CBC’s Shelley Joyce interviewed me today on writing in a time of social isolation. My husband laughed when I told him about the interview. He said, “You’re an expert on that, all right.”
Yeah, okay, busted. The truth is, like many writers, my life in this time of crisis hasn’t changed much. I work from home as my husband does. Aside from writing, I edit, teach and mentor largely online as I have for nearly two decades. When I’m not at my desk, I take lone walks along quiet rural roads. Except for the writing events and workshops I present, I don’t get out much.
So, then, how do I go about staying productive and, you know, sane?
It helps to be an introvert, as many writers are, of course. I enjoy my own company and do like to be alone. Or, rather, I enjoy being social but need a lot of alone time to recharge. So, the contemplative life of a writer suits me.
Still, working in relative isolation is lonely, and can erode mental health. Especially in winter, I admit I sometimes look like that cliché crazy writer, dressed in yoga pants, bathrobe and slippers, talking to my cat (or the squirrel nattering back at me from the tree outside). When I find myself drifting to that dark place, I make a point of getting dressed for work and putting on a face. (And having a conversation with someone other than the cat.)
And I have a designated workspace, an office that’s mine. Stepping into my office, I ready myself for “work” as others might as they make their commute from home and then, coffee in hand, walk into their workplace.
I have a schedule that I stick to, a regular routine, and clear goals, not just for a month, but for the week and for the day. And then – and this is so important – I celebrate even the smallest goals. Answered my emails? Yay! I get tea and chocolate. Posted my notes for my student of the day? Yay! Tea and chocolate. Reached my word count for the day? Yay! Tea and chocolate, and a little happy dance. You get the picture.
Yes, I really do dance. Exercise is an integral part of my writing day. I do yoga to release the tension that builds as I write, and I walk to work out problems in my narrative. I do my edits and critiques for other writers on my exercise bike. Two hours of exercise a day keeps me relatively fit both physically and mentally and helps my mind focus.
Because writing is all about finding focus. You know the drill: limit social media; shut off internet access; and ask family to respect your work schedule. We need uninterrupted time to enter the flow state. At the start of my writing day, I do this by allowing myself to simply write crap. I purposely write badly, shutting off my internal editor, in order to reach that deep focused state where ideas percolate. I write to discover what I’m writing about.
But, later, I also spend a good chunk of my day investigating narrative structure. It’s a huge topic, so I won’t get into it here, but you’ll find a ton of resources on finding structure for your fiction or non-fiction project on the net. In short, we need a road map for our projects, one that will save time and grief and, again, help us find focus. Without that roadmap, writing is … frustrating.
And, of course, there’s no way around it: we need to be alone to find focus, to reach that flow state.
Still, introvert or not, we are social creatures and must talk to others during our day. Aside from staying connected with friends and family, I also make a point of interviewing as part of my research, not just to get those details right, but to stay social. And we need to connect with other writers, to know we’re not alone in our fears and concerns. During this crisis, as face-to-face events are cancelled, that’s more important than ever. We must schedule time in our days to chat with writers on social media, say in a Facebook writing group. I suggest now is the time to join a writing organization, if you haven’t already, as a great many are offering webinars on craft, publishing and the writing life along with online social opportunities during this crisis. To replace cancelled events, I’m doing a webinar myself on May 17 for the Federation of BC Writers. Writing organizations across the country, like the Writers Guild of Alberta are increasingly moving resources and events online.
So, this time of social isolation provides that opportunity to write that book you’re always wanted to write. Right? Well, yes, and no. I’m personally finding it very hard to focus during this crisis. The creative drive might not be there for you right now either. For one thing, our kids and spouses are underfoot. We’re worried about our friends and loved ones, and together we’re experiencing a kind of communal grief over this pandemic, and the catastrophic changes it has wraught.
And, frankly, our job as writer is to come up with the worst possible thing that can happen to our characters. We experience that hell right along with them. As we are already living with a worst-case scenario in the real world, do we need to add to our stress by making more shit up? Likely not.
Maybe now is a time for reflection, not creation. Maybe we need to accept that the kind of deep focus necessary for writing is out of our reach for the moment. Perhaps any kind of focus is out of our grasp. During our interview this morning, Shelley asked me what I was reading right now. I had to admit that, aside from the reading I do as I edit and critique other writers’ manuscripts, I’m finding it hard to read for pleasure. I’m finding it hard to concentrate period. Instead, I’m spending my free time hanging out with my husband and daughter, or phoning and texting my other three kids, or watching science shows as science offers me a sense of wonder and perspective that I sorely need right now. Maybe in a week or two (or three or four) when we acclimatize to our new reality, finding that creative spirit will be easier.
But, if you find you can focus on your writing, I offer this bit of advice. Don’t discipline yourself. Write for fun. Restore that sense of play. Write for the pleasure of the process, to enter the flow, to get to that wonderful place where you lose all sense of self and time. Write to lose awareness of the world outside, because, my god, we need that bit of escape.