Creativity in times of despair

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.



Filed under creativity, deep thoughts

13 responses to “Creativity in times of despair

  1. Angie Brooksby Arcangioli

    This is a lovely post. Exactly the kind of things us creatives need. Thank you.

    I got a head start on stress compared to States-bound Americans. It started with the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Those were journalists who were assassinated and they knew they would die for brandishing freedom of speech.

    Then I was in Nice on the 14th of July but I did not go to the fireworks. The day after there was the putsch in Turkey and it is ongoing. Journalists, university professors, dangerous thinkers all locked up. Then I walked 2 meters from a car bomb that had not detonated but was still loaded. Before the nasty summer that was last came Brexit. Brexit upset me.

    I predicted the US election. Everyone here told me I was crazy.

    To deal with all this I decided to immerse myself in history books. Reading history books has calmed me. Helped me relativize 2016 and the uncertain future. Currently I’m reading Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” published in 1935. Orwell’s 1984 seemed to predict but Lewis’ book is WAY more frightening. And you know what? Lewis wrote about the “forgotten man.” I feel like T and co. are basing their antics of “It Can’t Happen Here.”


  2. Sorry, Angie, your comment got caught in my spam folder!

    Your perspective is so appreciated. I worried about you during all those events and can’t tell you how relieved I was to hear you escaped (physical) harm each time.

    Part of what I thought about while writing this is the context of oppression and violence here in contrast to oppression and violence in the rest of the world. In so many cases, over centuries of history . . . well, there is no apt comparison. What also worries me is that we in the US are so focused on our own troubles and used to being left alone to deal with them, we don’t recognize that other countries, allies and foes alike, aren’t likely to just sit back and “allow” a world super-power to disintegrate beyond a certain point. Yet no one talks about that. After all, WE are the policeman/peacekeeper, not the target of such efforts. And the day that happens, which I think is likely at the rate we’re going, it will be an enormous shock. For us and for the rest of the world. I hope we all survive it.

    History books written a century from now will be interesting, if not necessarily calming, reading.


  3. cbpen

    I was just barely coming out if my writing depression after my mom died, then this. I was paralyzed, writing-wise. As you know, I had a small, two story break through.
    Now. I’m not quite paralyzed. But lost. Part of my problem is, I am close to arguers. I try not to say anything. But sometimes even my silence provokes stuff. And these are not people I can avoid.
    I think the continual gray of January did not help. I felt so much better the past few days. Warm and sunshine to sit in. Ahhhh. It truly relaxed the knots inside. So. Maybe that will be the key for me. Today, however, is gray. Just being warm does not work. 😉
    I can’t avoid the news. It’s ingrained in me. Though I’ve lessened the amount. I used to watch the morning shows, noon, evening, and eleven o’clock too. And some of the stuff that popped up on fb. Now. I pass quite a bit of it. And try to flip past stuff on fb.
    I am reading a lot again. That is what seems to help me. So there’s a reason for writing on. If it helps me, it must help others too. Right?
    Sorry just rambling.


  4. MinO

    Being creative can be difficult on a “good” day. When the good to bad graph is outta whack, it is even more difficult. Recognizing the struggle and looking for coping strategies is all good stuff. No matter what is making up our bad days, we all have to get through and keep moving along.

    Thanks for sharing ideas and remember, change isn’t easy, but awareness is the start. Add to the list or move stuff, or skip stuff.

    And thanks KD. All my comments are mostly a note to myself that moving along counts and to get on with it already!

    Write on!


  5. Pen, you’ve been through some tough life changes recently and it takes time to adjust and get your equilibrium back. I was just thrilled to hear you’d written a couple short stories. Keep at it! Focus on the things that work for you and soak up all the sunshine you can. And yes, someone out there is waiting to read the stories only you can tell.


  6. MinO, you’re so right about awareness being the key. I hoped this post would be helpful for other people, but it was also a stern talk to myself. “Get on with it already.” <– you sound like my mom and her "just do it" advice. She was saying that long before Nike adopted it. Thanks for the encouragement!


  7. McB

    Good post. And true. We are all on overload and it does no good. I whole heartedly support those with the stamina for vigilance and voice, but I’m having to limit my exposure. And yes, a glance through a history book will remind us that we have faced troubles times and some pretty awful leaders before. And that we have a thoughtfully designed system of government with multiple checks and balances, and have seen that in action just recently. If what we have in place was as good as we thought, we will get through and it will be another lesson we learned the hard way. In the meantime, the rest of the world would do well to give us some space while we get through this. feel free to ignore us, make rude noises, and go about your business. This might take some time and you are no doubt already tired of watching us air dirty linen in public. Sorry about that.

    We’ll be back, we just have to battle some demons first. Feel free to talk amongst yourselves


  8. Thanks, McB. You make some good points as well. I think a lot of liberal progressives were so happy with some of the progress made in the last eight years, they got too comfortable and lost sight of the fact that new presidents of a different party often undo much of what was done before them. Or try to. I just really hope the rest of the world will be patient. And that “we” don’t anger and alienate any more of our allies.


  9. Richard Maguire

    Hi KD. I was reluctant to comment on what is, essentially, a political post. I have been involved in too many arguments with friends, especially creative types, about the way I vote. So I just do it and say nothing.

    I don’t support the left, or, as you’d call them in the States, liberals, or liberal progressives. Liberals have really brought about the climate that made it possible for the present occupant of the White House to get elected.I know that’s a very broad statement. For years, liberals have pushed political correctness to the point where it became a form of fascism. And sometimes I found it hard to take the insults from liberals who, because I didn’t agree with them, thought I was in league with Satan. They seem to believe that they alone have, as David Mamet calls it ironically in the title of his book, “The Secret Knowledge”. Then Trump came along and began insulting everybody who didn’t agree with him. Turns out there were millions of voters waiting for a candidate who didn’t care what he said, or to whom he said it. And now he’s in Oval Office. Causing chaos.

    Most of my family are in the States, and all of the adults, except one – a professor in Cornell; though always a Republican voter – voted for him. At last count, only one of them regretted her decision. Had I U.S. citizenship, I would not have voted for him. There’s a daily horror show going on in Washington at the moment, and where it’ll end, who knows? But that doesn’t change my political outlook. This POTUS is an aberration. Yes, but why despair? I don’t understand why some writers are finding it difficult, in the present political climate, to feel creative. If anything,I’d imagine they’d want to write out of a sense of rage.

    And he’s not going to be there forever. In a democracy your guy sometimes wins, mine loses. It’s not a reason to despair. Also, American democracy with its checks and balances is, I believe, the envy of the world. I remember the opposition to Bush ’43 and his agenda. But who’d have imagined he’d be followed into office by the first African American president? I liked Obama as a man, but not his policies, especially foreign policy which was a disaster.

    Anyhow, sorry for the rant. I’m sure you’re busy writing. I always enjoy reading your posts.


  10. I’ve got to admit, Richard, this is the first time I’ve ever heard liberalism defined as a form of fascism. Maybe we’re using different definitions of those terms. I strongly suspect the two of us should not discuss politics if we want to remain friends (and I do).

    FWIW, this definition from Wikipedia does a good job of laying out my personal political beliefs:

    Liberalism is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality. Whereas classical liberalism emphasizes the role of liberty, social liberalism stresses the importance of equality. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally they support ideas and programmes such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, democratic societies, secular governments, gender equality, and international cooperation.

    As for the despair, for me it’s not merely a matter of political differences. I’ve lived long enough and with enough perception to know that political shifts happen and the pendulum swings with regularity. What causes me despair is that we’ve elected a man who is intellectually challenged, emotionally unstable, and shows signs of being mentally ill and easily manipulated. One who relies heavily on advice from a man who is none of those things, but who I truly believe is evil and malevolent.

    Sure, I feel a sense of rage; outrage as well. And it’s not conducive to writing in my chosen genres.

    Yes, we will eventually move on from this. Provided he doesn’t ignite or provoke some horrible armageddon from which none of us can recover. And we will fix the mess he’s causing. But in the meantime, people I care about, friends and strangers alike, are suffering harm in a very real way. Maybe that’s not as apparent from a distance or from outside the country.

    Do I care too much? It’s likely. But I’d rather have an excess of empathy and care too deeply than be indifferent. If there is any quality that defines and informs my writing, it is surely that empathy.


  11. Richard Maguire

    Hi KD, and thanks for the reply.

    For the record, I certainly do not believe that liberalism is a form of fascism. I’m loathe to make any political comment on your blog, and I promise not to do so again. The point I was making – obviously not very well put – was that just one of the many reasons I don’t support the left, or liberalism, is because of its insistence on political correctness. It’s gone crazy in recent times. Careers have been ruined because in conversations they thought were private, people have passed remarks deemed to be “politically incorrect”. But whose politics are we talking about? Why can’t people be free to say what they want, what they believe? I’ve heard journalists say there are times when they have to self-censor for fear of giving offense. To somebody.

    The film and TV industries take it for granted that anyone hoping to work in their ranks are liberals. Yes, there are some well-known actors who are Republicans. But because they’re so famous, and popular, they keep working. But what about those actors, writers, etc. who inadvertently let slip they aren’t Democrats? Will they find it easy to stay in work? You may have heard of Roger Simon. He was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay. I can’t remember whether he won, or not. He wrote a book, BLACKLISTING MYSELF, about his experiences in Hollywood as a non-liberal. I think it’s worth reading. And IMHO it’s a very disturbing read.



  12. Richard, I don’t know how things are in Germany, but here in the States when people complain about political correctness, it’s more or less become a code phrase for the alt-right to bemoan the fact that they can’t openly express their racist, sexist, homophobic beliefs anymore without getting grief. I agree that sometimes people can be overly sensitive, but it’s far more common that people are truly offensive.

    And yet, people here DO have the freedom to say whatever they want along those lines. But freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences of that speech. Not consequences imposed by the government, but by society at large. Society does judge us, all of us, and determines what is socially acceptable. It changes over time. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. But always with resistance, because we don’t all agree. Nor should we, honestly.

    I don’t know anything about Roger Simon, but it seems pretty naive to expect what is commonly known to be a liberal industry to be all accepting of conservative rhetoric. We all censor ourselves in certain situations. I wouldn’t behave the same way in church as I would at a party with friends. If I wanted to get a job in the oil & gas industry, I wouldn’t expect to be able to openly talk about how I’m opposed to fracking and offshore drilling. Not without consequences.

    That’s just common sense. I don’t find it disturbing at all. In fact, freedom of speech AND the responsibility to accept the varied consequences of it are some of our best ideals here in the US.

    [Edit to add: Hope you don’t feel like I’m beating up on you, Richard. One of the many reasons I don’t generally “do” politics over here is that I tend to get a bit, um, intense about it. Thank you for the calm and reasoned discussion.]


  13. Richard Maguire

    Thanks, KD. I’m looking forward to your next post.