With the COVID-19 pandemic raging and all the accompanying uncertainty about our future post-climate change, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a writer on a rapidly changing planet. What’s our responsibility in a time like this? What kind of stories do we need right now? Is it even possible—or desirable—for our individual creativity flourish when we’re scared for our very lives? With that in mind, I wanted to offer my thoughts on how to renegotiate your relationship with your writing during this crisis, as well as some proposals for how to navigate the changes to come.
Why It’s Hard to Write Right Now
Did you think being stuck at home, underemployed, and/or socially isolated would translate to more time spent on your writing… Only to discover, um, it didn’t? You’re not alone. While shutdowns, quarantine, and self isolation may be theoretically creating conditions that give you lots of time to write, many writers are more blocked than ever right now. Here’s why.
You’re Terrified. Even in the best of circumstances, writers under capitalism are regularly paralyzed by the fear that spending time on their writing is “unproductive” (read: non-income producing), frivolous, or even reckless. So it makes sense that it would be difficult to put time into a purely recreational creative activity given the heightened survival fears arising from these extreme circumstances.
Your Stories Suddenly Seem Irrelevant. Even if you can get yourself to sit down and write right now, crisis conditions can create an existential angst that causes you to question whether what you’re writing is still relevant, important, or helpful to others. Personally, I haven’t been able to write in days. Prior to this outbreak I was working on a darkly whimsical fairy tale about a monkey and a bear that escape from the circus. I thought it was relevant and deep—the story deals with themes of feminism, transformation, and survival under capitalism. But under the bright light of a viral pandemic, stories that once seemed deeply significant can suddenly feel like irrelevant fluff.
You Don’t Know How to Do Anything Different. Let’s face it—your pre-pandemic writing life was created to work well with your pre-pandemic life life. Now that your life has changed, you need to change your writing habits, too… But you don’t know how to do anything different. So you either freeze up and get nothing done, or try to ignore what’s happening and charge ahead like nothing has changed. Neither of these techniques work well, though. Now that your life is different, you need to do something different with your writing.
How to Keep Writing During a Pandemic
Warning: I’m not going to urge you to stay the course and push ahead with your normal writing life against all odds. I don’t think that advice is realistic, and frankly it’s not responsible, either. Creative people are the vanguards of social change. If shit is going down, it’s our job to innovate and pivot, not to cling like barnacles to the status quo.
How to Write… When You’re Scared You’re Going to Die
First thing’s first: Lower your expectations. You might need to throw all your old plans (“I’m going to finish my novel next month!”) out the window. You might not be able to write as much, or as often, or about the same things you used to. That’s okay. Be gentle with yourself. See if you can write for ten minutes a day. Use an internet blocker to give yourself a break from the constant, anxiety-producing COVID-19 updates you’ve been reading since you woke up. Turn off your phone. If you can’t make any progress on your WIP, write something else.
There’s going to be a lot of pressure from the mainstream to keep things “business-as-usual” during this time. Fuck that. You’re not a robot. Write in a journal, or on social media, or don’t write at all, really, it’s fine. Lay down and cry. Let what’s happening touch you. As a creative person, we need you to absorb and process this crisis so you can write something that gives insight into our present and creates a vision for our future. If you need to take a break, change course, or give up for a while, do it.
What to Write… When You’re Drowning in Existential Angst
If your WIP suddenly feels irrelevant to your life and the world around you, write something else! Try a new story, new characters, new themes. If you usually write fiction, try nonfiction. If you’re anxious about our future, imagine a new one. If you’re angry about losing your job, write about that. And if all you can think about is the Coronavirus, for god’s sake write about the fucking Coronavirus. Remember: Our old stories got us here. If they feel stupid now there’s a good reason. Things are changing. In order to co-create a better future we’re going to need new stories, new art, new creative work that deals with our current reality and shows us how to make a better one. Let me repeat that:
We need new stories. The lone wolf hero who conquers all odds; the hetero-normative romance that results in an isolated nuclear family unit; the super special person who alienates themselves with a droney inner monologue of me me me wah wah wah but never has their come-to-jesus moment; the capitalist success stories and pessimistic dystopias… these old, status quo, individualist narratives will no longer serve us as our environment becomes increasingly inhospitable and industrial capitalism disintegrates.
The Coronavirus is not a fluke. The world is changing, fast, and we need writers like YOU to step up their game. The stories we tell each other matter. We need writing that teaches us how to take care of each other. How to trust each other, come together, and heal the wounds of fear and distrust that this brutal, competitive economic system has left behind. Writing is a powerful medium for change and we’re in a unique position right now (lots of time on our hands, very little left to lose) to take advantage of that.
It’s not going to be easy. Toeing the line is often highly rewarded. To make matters worse, in the short run, as people are quarantined in their homes with only online interactions and books to keep them company, there will be an increased demand for mindless, comforting, status quo media—movies, TV shows, fiction, etc.—that perpetuates old ways of thinking and does nothing to hearken the change we need right now.
Some people would argue that brainless entertainment and comforting fluff has its place, too, and overall I agree with that. It’s true we need distraction, entertainment, humor, and beauty in times like these. Every piece of creative work doesn’t have to scream out an Important Message. (It’s also true that there are already lots of awesome, relevant stories being told. It’s not all shit out there.)
But if you, like me, feel the tug to create work right now that feels more significant, while at the same time struggling with the pressure to conform to the status quo, I urge you to be courageous enough not to take the bait.
How to Do Something Different… When You Don’t Know How To Do Anything Different
In times of insecurity and flux, it’s common to default to familiar behaviors and narratives. How can we do something different when we’re so freaked out? How do we discover and create stories that feel connected to our new reality… when we don’t even know what that reality is yet? How do we establish new writing habits when things are changing on a daily basis?
- Grieve your losses. We’re experiencing devastating personal, social, financial, and environmental losses on every scale right now. The ice is melting and the forests are burning, people are dying and animals are going extinct… but that novel you started last year that you were so excited about may also be dead. Take time to be sad about it, all of it. Ignoring this pain won’t make it go away. If you feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to do, cry. You might be surprised what possibilities open up once you let yourself feel it.
- Start small. Begin with today, right now. Don’t make any big, longterm plans; they’ll probably change anyway. Figure out how to make 10 minutes today to write something that speaks to you. If you can’t conceive of a novel, draft a short story. If you can’t write a short story, write a poem or a social media post. Take a look at your WIP and see what needs to change to make it feel more valuable and interesting to you right now. Read something that inspires you.
- Connect with others. Talk to other writers about how they’re handling this time, what they’re writing and thinking about. Stay close with your chosen family. We may have to physically isolate but now is not the time to be cut off from others.
- Be kind to yourself. Part of what we need to say goodbye to right now is the constant inner criticism put in our heads by a global elite who have deeply invested in our insecurity, self-hatred, and fear in order to further their selfish profit-making agendas. Like, their time is DONE, and one way to give them the proverbial fuck-you is to be super duper sweet to yourself and those around you. Shit is really scary right now. You’re doing great.
- Contact me. I’d love to know what’s going on for you during this pandemic and how I can support you and your writing. I might not be able to individually respond to every message, but the more I understand what’s going on for folks the better I can create stuff—blog posts, etc.—that helps. xo