Mercury in Retrograde

by JT Ellison



I am sitting in a bookstore.

Earth shattering news, I know.

I’m in between appointments—I had a fabulous lunch with members of Nashville’s Dutch Lunch crowd, where we feasted on salmon and death by chocolate cake and a delicious crème brûlée with a candle in it, for our fearless leader, River Jordan, let slip that it was my birthday week and our sweet waiter, Kyle from Charleston, with the Hebrew symbol for brother and the date of his birth and death (1986 – far too young) etched on the tender underside of his wrist, took care of the festivities.

We talked about how writers are so prone to see the littlest details, that crime fiction writers in particular would be excellent witnesses to call upon when a crime has been committed, because we invest in the details of people. Drink them up, like water in the desert. We talked about faces, how important it is to actually make eye contact when you need to remember specifics, rather than taking in a general picture of facial structures—cheekbones, noses, wrinkles. One of our compatriots doesn’t like extended eye contact, but I think that’s essential to being a good writer. If you look closely enough in a stranger eyes, you can see all the secrets being held back. Shame. Happiness. Misery. Abuse. Joy.

After lunch I had a haircut, and then an hour to kill before picking up the esteemed Mr. Ellison from the airport. He’s been gone all week. I’ve missed him dreadfully. I’m so happy that he’s making it back in time for my birthday, because while being alone isn’t the best thing for me, being alone during birthday week has been especially hard.

It’s crunch time on the manuscript too, that has also altered my mindset. I pulled out Stephen King’s ON WRITING on Tuesday night. It’s always a nice slap in the face when you start feeling overwhelmed. I’ve talked to my friends. I’ve talked to Randy. And my agent. Other writers. My hairdresser. Talk, talk, talk. Write, write, write.

Fiction has been my friend this week. Non-fiction hasn’t.

So it’s late Thursday afternoon, and I’m sitting in a bookstore, writing my blog at last. I’ve only bought three books, a fact of which I am quite proud. Two novels by Sarah Waters, recommended by my agent, and a book on Buddha and his teachings. Nourishing my mind and my soul.

I’ve been a truly empty well this week, focused solely on my new book, which I need to turn in at the end of May. It’s coming along, finally, but it’s been a slog. Sometimes books are. Sometimes they write themselves. I’m having so much difficulty with this one because I always thought it was going to be the end of the series. The last book. As some of you may have heard, that is not the case. Mira has extended my contract again, for another three books. I am overjoyed at this, because in this uncertain market, having job security is paramount. Randy and I are both self-employed, and eat what we kill, so the knowledge that I’ve helped to pay the mortgage is a relief.

It is a week for celebrations. New contract. Birthday. Unexplored frontiers ahead.

Yet every time I sat down to write this blog this week, out spilled the maudlin. Writers by nature are prone to melancholy, and fits of sheer mania when things are flowing and we’ve tapped into that alternate universe that is our minds, our stories. When I lamented to my therapist (read: hairdresser. It is the woman’s prerogative to tell her hairdresser things that no one, and I mean no one, know.) she, a particularly divine sage of a woman, let me know that Mercury is in retrograde, and will be until the 11th of May, hence my difficulty with upbeat, effusive speechifying. The relief was palpable. It is not my fault.

Then she cut my bangs.

Mercury. It’s a word with many meanings. Quicksilver. Planet. God.

Mercury is used in thermometers to take temperatures. Mercury is the God of messages, and sex. The planet Mercury is closest to the sun, and the smallest.

When Mercury is in retrograde, we are essentially moving backwards. Communications go awry, there is more stress and frustration. We are going against the natural order of things. Hogwash to some, but man, I can’t say I disagree. That’s exactly how I’ve been feeling all week, the very week I should be on top of the world.

The word mercurial is one of my favorites. It fits my personality so well. My writing, too. I never know what the day ahead will bring, and that’s one of the joys, and the banes, of my existence. I am a true Taurus, born smack dab in the middle of the cycle. A Wednesday’s Child as well. Not surprisingly, I don’t manage change well. And I’ve got a massive change ahead of me, one that scares me, and I think it has handicapped my good mood.

The day after I signed my deal, my editor called to let me know she was leaving.

Now y’all have heard me brag on my editor before. She is my marmalade. She makes the toast taste better. And with her abrupt departure from my life, I am encased in fear. Fear is a regular part of my existence: fear of failure, of success, of things that go bump in the night. But this is a new kind of fear. She’s been my security blanket for four years. Someone I’ve always had in my career that I know can make what I’m trying to do with my stories make sense, even when they don’t make sense to me. She gave me my career as a novelist. She’s made me a better writer.

