Lindy West summed it up rather astutely in the opening paragraph of her 14 Feb column titled, “The first 25 days of Trump have been a zoetrope of galloping despair” [The Guardian]:
“Today, during my morning routine of opening my laptop, clicking on literally anything, and just screaming and screaming, I made the astonishing discovery that Donald Trump has only been president of the United States for about three weeks. Which is weird, because I could have sworn we had fallen through a tesseract into the airless crush of a two-dimensional void at least seven eternities ago, or what would have constituted seven eternities if such a place had a linear concept of time. Turns out, though, it has only been 25 days, we are still on earth, and every cell in my body has not been excruciatingly flattened into pure math. It just feels like it.”
No, I’m not going to get all political over here. Not today, anyway. But I do want to talk about the effect all this upheaval is having on me, and on almost every writer I know. This feeling of being emotionally crushed or creatively flattened and unable to write.
It’s a problem I’ve been hearing about both publicly and privately on an increasing basis since the inauguration. Several well-known authors have addressed it in blog posts– some of their advice has resonated with me and some has fallen flat. That’s to be expected. We’re all in different places in our lives and careers. But the underlying assertion is that stories are vitally important, and there’s no denying that.
We all know, often first-hand, how stories can make an important difference for people going through overwhelmingly difficult times. We’ve all heard accounts of how the escapism or optimism of fiction has literally saved people from despair.
But what happens when writers are among those who need to be saved? How do we continue to create when we’re the ones overwhelmed and not feeling up to the task?
I realize that right now some of you are thinking, Well aren’t you all just speshul creative snowflakes. Buck up and do your job like the rest of us. And, well, maybe you’ve got a point. Maybe.
Except . . . doing a job where you create something out of nothing but imagination IS different. I know, because I’ve done those other jobs too. Answering the phone, waiting on customers, wielding a shovel or a hammer, typing a legal brief . . . hard work, yes. But a completely different kind of effort.
It’s tough enough to be creative when you’re feeling normal– well, as normal as writers ever are. But when you’re feeling outraged or hopeless? Helpless? Oh, man. It’s almost impossible to maintain the belief that what you’re doing matters. That it even should matter, in the face of more dire things. It’s so damn hard to tamp down the anger and pessimism and cynicism — and yes, the fear — to focus on writing stories that will entertain by somehow being clever or funny or romantic or scary or even just delightfully different. All those things you’re not feeling and don’t think you can fake.
I’m not saying it can’t be done. It can. I’m still doing it, or trying to, albeit more slowly. But it isn’t easy. Not for most writers I know, anyway, and certainly not for me. I’ve had to devise strategies to try to achieve some daily balance, to invent a new normal in my life. I’ve had to make several adjustments to my routine in the past few weeks, so hope and creativity aren’t being continually crushed into oblivion.
Here are some things that have helped, for me:
1. Limit time spent on social media. I’d like to ignore all SM entirely, forever. But I can’t actually do that and still call myself an informed citizen, something that’s important to me. But my curiosity and [so-called] self-restraint are such that I’m quickly down the rabbit hole, reading that in-depth article about sea urchins that I randomly decided was fascinating, and then two hours later realize I’ve also read a political history of the Ukraine (talk about upheaval) and bookmarked five new ways to prepare salmon and have watched perhaps twice that number of cat videos. And, yeah, read a half dozen political articles. *sigh*
So I decided I needed a timer. I really wanted an hourglass, because it just seems like such an interesting thing to have and I know a couple writers who use one . . . except I’d constantly be looking at it to see whether the sand had run out, or ignoring it entirely since they’re silent, and that’s not exactly productive. So I got this thing (quarter for scale, but it’s about 2 inches each side):
I love it. It’s so simple to use, it’s genius. To activate, you turn it so the amount of time is on top and it beeps (loudly, unlike sand) when time is up. To stop it, turn it so the zero is on top. The one I got has settings for 5/15/30/60 minutes. There’s a little digital screen on the bottom doing a countdown, but I never look at it.
The key is to remember to use it. I set it before I venture over to twitter or facebook or my blog feed and I STOP WHEN TIME IS UP. Knowing I have limited time makes me read faster (or skim) and stops me from wandering off. Mostly.
Also, because sometimes just getting started is the tough part, I’ve used the timer a couple times to convince myself to write for “just 15 minutes.” After which I turn it off and keep writing, obviously.
