Writing in Difficult Times

Writing in Difficult Times

When real life intrudes on your writing life

May 21, 2020

During this month of exploring the topic of world building, it seems appropriate to talk about the worldbuilding we've all been doing in real life during this pandemic. Just as when we're writing a story, we have questions to ask about what we're going to do in this world that is unlike the one we always considered "real." Do we run to the grocery or place an order for delivery? Do we wear a make-shift mask or dash bare faced into the world? What do we do about all the appointments we'd expected to have? Are they online now? Cancelled? Rescheduled? And when could they be rescheduled to? How do we stay connected to friends and family? We are, in a very real way, worldbuilding right now, and it's a very uncomfortable process.

On Pause
My daughter recently complained that she's struggling to write poetry right now. "I'm a little depressed," she said. "But it's not the kind of depressed that inspires poetry." She's not the only one struggling to write these days, and some writers are surprised by that. Those who suddenly have time off work or those whose public speaking engagements have been cancelled expected to get more writing done during this unexpected and unwanted “spring break,” but instead are finding it difficult to write at all.

The reality is that we're all under stress. Even those who aren't completely immersed in the news are feeling at least a little of the uncertainty of the times. And that is translating into a huge case of writer's block. And it doesn't feel like the writer's block of the past. Instead, it's as if we're all holding our collective breaths, simply waiting. We're stuck on pause and not sure when life will move smoothly again. And even worse, we're not sure what that moving life will look like. All this uncertainty is proving taxing on creative energy.

It's Okay if You Can't Write Right Now

It doesn't mean you're squandering this time. It doesn't mean you aren't a writer. It simply means you're struggling. In that, you are far from alone. So the number one thing you need to do for yourself right now is be kind. If you struggle to write, it isn't because you're not a writer. It isn't because you're not cut out to make it in a creative endeavor. It doesn’t mean you’re unprofessional. It's simply because we're in a unique time, under unique pressures, and we're all struggling to find our footing. So don't give in to excessive self-criticism. You're not alone in the struggle.

Celebrate Tiny Steps
If your productivity isn't what you'd hoped for, but you're managing to produce any creative work at all, then give yourself a pat on the back. You've managed something many people cannot. Tiny steps are still steps. You may reach the goal more slowly than you expected, but if you make enough tiny steps, you still arrive. So don't let your expectations make you blind to what you are managing to accomplish.

Try Something New
Sometimes when we cannot seem to manage to create in our normal form––working on our novel in progress, writing a new picture book, or crafting a solid essay, for example––we might find success by doing something completely different. As a huge Monty Python fan, I used to love the transitions they'd do where someone announces: "Now for something completely different." They didn't bother explaining why they were going to dash off in a new direction, they just did it. There's a fresh energy in trying something completely different and some people have found it gives them access to their creative self even if in this difficult time.

The "something" might be a totally different form of writing. One of my writing friends who is an accomplished nonfiction writer for magazines has been writing poetry. She doesn't intend the poetry for publication. She's just doing it. And it's not only given her a chance to reconnect with the creative part of herself that's been hunkered down and stressed out during this trying time, it's given my friend real joy.

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The "something" you try might not be writing at all. I know someone who pulled out the construction paper and just started folding and gluing and making stuff. She didn't do it because she hoped to make money from it. She did it because it was something new to try. And the results were charming and cheerful. There is a joy in creative work that some of us are missing badly right now, so if you can make an end run around this creative inertia, the results may help you in ways you never expected.

Ultimately, there's no one answer that is going to help everyone who is struggling right now. This is a time where there are still many questions without answers. We cannot see the future but many of us suspect it isn't going to be much like we expected, not the immediate future anyway.

So resist the urge to judge yourself harshly for however you're handling these days. Give yourself credit for any small, positive steps. And give yourself permission to try something new, even if it seems silly and pointless. The relief you find may surprise you.

Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.

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Brenda C. Grimoldi
June 11, 2020

It truly helps to read this because I have been through a roller coaster of lack of inspiration and uncertainty with this whole pandemic. As a third grade teacher, I had to adapt to a new way of teaching (distanced learning) and in the midst of this whole situation I had a hard time getting motivated to sit down and write my assignment for the institute. More often than not, I find myself reading articles about the current social issues, which have been overwhelmingly a lot! I have also realized that my writing is more geared to a young adult to adult audience rather than children, so it has all been a learning curve overall. I do enjoy writing poetry but I haven't even gotten around to writing new pieces lately...

Jan Fields
May 25, 2020

Hi Holly. Good for you on taking that step. And it's always smart to let your instructor know when you're dealing with stuff -- even when it's the stuff we're all facing. Thanks for this uplifting response.

Jan Fields
May 25, 2020

Lorraine -- I agree, reading is always a good use of a writer's time.

Lorraine Jericevic
May 22, 2020

I find the best thing to do, and it is something I always did in times of a block - is to read a book. How wonderful to have this opportunity. I always find it inspires me to get back to writing. And even if it doesn't then it is supporting another writer. And I tell myself that I am not being lazy, it is part of my work. Happy reading.

Jan Fields
May 21, 2020

I'm glad it helped, Ev. We all need to stick together through this.

Holly Bartlett
May 21, 2020

Thanks for this! I actually submitted an assignment today with a letter saying, I’m just not where I need to be mentally and emotionally to submit quality work. I sat on the assignment for so long just because I didn’t feel it was adequate. Instead of doing nothing, I decided to turn it in and simply asked the instructor to meet me where I was at, because that’s all I have right now. I feel it’s important for all of us to accept and acknowledge that we are all dealing with the world very differently. We all need compassion and grace for ourselves and each other. I read this article today, AFTER I sent my assignment. I am so thankful for it because it was perfect timing! Thanks!

Evelyn Christensen
May 21, 2020

Thanks, Jan. I needed this.

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