I will miss her.

Admitting that fills me with an unbearable lightness of being. Truly. It’s hard for me to openly admit being scared of the future. I just want to keep moving forward, becoming a finer writer, not aging, and always being happy.

Tall order.

So, thanks to a scintillating lunch, a haircut, a wander through a bookstore, the knowledge that Randy is flying toward me and dear little Mercury is in retrograde, I have finally, finally, written my week’s post. And it’s not too terribly mawkish.


Tell me, ‘Rati brethren. Have you been feeling stressed lately? What have you been doing to combat it? And if you haven’t, what scares you?


Wine of the Week: I’m still on a Zinfandel kick, so let’s try a Redwood Valley Zin from Lolonis, 2005, preferably.

25 thoughts on “Mercury in Retrograde

  1. Zoë Sharp

    First of all, JT, a very Happy Birthday for tomorrow! I shall be celebrating with you, albeit a day late. Birthdays are a time for joy, but also one for restrospective moments. Accept those moments for what they are and your mood will right itself once Mercury gets its act together.

    Being without your soulmate is always stressful, and I try not to put myself through that kind of stress whenever I can avoid it ;-]

    But a little stress is good for you. It keeps the heart pumping, the brain racing, the creative juices flowing. Without it we become a race of couch potatoes with our eyes glued to the haunted fishtank in the corner of the room and pureed junk food fed intravenously into our clogged veins.

    Just as, a little fear in writing is good for us, too. It keeps us working to improve our craft, polishing that prose and working harder to avoid the silly mistakes that sometimes plague us, and make our books harder to put down.

    Congrats on the new deal, JT, and how you could ever have thought they’d let you stop writing about Taylor after the last book, without demanding more, more, MORE, is beyond me ;-]

  2. Zoë Sharp

    OK, so I’ve just read that back and realised that it sounds like I meant it’s the mistakes that make our books harder to put down. Nope, although if you read one with a load of howlers it can often exert a certain mesmoronic fascination.

    I just meant a little fear is what keeps us striving to make our books harder to put down.

    OK, I’ll shut up now…

  3. PK the Bookeemonster

    Right now the wind is blowing from 36 to 47 mph. I like dark, rainy days but windy days make me anxious and tetchy. But it’s Friday.
    Happy Annual Event, JT!

  4. billie

    Happy birthday, JT! I know you’ll celebrate well.

    I think it is a stressful time in general. My stress this week is dental exam. Due to one stubborn issue with a couple of teeth that aren’t getting worse but aren’t getting better, I now have an appt. with a periodontist for late June, and am mortified about it.

    Meanwhile my homeopath has given me instructions to buy and eat a very specific and specially processed chocolate daily between now and then, packing my cheeks with it before I get into bed at night and letting it dissolve slowly in my mouth.

    And a few days before the perio appt. I’m supposed to go back to my dental hygienist and let her check the offending teeth.

    The funny thing is that the day before the dental exam I was feeling like this chocolate was hideously expensive. The day after, with perio referral in hand, it seems like the deal of the century. We will see if it works. It seems like something out of a fairy tale. Stressed out woman sent to bed with chocolate!

    On a bigger and more important front the son of a friend was found unconscious three days ago, after a major drug overdose and having been brutally beaten. He’s in intensive care, with many serious medical issues, and a group of mamas including me who have known him since he was a toddler (and most of us have similarly-aged children, teens now) are doing a nightly candle-lighting healing energy ritual. I believe it helps him but clearly it gives us all something to do as we wait for the next update.

    Someone wrote yesterday on a FB page that getting teenagers into adulthood these days is like getting baby turtles to the sea. I can’t get that out of my head, as I have 13 and 15-year olds.

    All this that we’re writing here today is why we so desperately need books and stories! Keep writing, everyone. There are never too many books, imo.

  5. Kaye Barley

    Sweetie! Happy Birthday! Happy Book Deal!
    I’m just guessing, but perhaps having Randy home will kick the hell out of wherever Mercury is and we can get you back on top of the world.
    I’m familiar with feeling scared, but hate that you’re feeling that way right now, and hope you are blessed with a new editor who loves you and who you love back.
    When I was younger I don’t remember being scared of anything and looking back I think it was because I truly didn’t have much sense.
    Now? I find I’m scared of a lot of things a lot of the time and I miss being senseless. But. I’m still pretty tough and have found I’m pretty lucky in that things just seem to work out.

