This Is Personal

I’m sitting in a coffee bar on G street. I’m not a coffee bar writer, or at least not especially a coffee bar writer. Truth is, I could always write any old place, and I often did: a doctor’s waiting room, a park bench, the front seat of a my (parked) car. Even at home. It didn’t matter. I always carried a crummy spiral bound notebook and a couple of ballpoints with me. I wrote six novels and a memoir using that method.

Things have changed. In truth, I’ve had to seriously consider whether I’m even a writer anymore, whether that’s really an accurate way of identifying myself. Not to others — I’ve rarely ever called myself a writer — but to myself. Is that still a defining part of my identity?

I’m not normally one for a lot of existential soul searching, and certainly not one for doing this kind of thing in public. It doesn’t interest me very much, and I’m damned sure it wouldn’t interest anyone else. But I’ve been pretty scarce around these boards lately. I’ve been a poor member of this community for the last year or so, and I think it’s time I explained what’s been going on, about what led me to this grim precipice.

And no, I’m not going to jump. The time for desperate measures has passed.

About a year and a half ago, my son was arrested. He had just turned 18. It was a violent crime. Mercifully, no one was hurt, but they could have been. People could have died, and he would’ve been at least partly to blame.

He sat in the local jail for almost a year waiting for trial. I visited him twice a week (which was about all that he was allowed). He called several more times a week. We didn’t talk about his crime very much. Everything you say on a jail phone is recorded; everything you write is copied and kept: it can all be used against you. He didn’t see his lawyers (he had three at various times, all public defenders) often, but the one thing they were adamant about was that he shouldn’t be talking about his crime. So we didn’t. It was okay. At first, of course, my curiosity was eating me up, but I understood the need NOT to talk about it, and after a while, I almost stopped caring, hard as that may be to believe. I’m still curious about what happened that night, but I don’t need to know anymore. I have assumed the worst. I’ve stared into that particular horror, and the truth is, I still love my son. I still hope and believe that when he finally gets out, he can still have a decent life ahead of him. I don’t think he is evil. I think he made a lot of stupid decisions, at an age when most people make stupid decisions. His were worse than most…

But I’m getting off the topic. About six months ago, he took a plea deal. His lawyer, incidentally, believed his story, but his partner-in-crime, his co-perpetrator, put all the blame on my son, and the lawyer said going to trial was risky. If the jury found against him, he could’ve gotten a life sentence. So he took a deal. It was a lousy deal. In truth, I think he got rooked by the DA’s office (who seemed to be highly motivated to show how tough she was on middle class criminals in our crime ridden city) but that’s off topic as well. He’s still responsible for his actions, and he’s the first to admit it. To his credit, he’s never tried to shuffle off blame or complained about the apparent unfairness. He wants to pay for his crime. And pay he will. There are still factors that could change his eventual sentence, but the most likely scenario is that he will spend about ten years in a state penitentiary.

That’s where he is now. We haven’t been able to visit him yet (there is a whole process of getting permission which is time consuming and bureaucratically convoluted). He has called once, but apparently gets few opportunities to use the phone. Even letters are infrequent and unpredictable, for various reasons. But he says he is okay for now.

Ten years to go.

I’ve never been a conscientious writer. There have been times when I have dutifully managed to produce a daily word count, but that hasn’t been the norm. I’ve had fallow periods before, but nothing quite like what I’ve experienced in the last 18 months. It’s hard not to blame it on my kid the criminal, my son the jail bird, my child the prison inmate. We’ve found out things about his life before the crime that we certainly never wanted to know, and that no parent should ever have to know, but all too many of us must. It has made me question almost everything. It certainly shifted the stupid novel I was working on to the back burner. Hell! Back burner? The whole stove was off. I wasn’t even going into that mental kitchen anymore.

