that I couldn’t white-knuckle my way through the final six weeks of pregnancy, trying to finish the book. I couldn’t do it physically, and I didn’t want to do it, besides. I mean, did I really want to make myself miserable, and cast that shitty pall over the end of my pregnancy, just to avoid a six-month gap in book releases? Like there’s any chance that in ten years I’m going to look back at this coming winter and spring and think, “Oh right, that was when I let my readers down,” as opposed to, “The bumbles was so tiny back then! Jesus, time flies.”

And so this was my ultimate lesson in how truly finite the Well of Shits is, when we’re dealing with major life changes—adjusting to new relationships, jobs, or homes; leaving old ones behind. Saying hello to new humans and goodbye to dying ones. It’s not just your brain that’s budgeting and spending those shits, I’ve realized—my body has clearly decided that it is needing the bulk of my shits right now, and soon a tiny human will be claiming its share. I guess writing will have to settle for whatever shits are leftover on a given morning for the time being, and that’s just going to have to be good enough.

About Cara McKenna

Cara McKenna writes smart erotica—sexy stories with depth. Read more >
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12 Responses to The Finite Well of Shits

  1. Oh, sweetie!
    I was almost sobbing along with you there–it’s hard enough to be a writer with adult (or nearly so) children who are all capable of feeding themselves and driving themselves, and so forth–and trying to decide between dinner and Inside Out with my 17 year old (who will graduate HS and move along soon) or a much needed evening of rewriting the ending of that manuscript that’s about to go into edits…
    It’s hard stuff, that prioritizing thing! But in my experience, real life always reaches out and shoves a red hot poker far enough in to make the shits realign so that the sexy fiends in my head are attractive again and willing to be written.
    Happy Final Gestation Weeks!

    • Cara McKenna says:

      “…real life always reaches out and shoves a red hot poker far enough in to make the shits realign…” Yes, indeed! And a part of me is hoping that the boring bits of parenting an infant will do what the boring bits of my old day job did—drive me eagerly back into the fun of writing, if only as an escape from the drudgery :-)


  2. I have like 1/100,000th of your readership and my royalties are largely spent on Kir Royales, so there’s not the same pressure of writing as livelihood, but I nonetheless wanted to say AMEN MAMA.

    I had my first baby in March. This past Monday I wrote over 2,000 words in a day – by far my highest since I turned in my last contracted manuscript at the end of October. This pre-mom/new-mom thing is HARD. It’s also a once-off. My daughter will be four months old next week, my creativity is picking up, my maternity leave is dwindling, things are creeping back to normal, and I’m only just realizing the amazing singularity of this period of my life. To have so much free time, to have so few professional and social obligations, to have only one child wanting attention, to have permission to stay in bed all morning shaking a stuffed puppy at a giggling infant – it’s awesome. But it’s fleeting.

    I already regret inventing errands and forcing myself to leave the house because I was anxious about “wasting the day,” whatever that means. On Wednesday she rolled over for the first time, and I was panicked by her sudden agency. She can move on her own now, she needs me that little bit less. One day she’ll learn to walk, and eventually she’ll walk away, down her own path, led by her own choices. But today she whines whenever she can’t see me, and gives me a gummy smile, and soaks the front of her clothes in milky drool, and I’m trying so, so hard to let go and simply enjoy her.

    I’m at the other end of the tunnel you’re chugging into, and as a new-but-not-even-that-new-anymore mom, I absolve you of any guilt about laziness, idleness, missed deadlines, anything. This is a short, sweet period of life. Enjoy it – and congratulations!

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Thank you SO much for this, Rebecca—I really needed to read these words! It’s comforting to hear that things will settle back into a new, to-be-defined normal, if not the familiar normal I’m about to leave behind forever.

  3. Hi Cara,

    I’m so sorry you’re struggling. You’re so talented that I know you can get back on your writing train eventually. A good friend of mine was a super achiever in college, magna cum laude graduate in physics and then she decided to have kids. It really derailed her career…for a couple years. Then she got her mojo back and now has her PhD and her dream job in her field plus three awesome kids. I know you’ll get your mojo back too. You have a lot of mojo. When Andrew and I moved cross country last year I just let go of the writing for two months to let myself focus on the move. And that worked as well. Writing isn’t like being a pro-athlete. You won’t have to retire at 32 if you sprain an ankle. You can write until you die. You’ll be a great mom AND a great writer. I believe in you!


    • Cara McKenna says:

      Thanks, honey—that’s a great point about this being a long-haul pursuit, not just something to chase and wrestle into submission as soon as possible lest it escape forever. Sometimes it can feel that way, especially when the market and the industry can feel unrecognizable from year to year, but you’re right. The opportunities will still be there when the mojo decides it’s time to get back in the game.

  4. Katy says:

    I love your work Cara and will look forward to your work regardless when it’s published! This is such an interesting piece and I wish you all the best with the bumbles! :-)

  5. Katy Cooper says:

    What Katy said.

    There aren’t an infinite number of writers writing smart, thoughtful books, and there aren’t an infinite numbers writing books in my wheelhouse, so when I find one, I treasure her, and I will wait however long it takes for new work to come out. As in years–a few more months are as nothing.

    Your editors were wise. Live in this moment, this time, because it’s an amazing one that won’t come around again…

  6. Shireen says:

    After working three months on a piece for a competition due at the end of June, I couldn’t make it through the last stretch. The week it was due my four year-old got sick and my 11 month old was teething and clingy. I made the decision to let it go. The work is still good and it’s still usable. Am I disappointed? Fuck yeah. Do I regret my choice? Hell no. This period of parenthood is so short and Tiffany is right, this is long-haul stuff. The most valuable thing you can start doing now is to forgive yourself, because parenting is full of choices where all the answers seem pretty iffy.

    I look forward to your new work whenever it emerges.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      This sounds like great advice—to start forgiving myself now for all the times I won’t have the time or energy (or the shits) to be my best on all fronts. It reminds me of an excellent mantra that friends instilled in me during the RT Convention this year: “Be the okayest mom you can be!” Not the best, certainly NOT perfect but, rather, perfectly adequate. Great at times, totally boning things up on other occasions, with all of that averaging out to good-enough.