  6. Chuck

    Happy Birthday JT! Wow…I think I enjoyed today’s blog more than any of your others. You’re simultaneously skimming the peaks and the valleys, like a pilot flying nape of the earth. The great news about the new contract (YAY!)–the sadness over your editor leaving. Heavy stuff, good and bad.

    But in the end, the writing comes from you. No matter the editor, the agent, the contract, the setting…the writing is yours.

    Keep feeding us.

  7. JD Rhoades

    First off, and once again: HAPPY BIRTHDAY! And congrats on the new contract! Very cool.

    But I have to add a caveat to this:

    that crime fiction writers in particular would be excellent witnesses to call upon when a crime has been committed, because we invest in the details of people.

    True to an extent…except for those times when we’re so tuned in to the voices in our heads that we’re lucky if we don’t bump into the walls. At least that’s how it works for me. If I’m in full-on writer mode, I’d make a terrible witness: "Yes, I saw the Defendant, he was carrying a Heckler and Koch MP7A1 submachine gun…no wait, that’s in the book…"

    Stress? Oh yeah. Just a little….

  8. pari noskin taichert

    Happy, happy late birthday. I hope this new year brings you so much happiness you’ll almost be overwhelmed with it.

    And how wonderful that Taylor is going to be with us for three more books.

    As to Mercury in retrograde . . .
    We all have our belief systems, our personal myths. Whatever keeps us centered and prevents us from becoming dangerous is probably good. <g>

    I have one career fear and it’s a doozy; sometimes I think that my first three books are it. That they were my chance and now I’m doomed to be unknown, unread, un-newly published. I deal with it by writing . . . writing more.

  9. Tammy Cravit

    First of all, Happy birthday, JT! May the worst of the coming year be better than the best of the year that’s just passed.

    I think this is a time of stress for a lot of people, but I think we live in a culture where stress has become a natural part of daily life. We lament it, we pay money for workshops that purport to teach us to alleviate it, and then what happens? Boom! We make a decision to step up our career, or step up our family, or step up our personal lives, in ways that will inevitably add to our stress level. Too many people I know seem to feel a perverse need to live their lives right at that razor’s edge of what they’re capable of coping with.

    So, what’s a person to do? For me, I just take a deep breath and remind myself of something Amelia Earhart once said: "Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace." If I’m really stressed, I might pull out the DVD and watch Meet the Robinsons, whose catch-phrase ("keep moving forward!") and the lessons attached thereto are something of mantras in our house. I might call a friend for some moral support. And then, I’ll take a deep breath, remind myself that I’ve survived far worse than anything that’s on my plate now, and keep moving forward.

    And if things get REALLY bad? "Sky is falling" bad? "Oh my god I can’t breathe" bad?

    Well, that’s why God invented cheesecake.

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Let’s see…have I been feeling stress lately…hmmm….at least now I know why. It’s Mercury’s fault.
    Happy Birthday, dear JT. I’m glad your man is back in time to celebrate with you. And a HUGE congratulations on your new book deal!

  11. JT Ellison

    Zoë, that’s it exactly. I’ve felt like I’m not complete, sheared in two, all week. But he’s home, and today’s my birthday, and all is well in the world. Maybe I just needed the catharsis of getting all this off my chest? You’re so right though, introspection is necessary. How else can we take stock of where we are in our lives? And the editorial change is a shake up I probably needed-I was getting too comfortable. ; )

    PK,thank you! It’s windy here too. Big storms coming in over the weekend. Makes me tetchy too – and bonus points for the best word of the day! Hmm… the wind of change is blowing…

    Dear Billie – the periodontist, ugh! But it will all be okay. I love the chocolate remedy. That’s fascinating. I’m so sorry about your friend’s boy, I’m sending good vibes there right now. xo

  12. JT Ellison

    Kaye, your irrepressible spirit sets things to rights, I’ll wager. I think you’re right about Randy being home, I’m feeling better already. Thank you for the good wishes on both getting older and getting more books!!!

    Chuck, sage advice, my friend. It is mine, and I’ve got Linda in my head now, so I’m not making as many dumb errors as I was before. Your comment wins the poetic prize today though – beautiful imagery there. Thank you for the wishes!

    Dusty, you totally cracked me up. I am definitely a bumping into walls kind of girl lately. Literally. I have a bruise on my arm from wandering into the kitchen for tea the other day and managing to slam right into the doorjamb because I was looking out into the backyard through the slats in the blinds and thinking about how to describe that exact shade of green. Duh! And thank you!