Really, I blame him for a lot of things, but I can’t blame him for my writerly crisis of faith. Writing is a choice and a discipline. You can’t blame anybody but yourself, and really, you shouldn’t blame anyone. Not writing is also a valid choice, just a sad one — for the writer anyway. As far as readers go, well, there are plenty of other books to read. The world will get along just fine if I never write another word.

So this is really about me. And — spoiler alert — no, I haven’t given up. I haven’t jumped into that particular abyss of self. For the last couple of months, I’ve been making this daily pilgrimage to this charming, noisy, college town coffee shop. I have my laptop. I have my notebooks, in which are scrawled the words I wrote — some almost two years ago — the very rough draft of a novel that, it turns out, is probably nearly 500 pages long. I sit, drink a dark roast, and spend an hour, maybe two, unearthing this erstwhile corpse. It isn’t bad. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it when I finish it. I suppose I’ll self-publish it (I am so past the whole find-a-publisher part of the process, though I imagine I probably could. I’ve done it before.)

But that’s another topic, and for right now, it isn’t the important part. I need to finish this book. I need to do this every day. After all, I have other books to write.


20 thoughts on “This Is Personal

  1. GD Deckard says:

    About your writing, you make three points, Atthys:

    “Truth is, I could always write any old place, and I often did….”
    “About a year and a half ago, my son was arrested.”
    “It certainly shifted the stupid novel I was working on to the back burner.”

    I need to finish this book. I need to do this every day. After all, I have other books to write.

    I’m left with the certainty that you are a writer and the feeling that you will always be. Welcome back, my friend.

    Liked by 5 people

    • atthysgage says:

      That seems the inevitable conclusion. I’ve had to give up on the idea that I’m really doing it for anyone else but me, and I still find that irksome, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with writing. Plenty of writers, great ones, have gone to their graves as obscurities. It didn’t stop them from writing. I’m not presenting that as a comfort, only a reality. Anyway, it’s nice to hang out with you good folk in the meantime.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. ‘Lo there, Atthys! Brave of you to share this publicly. Please know that there is much here that will be of interest to others.

    We’ve spoken at length privately on this matter so I won’t betray any confidences now. But as to this question of whether or not you are still a writer when crisis strikes and you lose all enthusiasm for the work, well . . . I think the answer is both yes and no.

    Let me unpack that seemingly wishy-washy, contradictory statement. Yes, you are still a writer–after all, your consciousness is still yours (barring cognitive decline or sudden catastrophic destruction, eh?), therefore I’m certain you still process external and internal stimuli in storied writerly [sic] fashion. But also: no, technically you are not a writer if you aren’t writing. Writing is a practice; not a title. (“Author” is a title; a “writer” is someone who writes. Simple as that–full stop.)

    But is this really the question? Most writers can’t write in crisis; I know that I cannot. Many professional authors cannot. I confess that I question the decency and humanity of anyone who can. (“The house burned down and the dog disappeared along with my wife and children but I’ve another 5,000 words to set down today on the sixth volume of my high-fantasy opus. . . .”)

    I wouldn’t worry over-much about this fallow period. Consciously or subconsciously I’m certain your mind is storing up impressions that will be of writerly [sic] use to you down the line. Or perhaps not. It isn’t important.

    Life is important. People are important. All art–howsoever grand, glorious, moving–is secondary to the dignity and worth of the individual.

    I am concerned for the man. I cherish the man. I care about the man.

    Please do not beat yourself up for failing to adhere to some self-imposed minimum-daily-words-produced quota. Priorities. Art must serve life, not the other way around. And when life demands our full attention, we must give it.

    There will be time enough to write later, if that is what you wish to do. In fact, I daresay that the longer you refrain from writing the stronger and more intense the impetus to return to the work will be. Truth told, I think your blog post today is evidence of this very principle at work in your consciousness.

    In the meantime, please take the time you need to do the things you must.

    Old friend–respected colleague–sometime mentor and best critic–the question of whether or not you will return to sustained, focused bouts of fictioneering at some future date is irrelevant. The warmth, intelligence, wit, kindness and bone-deep decency of the man standing before us today is what ultimately counts. And that is not–was never–will never be–in doubt.


