The Glasgow Courier - Serving Proudly As The Voice Of Valley County Since 1913

By Jenny Siler
For The Courier 

No Such Thing as Easy Money

Montana Author Tells of Dislocation, Distractions


Courtesy of Orion Books

About five years ago something devastating happened to me. After nearly two decades as a professional author I completely lost the ability to write. This thing that had been as easy and as natural as breathing, this wonderful, magical gift which had sustained me, both financially and mentally, for my entire adult life simply up and left me, like a disgruntled boyfriend racing off in his truck in the middle of the night.

For a long time--several years, in fact--I refused to accept what had happened. I diligently kept up my strict writing schedule, sequestering myself at the library for hours every day, working on my "project." If I could only work a little harder, I told myself, if I could just tame the constant stream of distractions--the demands of motherhood and marriage and the world at large--I would be able to write again. But, not surprisingly, my constant guilt and self-criticism only made things worse.

I know there are many people who claim that writer's block doesn't really exist, that it's just an excuse for laziness or lack of talent. But having lived in that dark place for an extended period of time, I can attest to the fact that it is very real. On a good day, I might manage a single tortured paragraph over the course of a morning, only to go back and delete it in the afternoon. On a bad day, I'd struggle for four hours over a single sentence, then go to the pool and sob while swimming laps. A friend's request for a letter of recommendation sent me into a guilt-fueled spiral of futility and despair. A simple piece such as this one would have been completely out of the question. I am ashamed to admit that, in the face of such constant failure, the idea of suicide flickered at the edges of my consciousness more than once.

While I will never fully understand the reasons for my loss, the contributing factors are no mystery. Like all authors I have been deeply affected by the general demise of the publishing industry. The last project I worked on before my block set in was a doomed ghostwriting job that took up nearly two years of my time and left me feeling exhausted, drained, and abandoned by the very colleagues--agent, publisher, and editor--I had trusted to guide and sustain me through my writing life.

Beneath all of this, there was another painful factor at work: prolonged and profound grief. Several years earlier, my husband and I had made the decision to leave Montana. We moved first to Virginia, and then to Portland, Maine, where we live today. I had lived away from Montana before, but this move was different, more permanent and much, much harder to bear. Montana is not just my home but my spiritual center. I know this sounds like a cliche, but it's true, and if you are from Montana you don't need me to explain it any further. As beautiful as it is, the New England landscape will never move me the way the vast open spaces of the Rocky Mountain Front do. This time of year, when the leaves are changing in the hardwood forests here, I crave the high, empty sage desert of southwestern Montana, where we used to hunt when I was a child. I long to be deep in the Bitterroot Mountains. These are the things toward which my soul rises, the places in which I have learned to recognize the forms of God, and I have no doubt that my separation from them has had a profound impact on my artistic life.

But I am writing this, you say, so something must have happened, and you are right. Finally, a little over two years ago, circumstances offered me an unlikely lifeline. While riding my bike through our neighborhood one day, I saw a FOR RENT sign in a store window. In less than 48 hours my husband and I had made the unlikely decision to open a coffee shop. I had no illusions about what a difficult undertaking this would be. Nor did I fail to understand what it would mean for my writing. When family and friends asked I told them I would carve out time for my writing, but realistically, I knew that there would never be time. For me, writing a novel requires an intense and uninterrupted kind of focus. Once we signed the lease on the shop and started the 24/7 treadmill of business ownership, my writing career as I had known it for so long became a thing of the past. I was sad, but at the same time I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. After our doors opened I didn't even have time to think about what I had given up, much less attempt to write.

Courtesy of Jenny Siler

Author Jenny Siler (aka Alex Carr) poses at Yellowstone National Park.

Then, last fall, something marvelous happened: I got the idea to start a neighborhood newspaper. In less than a year our little shop had become a community hub. Standing behind the counter every day, I heard all the news. More and more, people came to me with questions, or when they wanted to spread the word about a community event. It seemed only natural that I should put these things on paper. Last Christmas I published my first issue of the Deering Squirrel. Since then I have covered everything from a local dance-a-thon to the controversial redevelopment of a neighborhood landmark. It's a small paper, and still in its infancy. I now have a partner, who does the hardwork of layout and design and oversees our online presence. But I am both publisher and editor. More importantly, I am also the staff writer. Yes, writer. I have come back to my old craft slowly and tentatively. A few hundred words here, perhaps a thousand if I really push it. Like someone emerging from a long fever, I do not want to press my luck by attempting too much too soon. I am keenly aware that I will never be the writer I once was, spilling words onto the page with unselfconscious abandon. But for now, at least, I can live with that, as I have learned to live in this place.

All this is not to say that I have given up the idea of Montana as my home. More than a decade since I left the state, my only phone number still starts with 406. I serve Montana teas at my shop, and every time I brew a cup of Evening in Missoula I am transported back to my mother's garden in the shadow of Mt. Sentinel. I will go back there someday. And when I finally do I will know better than to leave. But for now I am still finding my way back to another home, the home of my writing. Like Montana, it is always there, waiting patiently for my return.

Jenny Siler, who also writes under the pseudonym Alex Carr, is the author of six novels and one book of non-fiction. She grew up in Missoula.


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