How to Write in an Age of Anxiety
This article was originally published on Dead Darlings.
Michelle Hoover, Novel Incubator instructor and author of Bottomland, shares some of her tips to help get you back to your writing desks during this time and calm the nerves just enough to concentrate for an hour or two or more.
Yeah, I know. For those whose work lives aren’t considered “vital” during the pandemic, there’s plenty out there telling you how to buckle down and get work done at home—and some of you just want to stay in bed. Guess what? You probably can stay in bed! Or at least you don’t have to change out of your pajamas for days and days.
But if you’re like me and it makes you feel crappier not getting writing done, here are some tips to help get you back to your writing desks and calm the nerves just enough to concentrate for an hour or two or more:
- Stop Reading the News. Unless you’re among the uninformed masses on the Florida beaches, a masked traitor stealing all the milk and toilet paper at the grocery store, or still stopping neighbors on the sidewalk for a hug, you probably don’t need to be checking the news every half hour. Why do I say this? Because I’m checking the news every half hour, and it sure ain’t helping my productivity levels. There’s nothing that says “panic” quite like reading editorials about the failures of the Trump administration’s response or Elon Musk’s promise to start producing ventilators if there happens to be a shortage (hey dude, there’s a shortage!). So give yourself a certain time of the day when you check the news and set a timer for how long you’re allowed to scroll. Then listen to that timer! Or maybe don’t read the news at all! At least for one day, several? How long do you dare? When I was a tad younger and full of excuses and explanations for stupid behavior, my therapist would ask: “How is that helping you?” Oh right. It’s not helping me! So stop.
- Try Yoga or Meditation. I’ve been doing yoga at home for years through a couple “videos” by an old, moderately sexist dude who I nonetheless love because he kicks my ass and makes me feel happy. (Search for Mark Blanchard on Amazon if you want some of that). And yes, it’s even worked over the last weeks! Or try meditation. I recommend headspace.com where you can listen to a sexy British guy talk you through mindfulness nirvana. That voice! All in all, either of these can simply help you concentrate. And that’s what you need more than anything now, right? Just to damn concentrate. For more, check out the mindfulness guidance of a dear friend of mine at bewellbehere.org. I think Lara could get us through nuclear war.
- Stop Making Excuses. Excuses are great. I love excuses! But if you’re pissed at yourself at the same time as you’re letting yourself off the hook, then those excuses aren’t helping you! Writers get awfully precious about their writing time. I used to think I could only write in a quiet space, absolutely alone, between the hours of four and six in the afternoon and only if I wasn’t: 1) sleepy; 2) hungry; 3) in a bad mood; and/or 4) on submission with another book. Remember when we used to have nice little excuses like that? How quaint they seem now. Writers will think of all sorts of reasons not to write, because then it’s not them that’s the problem, it’s everything else: their job, their husband/wife, their lack of a husband/wife, their cat, the weather, the weird guy in the corner of the café staring at them or the fact that their tea isn’t quite hot enough or it’s too dark, it’s too light, the weather outside is too nice, the weather is too depressing, they can’t find their favorite writing sweater, the end of the world is coming, etc., etc. So ask yourself this: Do I want to write? If the answer is yes, then no excuse is good enough. You’re only fighting yourself.
- Turn Off Your Inhibitions. One reason I used to think I could only write in the late afternoons was because my inhibitions were generally low at that time of day. In the morning, they’re monstrous! And in the evening, well I’ve got other things to do (I don’t). This last summer I got so desperate that I forced myself to go to my computer immediately upon waking up. I didn’t wash my face or get a glass of water or look at myself in the mirror or brush my hair. NO! I went right to my computer and forced myself to simply type, to type anything, for at least a half hour. No, you can’t stop your fingers even if you run out of something to say. No, you can’t eat a muffin. No, you just have to type something. Ok yeah, I would often give myself an assignment the night before, something like: Tomorrow morning I’ll try to write that weird scene where Birdie first meets Hal. So that helps. And even as I start typing and the back of my head is telling me: This isn’t working! Well, I just keep typing. Sometimes I even type: This isn’t working! And then I move on. The great thing about doing this first thing in the morning, and I mean the very first thing, is that your critical brain is still pretty much asleep. You’re in dreamland, unlike the later morning hours after coffee, etc., when your critical brain might eat you alive. No, if you force yourself to write first thing then you’re likely too dazed to hate yourself and everything you put on the page. It’s quite nice. Give it a try!
- Use a Timer. I stole this trick from someone, not sure who. Set a timer for 45 minutes. Then sit your butt in your chair and get to work. If you’re blocked, try the same typing exercise as above. At least force yourself to get something on the page. After all, you only have to do this for 45 minutes. Anyone can write for 45 minutes! Once the timer goes off, set it again for 15 minutes and go get yourself a muffin or use the bathroom or do a little dance. When those 15 minutes are over, set that wonderful timer again for 45 minutes and get back to it! You can do this! It’s only 45 minutes. Write and repeat until your fingers fall off (or something like that).
- Read a Book. What? I can do that? You sure can! I find reading during my writing sessions one of the best ways to remind myself about what I love about writing, especially when I’m stuck. For me, Rachel Cusk’s trilogy is a godsend in sending me to the keyboard and writing my best. Elizabeth Strout, Kent Haruf, and Jesmyn Ward work too. Basically any of the great and quiet stylists— but that’s me. You’ll need to find your own. Grab one of your old books that made you want to write in the first place. Grab a book that gets you excited about the possibilities, the flavors, the ideas you’re hungry for. Drink it in and hold it in your mouth like chocolate. Then get back to your keyboard. But what if I read for too long? Grab your friend the timer again! Give yourself 15 minutes, then get back to writing. But what if my writing starts sounding like theirs? When you’re stuck, this isn’t the worst thing. Anything that gets you going, gets you humming. If you just start, you’ll eventually revert back to you. And if you don’t? You’ll likely find your voice and style again on revision. In the meantime, learning from the tricks and tools of other authors is just, well, learning!