2. Re-arrange the workday. This is related to limiting time spent online. I used to check email and news and blog feeds and social media first thing, then write in the evening and into the wee hours. This was no longer working for me, even with using a timer. The outrage was accumulating to new levels every day and messing with my head and my creativity. And probably my blood pressure. So I flipped my schedule.
There are still a couple things I check at the start of the day, in case someone needs me urgently or there’s a more than twenty percent chance of mushroom clouds, but the vast majority of that is now relegated to the end of the day, after I’m done writing.
I haven’t completely adjusted to this new schedule — it is NOT easy — but on the days I manage it, it’s really sort of amazing how peaceful life can be. Sure, crap still happens and I miss hearing about it right away. But that’s okay. *twitch* Really. Not like I’m the one in charge of stopping it or fixing it or anything. Unfortunately.
3. News curation. Probably most of you have already seen this site, “What the fuck just happened today?” There are days I just want a quick summary of the mayhem, and this is a good resource for that. I appreciate that there are links to news sources if I’m feeling all masochistic and want more detail. Again, setting the timer is invaluable.
4. Pacemaker Planner. No, not the medical device for your heart. This is a tool for planning and tracking your writing. It also has settings for exercise and finances, for you non-writers. I’m finding it helpful in setting a goal and focusing on it. Accountability at a glance. It’s easy to see whether I’m falling behind and need to step up the pace, or if perhaps my projections were unrealistic and need adjustment. Plus, the graphs are just cool.
I created a sample to see how it works, and below are a couple screenshots. I set a goal of 25K words between 21 Jan and 10 Feb, with a provision that I wasn’t going to write at all when my daughter was here the weekend of 4-6 Feb (there are a lot of options; adjustments are easy to make). The blue line shows consistent distribution of words-per-day to meet the goal. The green line represents words written each day (these are made-up numbers).
Here’s the same info, but using the option of the blue line changing so you know how many words you need to write daily to meet the deadline, given what you’ve written.
Here are a couple more screenshots showing a different sort of timeline, one that will look familiar to NaNo participants. Again, the first one uses the option of keeping the original target blue line and the other one changes it with input.
The basic plan is free to use, but I signed up for a paid subscription. There are a few additional features with the paid version, but that’s not why I got it. I just think it’s important to pay creative people, even if — no, especially if — they’re generous enough to put their work out there for free.
They’re currently running a special promo for an annual subscription (link to blog post with discount code), good through March 31. If for some reason that link doesn’t work, I got a code when I signed up, which they encourage people to share, so let me know in the comments or via email and I’ll give it to you.
NOTE: I am not in any way affiliated with any people or products mentioned in this post. I don’t get a commission or even a pat on the back for sending potential customers to these sites.
5. Maintain focus on physical health. Yeah, all those boring but necessary things like balanced nutrition and staying hydrated and moving body parts other than my fingers on a somewhat regular basis. Going outside to breathe some fresh air, feel the sunshine on my face. Getting enough sleep, taking naps if needed.
It seems too obvious to even mention this stuff, but I often need the reminder. Just because I want to curl up into a little ball and hide under the covers doesn’t mean it’s a sensible long-term plan. And a long-term perspective is important.
6. Have faith in history. Or humanity. Or something. As catastrophic as current events seem, these are not historically the worst times we’ve ever known. Nor will they be the last of the worst times we’ll ever know, sadly.
Oppression relies on widespread deception and social isolation and fear of the unknown, all of which have become almost impossible to achieve, let alone maintain, in the internet age. Never mind the eventual futility of employing those tactics in a country that cut its teeth on rebellion and principles of freedom and equality. Our collective memory is not impaired.
We haven’t been told we are not allowed to write or create. Yet. But imagine we have been, if that helps, and imagine how that would spur motivation. History is rife with examples of people who found a way to create in spite of chaos and tyranny. There’s strength in the knowledge that bringing beauty or laughter or diversion into the world is as much an antidote as an act of defiance. And there’s hope in realizing that sometimes we just need to outlast the bastards. To take care of ourselves so we’re able to do the hard work of fixing things once they’re gone. To hold tightly to the certainty that they will indeed, one day, be gone.
Speaking of which, my timer just went off. Good thing, as I’m bordering on the political when I said I wouldn’t. Time to get up and move.
Quickly, to wrap up, those are a few strategies I’ve found helpful in trying to maintain sanity and creativity in uncertain times. If you’re struggling similarly, whether you’re a writer or not, maybe some of them will work for you as well. If you have other tried-and-true suggestions, I’d be more than happy to hear about them in the comments.