Road Ends Ahead All Black

After my only brother died a little over three years ago, I felt like I lost my voice. My creativity with words suffered and dried up to driftwood. While I slowly picked up the pieces again and pasted them together, it was painful, it didn’t work, and I couldn’t understand why it kept falling apart. Mike McGee was gone, and it killed me that I couldn’t rewrite that ending. I couldn’t fix that world with an edit, a re-do. I couldn’t toss out that draft and find another way to tell his story, his real story, and rewrite his ending to a happily-ever-after.

My stories? They have happy endings, dammit.

However, two years later, I was able to finish and publish the novel I promised my little brother I would write. I’m even ten-thousand-words-deep into a fresh new story. If you’re going through a tragedy, I wanted to throw you a life raft, and share the ways I was able to cope and create after such a loss.

1. I had to realize what was happening.

Before Mike was even diagnosed, I’d started on a brutally dark novel about a woman who’s brother was dying. I had no idea that his story was affecting me, even in a subliminal way, prior to his diagnosis. I had no clue that art was imitating life until it was slammed in my face. During that journey, as subliminal as it was prior to his diagnosis, it was impossible for me to continue to create my happy-go-lucky, funny, slapstick, caper novels when life was falling apart around me. It wasn’t fair to me to try. (That didn’t keep me from beating myself up, of course.)


If you’re going through a dark time in your life, understand that your artwork will reflect what’s happening around you. Don’t fight that. Someone may need to hear your story in order to heal from their own.

2. I had to switch to a completely new medium.

Words. They fled. I pushed and tugged them into the rewrite of the dark story, because I’d promised him I would, but it kept falling flat.

I don’t think I could have continued writing at all if I hadn’t picked the camera back up and started taking photos again, after so many years without touching it.

Photos were my way back.


Since my language skills had washed out in the tidal wave of my grief, I was actually switching to an entirely different center of my brain to create stories that I loved. (Did you know words and images are formed in different parts of the brain? I didn’t! I was just taking pictures!) The photos gave me a way to look at the world, and edit what I saw into something akin to art.

If you’re stuck, and can’t seem to coax your mind or body into creating the way you used to, try switching formats entirely. Do you paint? Switch to poetry. Do you play music? Try a new instrument, or learn to dance. Do you write? Do something visual or physical. Even though your brain may be mired down in grief, it won’t be familiar with these new activities, and therefore won’t bring up painful memories so quickly. You may be able to trick yourself into creating something new. And allowing yourself that gift, that freedom to create in a different way is healing.

You may find yourself able to return to your previous artistic pursuits, rejuvenated. (This was true for me.) You may, instead, find you love your new skills and follow a new path. It’s all good, whichever way you go, because creating and passion? They will lead you to where you need to be.

3. I had to learn a new skill.


The more photos I took, though, the more I was aware that I wasn’t taking quality images. I was having to work so hard in post production to get them to look decent, and I knew I was creating much more work on myself by not starting off with a photo of good quality.
I downloaded a ton of classes and tutorials, learned what I could, but I needed feedback from other photographers.

This part of the process did remind me of my brother, who was a 5th degree black belt, and taught over 20,000 students in his martial arts academy.

Mike McGee

Mike believed in the constant practice of fundamentals, and not rushing to get to the next level until you’d mastered the one you were at. It’s always nice to hang a plaque on the wall, or look at a ribbon touting a win, or a promotion, but the bottom line was: could you do the tasks of that level, every time, consistently well?

It used to drive me absolutely batshit to try to practice karate with him. I didn’t want to do all of the sit-ups and push-ups and repeating the katas over and over and over and JUSTLETMEPUNCHSOMETHING. (grin) I couldn’t even understand why on earth he’d even want to do that every day, much less teach others every day to do the same basics, over and over and over.

Now? I get it. I just had to find the thing that I was passionate about. (I’m passionate about two things–the writing, and the photography, which are two different ways to tell a story.) I’m thrilled to do the basics, to learn in baby steps, to go out and shoot and repeat those baby steps over and over and improve. I can see the improvement.

The irony is, the more I’m improving on the photography side, the easier the words are coming back to me on the writing side. And I’ve found my creativity again–I have so many things I want to write, and so many photos I want to take, I’m grateful for every minute I am able to practice both.

4. I had to realize what was important.

Before I lost Mike, I thought facing the blank page was hard. I’d let people who meant well derail me from my own self-confidence. I’d let an agent, who meant well, steer me the wrong direction because she thought she knew what would sell, fast. I’d let a lot of things slip in and make me doubt what was important. I was afraid of the blank page.

After losing Mike, I know facing the blank page is easy compared to the pain.

Mike McGee 2I’m telling you now, live boldly. If your dream is to write, then write. Send it out. If it doesn’t work? Learn from it and try again. And again. And again. And however many times you need to try. Quit waiting for life to come along and give you permission. Quit caring what your peers say. Quit listening to reviews or bullies or people with opinions that you don’t respect. Learn from those you do, ignore the rest, and keep trying.

If you don’t love the writing? Do something else you love. Period. Don’t waste your life because you think you ought to be doing something because you told a few people that’s what you were going to do and now you dread it and hate it and it’s like pulling teeth to make the time to write. There’s nothing more glorious about writing than there is teaching or creating art in some other way or science or math or firefighting or being a police officer or being the best damned secretary you can be. Find your place, wherever that is, a place you love and LIVE IT, BOLDLY.

Time is the thing to be afraid of. Time is short. Mike didn’t know, that day that they told him he was going to go home in a couple of days that, in reality, he would die about ten days later. People in car wrecks each day think they’re going to have tomorrow, and then they don’t. People have heart attacks in their shower, or they’re standing and watching a race finish, and a bomb goes off.

Mike and Toni 1

You matter. Your story matters. Who you are, how you are in the world—matters. And don’t you forget it. You never know who you’ve helped. Probably someone grieving—someone like me.

Now go. Live Boldly.