When the words stop making sense
Something happened to me today for the first time: I couldn't write.
Not because of writer's block - the story is there - but because the subject matter is too close to my own reality.
For me, writing is a way to make sense of the world through ordering words on a page, just as when I was a child reading was a way of making sense of things when my immediate world did not. Each world between the pages had a beginning, middle and an end. They were dependable worlds. The real world - not so much.
One of my current projects is a series about a child in foster care. I am the parent of a child who was in foster care. He is with us for the long haul now, but his years and experiences before he joined our family are there for the long haul too.
I'm writing this series because few books address the issues kids in care face, particularly for the under 10 age group. There is even less understanding of these issues in the wider community.
My protagonist is a child. The child is in a new family - not for the first time. The child believes this will not be the last family. The child has a multitude of emotions, including sadness, anger, confusion, happiness, insecurity, guilt, lack of trust, and lack of control, often all at once. The child will have ups and downs, setbacks and victories, face problems and hopefully, but not always, find solutions - just as all children do.
I want this series to be read by children in care, for those children to recognise themselves, and to know they are not alone in their experience. I also want children who are not in care to gain a better understanding of what their friends' and classmates' lives are like.
As I'm pitching at a younger age group I'm concerned about overcomplicating the material, but in reality a foster child's life is about as complicated as you can get.
I'm trying to keep the overall message positive - children in care hear enough negative messages. Just think about how many suspects in police dramas "were in and out of the foster system as a kid". It's a message those unfamiliar with what these kids have gone through take on board without a second thought: Foster kids are bad. You can't change where you come from.
I consider it a valuable project that, if published, will provide a better understanding of children in care. I hope the series will be as important to those who read it as it is to me.
But yesterday something changed.
I was halfway through a scenario, knew where the story was going, and was set to continue after the school pick-up. When I got to school I saw the teacher waiting. For me. Again. And my son, unrepentant. Again.
Our son is intelligent, energetic, caring, kind, helpful, affectionate and has a great sense of humour, but he's going through a bad patch. Up-and-down behaviour isn't unusual for kids from traumatic backgrounds - it's a way of trying to make reality fit their perception - that if they're naughty they'll move again. But this bad patch has been going on for almost three months, and has amped up in the past four weeks. Yesterday was particularly bad.
After three weeks of trying we finally got onto his doctor last night, and a change in medication will hopefully reduce his impulsive behaviour. But in those three weeks he's been banned from playing with other kids at school; threatened with suspension; his teacher is on the verge of a breakdown - as are we; and the school has pushed through a referral for outside help.
Yesterday afternoon was spent dealing with the fallout of yesterday's school day. Today I sat down to write - and just couldn't do it. The story is simultaneously too close to and too distant from my reality. I can't write about a situation with hope when today it feels hopeless.
The story is one where the community is mostly understanding, support systems are in place and everything works out in the end. Reality is that carers can be isolated and shunned due to the actions of their children, lack of support systems or response feeds a feeling of failure, and things have to hit rock bottom before any help can be obtained.
None of this is the fault of a child who is dealing with trauma; emotional, social and behavioural delays; and a raft of things he or she cannot understand.
Today I couldn't write about a parallel universe where everything was okay in the end, and if it wasn't okay in the end... That's an unthinkable option. I couldn't order the words to make sense of the world. Logically, I know everything with my son will be okay in the long run, but mentally I need a break, and my fictional escape feels more like a firing squad than lifeboat.
In a few days I'll be fine. I'll pick up the story again and re-enter that fictional world. Hopefully by then reality will make a little more sense as well.