- Try a Pastiche. A what? A pastiche is an artistic work that imitates another. But isn’t that plagiarism? Well, yes. It can be. But you’ve seen those painting students in art galleries copying the greats, haven’t you? They’re learning their techniques, their gifts. You can do the same with writing. I often advise students to transcribe their favorite scenes or passages to really feel what the author is doing in terms of pacing, detail, style, characterization, etc. To really get it in the bones of their hands. But the kind of pastiche I have in mind is different. Instead of transcribing the text word by word, replace those words and choices with your own. So the scene starts with the character entering the room and saying something. You start your scene with your character entering the room with the same number of details as the original (but not repeating those details) and saying something that is the same length and tone as the original (a question for a question; an accusation for the same, etc). Does the scene involve a quick flashback after the first paragraph? So yours should involve a flashback after the first paragraph, done in the same manner but with your own subject and setting. Basically, you’re copying the author’s methods but using your own material. Give it a try! At least it will get you writing again.
- Write or Read with Others. The cafes are closed? Why not set up a common time to call each other over Skype or Zoom, say hello, and then shut up and start working? I don’t have to write much about this, because someone already did: Working at Home? Self-Isolation Doesn’t Have to Be Lonely. Okay, so the author pays someone to set up her virtual writing meetups, and we might feel a bit too light in the wallet right now for that. These days, our writing friends probably won’t be running off to dentist appointments instead of keeping to our virtual writing dates, so give it a try to DIY. If you don’t like the idea of writing together, try a nightly check in where you share your successes or troubleshoot problems. You can even agree to share small excerpts of what you wrote that day for some quick supportive feedback (since it’s fresh, keep that feedback light). The point is to make yourself accountable to another person or several in getting something done. That support will be emotional too. And we all need that right now.
- Take an Online Writing Class. You want more accountability than you can get from your best friend Ted who really just wants to talk about his depressed Bassett Hound? There are other places you can go to make you accountable to perfectly wonderful strangers who will soon be your best buds and who have the same dreams and writerly hang-ups you do. But God Lord, where? At GrubStreet! GrubStreet is one of the chummiest, least competitive, most serious, and all around awesome-est writing schools around. During this lovely time of desperation and disease, Grub has taken all those amazing classes online. They’re less expensive than your local university but generally more challenging than what you might find at the local Community Ed (though those can be great too). There’s nothing that will get you back to your desk and really doubling down than assignments, deadlines, and the threat of strangers reading your writing, right? Check out Grub’s upcoming spring and summer classes, many of which are starting this April.
- Make a Schedule. This is a biggie! A few of us have way too much time on our hands these days and yet somehow we still aren’t getting anything done. If you really want to write, it might be time to get hard on yourself. I recommend a schedule you can repeat, so that the pacing of the day begins to feel natural. And make sure that the functioning grown-ups in your house know that you have a schedule too. Mine is rather simple and dull. I can pretty much carry it in my head: 7:30 Freewrite; 8-10 Exercise; 10-2 MassBook & GrubStreet work; 2-6 Write. In the evenings I usually teach, spend quality time with my partner, or meet up with folks to share writing progress, etc. Of course, in my regular life, I can’t always keep to this exact schedule every day, but now? Now, I sure can.
- Support Your Community. Wait. This isn’t about writing! But it is. Writing can be a selfish, naval-gazing business. There are all sorts who like to speak of it as if we’re great artistic minds with great artistic contributions to make, but guess what? Most of us aren’t. So if you want to calm your mind enough to write, try to do something good too. There are a lot of writers out there whose book launches have gone through the drain with this whole business. These upcoming months, our own Dead Darlings will be regularly posting interviews of writers who need our support, so keep coming back to our site to check them out. For an ongoing list of such writers, take a gander at Courtney Maum’s twitter feed. And here’s another from Allison Pottern Hoch. And if you want to support local bookstores, check out how you can support bookstores during the coronavirus pandemic as well as Bookbub. A quick search on the internet can also help you find ways to support local food pantries and help gig workers who are losing their paychecks. Do your neighbors need anything? If you’ve got their emails or phone numbers, check out any who might be living alone, are elderly, or otherwise need your support. Offers of grocery deliveries or other necessities might just save a life. Just because you have to keep your distance doesn’t mean you can’t practice kindness. Look out to look in. It never hurts.
Okay, that’s it. I have to return to the news. Feel free to share your own tips in the comments. We’re all in this together, no matter how alone we might feel. So let’s do this! Let’s write!
Michelle Hoover is the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University and teaches at GrubStreet, where she leads the Novel Incubator program. She is a 2014 NEA Fellow and has been a Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University, a MacDowell Fellow, and a winner of the PEN/New England Discovery Award. Her debut novel, The Quickening, was shortlisted for the Center for Fiction's Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, was a Finalist for the Indies Choice Debut of 2010 and Forward Magazine's Best Literary Book of 2010, and is a 2010 Massachusetts Book Award "Must Read" pick. Her second novel, Bottomland, is the 2017 All Iowa Reads selection and a 2016 Mass Book "Must Read." For more, go to www.michelle-hoover.com.See other articles by Michelle Hoover