    Liked by 6 people

  3. atthysgage says:

    You, as usual, say it best. If one is a writer, one writes—and I wasn’t. I didn’t even care that much that I wasn’t. And it wasn’t just the continuing tumult of my son’s crime and incarceration. Even as that tumult resolved, I just kind of discovered that I wasn’t writing anymore. I had mislaid the magic talisman, the odd combination of psychic urges and impulses that allowed writing to take place. And I didn’t even feel like looking for it.

    I have the suspicion that all true crises of faith are ongoing. I never had the grace of simply believing in anything. Dubiousness is my natural state. I can doubt almost anything. Doubting ourselves is always the hardest, I think (but it’s damned important that we do.) But you keep going on regardless, because the alternative is worse. So I will keep doubting, but I have the feeling that I will also keep writing. I may not be successful, I may not even be good, but I’m a better me when I write. It keeps me grasping for something.

    Thanks for all the kind words.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. mimispeike says:

    “Writing is a choice and a discipline.”

    I would go further than that. I think that, for most of us, writing is a need. We have something to say, it comes out in words on paper, for me at least, because I am so much of an introvert.

    I think you will find a way forward with your writing. In the midst of tough times in my own life, I clung to Sly (and other pieces) to keep me afloat. It was the pleasure I had in telling their stories that pulled me through some terrible stretches. I hope you get to this point yourself.

    Liked by 6 people

  5. Re: “. . . I’m a better me when I write.” Well said! As am I. As are all who practice the craft with respect for truth and discerned wisdom.

    Also: “I have the suspicion that all true crises of faith are ongoing.” True. How gruesomely, toothsomely [sic], ruefully true!

    Liked by 5 people

  6. mimispeike says:

    I do believe that writing is cathartic, and it doesn’t have to involve serious introspection. A wise-ass cat has eased my state of mind, giving me things to chuckle over when I had not much to smile about.

    Liked by 4 people

    • atthysgage says:

      Thanks, Mimi. I know you are right. To be honest, I’ve always been fine without too much serious introspection in my life, which all too often just turns into a muddy narcisisitc pool, which is pretty much useless except as a place to wallow. I much prefer working out my own personal dramas through the masked dance of fiction. It’s more productive, and involves, I suspect, less self-deception.

      Liked by 5 people

  7. victoracquista says:

    I am cautious in responding as I am still new to this group. Perhaps that perspective is useful. Firstly, I think it takes a certain courage and honesty to share what you have shared and I feel privileged to be among those you have shared with.

    It seems to me that who we are and what we do can be in varying degrees of synergistic alignment or not. An apple tree produces apples. Fundamentally, it cannot produce oranges as this is not in accord with what it is. You cannot separate the ‘what an apple tree is’ from ‘what an apple tree does’–complete concordance. Yet, the tree does not produce apples in the winter. For every time and every season there is a purpose. An apple tree does not cease being that during the winter.

    I would submit that it is a simplification to think in terms of being or doing a singular thing such as writing. We are all complex multifaceted unique individuals. You are also a parent and undoubtedly a host of other defining labels that go into some ego identity. If writing is at the core of who you are, when you are not writing you are not somehow less of a writer. I am a doctor, a healer, and while I no longer take care of patients or practice medicine, those labels are still part of me, my ego identity that in some ways characterize who I am and what I do. When an apple tree stops producing apples because it is no longer fertile, it does not cease to be an apple tree. I am also a writer. It’s a part of me, who I am, and what I do.

    When the realities of life intervene, priorities can shift, but who we are and what we do at the core of our being does not. I think in terms of head, heart, and hands. The hands are the action part and do pretty much what either the head or the heart tells them to do. I can’t help but point out that the apple tree does not have a head. The head tends to get in the way. When we operate from the heart, we can sometimes get the monkey-mind to step aside and operate aligned in purpose and being.