  13. Judy Wirzberger

    Oh so much in that blog (packed with contemplations just like your books)
    Congratulations to you on attaining another year of wisdom.
    Sympathy to you on losing your editor. Wonder why the universe has done that to you? Is your editor going into private editing or another publisher?
    Congratulations to me for being able to look forward to more Taylor Jackson- oooh Memphis was evil!! Cold Room was cold -meaning it gave me delightful shivers,
    Sympathy to the various animals and vegetables you will be able to afford to consume.
    Congratulations on the bank that holds your mortgage.

  14. JT Ellison

    Louise, my currents are tied to yours. I have no right to these feelings, but my sorrow over Bruce’s death has defined me for the past few weeks. In different ways than you, of course, but it’s affected me more than I can explain.

    Pari, darling, your first three are not "it", they are just the beginning. You have such a spark, such life, and I know your writing shows that. It will happen. Markets are cyclical. So many writers are in your same position, but I bet in a year or less, you’ll be right back in the mix. And you aren’t late, you’re right on time!!! Today’s the big day. So thank you!

    "That’s why God invented cheesecake…" Oh Tammy, isn’t that the truth??? I adore the Earhart quote, thank you!

    Stephen honey, you know that all my good wishes are blowing the winds of fortune your way. Thank you!!!

  15. JT Ellison

    Judy, love it. We so rarely give true thanks for the plants and animals that make it possible to function through out the day – perfect! My editor is actually leaving publishing entirely and moving overseas. Thank goodness for Facebook!

  16. Chris Hamilton

    Happy birthday and congratulations. Hope you get over the melancholies and get a chance to also enjoy your success, too.

    Not sure it matters much to you self-employed types, but it’s also Friday, so you got that goin for you.

    Which is nice.

  17. Barbie

    Awww, I don’t know you, but I can feel the stress emanating off the screen and just want to give you a hug **hug** 🙂

    Happy Birthday, too.

    I’m chronically stressed. Believe me, if there’s nothing to stress about, I will find something, be it the end of the world in 2012, all the possible illnesses I might have because I’ve been having so many migraines lately, and oh, of course, my future. That always work. When I’m looking for something to stress about, all I have to think about is the future and what I’m going to do with my life and all of that… works every time! 🙂

    Hope you feel better soon.

  18. Nancy Laughlin

    Happy birthday, JT. I’m glad your husband made it home in time to celebrate with you.
    Sorry you’re losing your editor; I hope you gain a terrific, new friend in the replacement, one who helps you gain new heights.


  19. mary lynn

    Oh, HAPPY BIRTHDAY and happy return of the soul mate.

    It has been a weird week, whether caused by the winds, the miasma or the moon. My debit card was hacked and my bank account plundered just as I’m trying to rent oxygen for a cross country plane trip. The State of California saw fit to give our income tax refund to a community college, ostensibly for tuition from 2003 that we can’t possibly owe. The coup de gras came yesterday with a diagnosis of liver cancer in a very close friend.

    I think i’m going to find an old pic of Alfred E. Neuman and paste it on the bathroom mirror. You know the one that says, "What, me worry"

  20. Tammy Cravit

    Reading the subsequent comments to mine, I am reminded strongly of this classic Far Side cartoon.

    I have a friend who works at a rape crisis center, and she has that cartoon up on her wall. Somewhat ironically, she says she draws encouragement from it, because "the building hasn’t gone over the falls yet".

  21. BCB

    Happy Birthday, JT! And congratulations on the book deal, that’s terrific news! Hope you’re out celebrating with Randy and not reading blog comments. Take some time to commune with nature or friends or chocolate, or to kill intruder bugs, or to do whatever pulls you out of the mundane cycle of worry. Refill the well.

    A new editor is a good thing, says she who has never had an editor. Think of it as one more person who will appreciate what a wonderful writer (and re-writer) you are.

    I blame the planets for stuff all the time. And the stars. Especially those that have gathered themselves into actual constellations. Scheming bastards. I find it quite telling that not one of them ever denies culpability.

  22. A Reader

    Gary Larson is genius. Bueno….muy bueno, Tammy. The cartoon is real, haunting, and perfect.

  23. JT Ellison

    BCB hit me, I’ve been away celebrating instead on interneting. Thanks for all the comments, folks, the bday wishes and congrats. Means the world!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *