Writing in the midst of a pandemic can feel strange and overwhelming. Here are some tips to get you started in your attempts to chronicle this crisis.
Greetings from quarantine in New York City. I hope that all of you reading this are staying safe, healthy, and sane.
The gut-punch of COVID-19 turned much of life inside out, and if you’re like me, the practice of writing was no exception. Patterns and processes that worked before the pandemic no longer feel right and words that end up on the page sometimes seem as strange as the circumstances that informed them.
Given how bizarre life has become, none of this is surprising. But it is a matter that needs thoughtful, kind, and effective management. Read on for strategies and practices that have helped keep my writing flowing, even as much of life has stopped in its tracks. I hope they can be helpful to you as well.
Understand the importance of writing right now
This is a weird and unique moment in contemporary history. Any time you can set aside to capture it through words — now, as it’s happening — is time well spent.
Writing can also help you process new changes that the pandemic brings, both seismic and minuscule, and gain some feeling of agency at a time when control feels like a locked-away luxury.
Finally, imagine that you’re looking back on this period five or ten or thirty years from now. What about today’s troubling reality would you want preserved through text? Write that, now.
Throw preconceptions out the window
Do you normally write vegan cookbooks but, given the zeitgeist of the moment, feel compelled to channel Dan Poblocki and craft horror stories for kids? Do it.
Are you halfway through writing a work of historical fiction about J. Edgar Hoover’s G-Men, but instead feel comforted sculpting haiku about your favorite candy bars? Go for it and enjoy.
In such unusual times, forget all preconceptions about what you “should” be writing and make your art as unusual and unexpected as it needs to be.
Give yourself space to find a new routine
Hundreds of millions have had their everyday lives distorted by COVID-19, and the countless structures and routines that form the skeletons of our days have had to be rebuilt. Your writing process needs to adjust as well.
Even if you used to be most prolific after coffee in the early morning, you can start writing at twilight if that’s what gets words on a page. And if you find yourself inspired to write by candlelight, using a quill and ink you found in your basement, go with it. Does scrawling prose on your bedroom wall at 3 am spark your creativity? You can always take a photo and paint over it later.
In short, write what you can, when you can, however you can. All bets are off right now, so experiment and try to have as much fun as circumstances will allow.
Focus on snapshots of your own experience
When writing about something as huge as a global pandemic, it’s easy to want to document every detail and data point. Don’t bother and don’t get overwhelmed. While most of us are not trained statisticians, epidemiologists, sociologists, or economists, we are experts in our own reality, and that’s what we need to be writing about now.
How has the view out your window changed over the course of the pandemic? The lives of your friends and family? The way you eat, feel, and sleep? Your relationship with your cat? These are the nuggets of reality that you can document better than anyone else and each snapshot you take of your everyday reality in the time of Coronavirus will carry more truth about the state of the world right now than you may realize.
Don’t shy away from crisis-related fiction
In my recent post on world-building, I suggested that writers create a fictional world where just one aspect of everyday reality has shifted — as in Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, where millions of people simply vanish without explanation, or a zombie novel, where everything is normal, save the fact that the dead have risen and are eating brains.
Well, like it or not, we live in a similarly shifted reality right now.
When it comes to writing stories, consider placing a fictional character within the current reality, or what you imagine the current reality could become. In other words, a fresh, challenging, messed-up world has essentially just manifested around us — so what will your characters do within it? Sit down, write, and find out.
Loop your emotions
Last year, I wrote about the concept of looping emotions into music-making for the Disc Makers Blog. The same advice applies to writers, especially now.
The concept is simple — whatever you may be feeling at any given moment, try to capture something of that emotion in what you write. As I said in the Disc Makers article, it never needs to be a literal transfer — in other words, if you’re feeling depressed about Coronavirus, that doesn’t mean the character you’re writing needs to feel depressed, too. What it does mean is that you try to find some way of bottling the intensity, energy, or texture of what you’re personally experiencing and pour some of that authentic humanity into whatever you write.
Speaking for myself, I work on my current novel-in-progress (first written about in “The Accidental Novelist – How Stolen Moments Can Make A Book“) at night right before going to bed, when my head is full of the emotions of the day. It’s rare for my characters’ feelings to directly intersect with my own, but it doesn’t matter. The act of looping my own emotions into their struggles and joys is cathartic.
Just get it down
This is no time to feel self-conscious, so do your best to put your internal critic into long-term hibernation. If you’re channeling large amounts of emotion, the priority should be to get that on paper or screen as raw and pure as possible. To be clear — unless you’re writing for a client or publication with specific guidelines, what you create does not need to meet any external standard. It just has to be honest.
How are you approaching writing under global lockdown — and do you have any advice to share? Tell us in the comments below.
Building Worlds That Captivate Readers
The Accidental Novelist – How Stolen Moments Can Make A Book
Meet Middle Grade Horror Master, Dan Poblocki
How to find inspiration
How Disc Makers Is Helping Combat COVID-19