    Just a philosophical opinion (cautiously given) from a person who is very introspective–let your heart space be in the driver’s seat with the head as passenger and hands as the car. The alignment of heart, head, and hands is a place of authenticity where we act and behave in ways that embody who we are. If you are a writer, write from this vantage point. A clarion bell of truth will sound.

    Writing involves sharing something of yourself as you aptly did in your post. I think it is powerful. It strikes me as very authentic. I submit, it is who you are is doing what you do.

    Liked by 5 people

    • atthysgage says:

      Thank you, Victor. I do not think you need to worry about being cautious, but I respect and appreciate your caution nonetheless. It took a long time for me to talk to even so small a public as this about what happened. This is, of course, not the customary forum for such revelations, but some part of me wanted to do it. I don’t kow whether “writer” is a crucial part of my identity, but I know that I want it to be. I feel like I am at my most worthwhile and most authentic when I am trying to render a good story (I hope) into original, powerful (ditto) prose. I’m fairly certain all of you understand that feeling.

      And that’s why I’m sharing this here.

      Liked by 5 people

      • GD Deckard says:

        I feel like I am at my most worthwhile and most authentic when I am trying to render a good story into original, powerful prose.
        – Atthys Gage

        Yep, we share that feeling. Well put, Atthys.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. Nothing much I can add, I’m afraid, to the fine responses to a post which has the power of something deeply personal but also speaks to all of us who write.
    “Not writing is also a valid choice, just a sad one — for the writer anyway.” I recently read a post by a writer who said she was stopping because she’d written eight books and was still selling hardly any. As you say, that’s a valid choice too, and from a financial point of view, probably very rational. Maybe I’ll make that choice too one day, but I wrote my first (crappy) novel 35 years ago, haven’t stopped since, and can’t imagine a day when I will. During that time, events in my personal life (though none as upsetting as what you describe) have had more or less adverse effects on my productivity, even at times my desire to write, but always that desire has reasserted itself. As it does at the end of your post. It’s a need to write which led to that book and now it’s a need to finish that book. And I know when it’s finished it’ll be a damn fine book. But that’s almost irrelevant. You don’t write to hear people tell you you’ve written a good book. You write because the book is an essential part of you and not to write it would be to ignore that part. And I think that must be very difficult. Bon courage, Atthys.

    Liked by 6 people

  9. Perry Palin says:


    Sad to hear about your son. I can see how this situation stopped your writing. I’ve had reverses in the family that have done the same. I don’t write when I’m worrying about one of the kids, but interestingly (to me, anyway) when I experienced a reverse myself (job loss, for example), I write more and (I think) better.

    You’re writing again, and you’re writing about writing, and that’s a good thing for a writer.

    Your post made me think about my own sad case. We’ve had four deaths recently in the extended family. Nothing unexpected, the youngest was 87 years old, but why all at the same time? One of these, an uncle, made me the executor of his estate, and that work is keeping me occupied and not writing. And then the old farm tractor suffered a breakdown, and I (no mechanic for sure) repaired it myself, which made me falsely proud for a while and not writing. But I’ll get back to writing because it’s something that I do, just as writing is what you do and a part of who you are.

    Thanks for the post. We accept what we can’t change, and push forward.

    Liked by 6 people

  10. Atthey,

    I so admire you for your willingness to honestly and openly discuss a family issue that most people would prefer to hide under the carpet. I haven’t had the opportunity to suffer like your family has but I have my own small demons that came from incidents in Iraq in 2003. For years after, I kept them locked up tight and held them close for stupid reasons. Eventually, they threatened to destroy my personal life and blow up my family. After openly talking about it with my wife and later with friends who were there with me. I realized that just being able to verbalize them gave me power over them. Almost fifteen years later, they still hang out with me and while they may never leave. I control them more often than the other way around.

    My point is that it is really hard to talk about things like you addressed.Even though it isnt your fault, it still is hard. I appreciate you and I send you and your family all the best wishes and thoughts through the ether. I hope that your son’s situation is resolved in a miraculous way and I hope that moving forward that he is able to take the hard life lessons and rebound to become the man who is a positive and vibrant spirit in the world.

    About your writing, I am a big believer in the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs psychological theory. The bottom of the pyramid is psychological needs. The top is self-actualization needs. As writers, we live in the self-actualization area most of the time. My question to you is how can you expect to create magnificent works of words when you are shackled mentally in your very legitimate psychological needs and worries? I think you are asking the impossible of yourself and I think it is okay if you cut yourself a little break from the guilt of not creating words.

    As a new member of this group, I should only speak for myself but I am going to be bold and speak for everyone. I will take your one day a year as proof of a full membership and I will rejoice if I get more of you.


    Liked by 4 people

    • Rob. Thank you for the kindness. You are quite right, of course, and we all have demons that will never leave us. (I only realized recently that the book I’m working on relates very closely to this unpleasant theme.) Maybe if we didn’t work so hard to bury them and ignore them, they wouldn’t hold so much sway over us, but that’s above my pay grade.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Two thoughts, same result.

        #1. I think your writing is falling into resolving the psychological needs. That is a good thing and that is the big reason I started writing. This is very good. Get the thoughts out of your mind and on paper. Think of it like a mental purge. Puke all the toxins out.

        #2. Or maybe we should go Austin Powers on our issues.

        “Who does number 2 work for?”

        “That’s right buddy. You tell that turd who is in charge!”

        Hope you smiled.


        Liked by 3 people

  11. I returned, after a lengthy absence, to explore GD’s half idea. Within hours, Carl challenged both you and me (no guilt, no pressure) to comment on the previous post. (His flattery — which I took as greasing the wheels that might move us in that direction — made me laugh, but was unnecessary, and in truth, hyperbolic. But 10 points to Gryffindor for the effort! Or are you a Hufflepuff, Carl?)

    Anyway, I went back to read the referenced post and found it was a response to a post even further back. Having seen nothing from you in between, I kept going and found this.

    I will eventually return to Victor and Carl’s interaction. But first, this.

    “I only realized recently that the book I’m working on relates very closely to this unpleasant theme.”

    The question of whether or not you are a writer even if you are not writing, has been examined and settled quite decisively by everyone who commented before I got here. If I have anything of value to offer, it springs from wells I have not yet fully tapped, and I have two suggestions you may, of course, follow or ignore, as seems fitting to you.

    First, “this unpleasant theme” may cause all of you unpleasant dreams for years to come. Your son is likely to emerge from his imprisonment with a self-image you won’t recognize, and a hard road before him to regain a sense of self-worth after being depersonalized and degraded by those whose only job is to maintain order. I suspect he will be fortunate if that’s the worst harm that befalls him. That you find yourself writing about this theme without making a conscious choice to do so makes me think you’ve discovered a new well of understanding that springs from authenticity and truth. Don’t shy away from it. Bleed on the paper.

    Second, some recommended reading for your son (you also, but especially your son): Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. My understanding is that the prison will probably accept it only if it comes directly from Amazon, which isn’t difficult to make happen. It’s 900 pages of truth and beauty written from the soul. I’ve read it twice, and if I were allowed to recommend only one book during my entire life, it would be Shantaram.

    Thank you for trusting us with this part of your life. I admire your straightforward, restrained telling, and the objective way you apportion the blame you feel. I can’t tell if your feelings of blame are angry, but I could certainly understand if there are many things around and about this event that make you angry. Perhaps that will show in the words your blood stains the paper with.

    Liked by 2 people

    • atthysgage says:

      Susan. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful response to this post. I am sorry it took me so long to notice it! I must have missed it’s initial posting somehow. Thanks also for the book recommendation for my son. I’ll look into it. We have sent him books through Amazon. He’s not a big reader, but more so now since incarceration. He’s got a lot of time on his hands.

      Cheers. Thanks again.

      Liked by 2 people

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