First of all, this is not about guilting you into being more productive with your creative endeavors. Sometimes, life throws you curveballs, and you just can’t write. Every writer I know goes through those periods. You have a baby, a relative dies, you move, a hurricane hits, you start a new job, you get sick—these major transitions can take a lot of time and mental energy and it’s normal to feel anxiety.
Like the Paul Simon lyric says, “Sometimes even music/Cannot substitute for tears.” Sometimes you just have to live life rather than make art about it.
Secondly, I’m not addressing clinical anxiety. I’m discussing the low-level anxiety and spiral of worry that you might be feeling right now as the most significant pandemic of our lives spreads across the world and causes major disruptions.
How can you write when the world seems to be falling apart?
A Sense of Purpose
If you want to write but you’re struggling with being distracted by your worries, begin by remembering the value you place on your art. Why do you do it?
If it’s important to you, if you think storytelling is necessary even amidst tragedies and times of high stress, if you feel that writing is essential to your well-being, and if you believe as James Baldwin does, that “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive,” then it may be worth pursuing your book or story even if you’re feeling a little tormented.
The Steps to Regaining Control of Your Writing
If the desire is there, try this:
Step 1: Quarantine the Distractions
I’m taking this idea from David Allen’s Getting Things Done concept (often called GTD). Allen explains that in order to be productive, you need to free up mental energy and achieve what he calls “Mind like water,” which is “a mental and emotional state in which your head is clear, able to create and respond freely, unencumbered with distractions and split focus.”
The first step in Allen’s system is to put your ideas, to-dos, and anxiety into a “bucket” or “inbox.” That is, write them down. When you write them down, you can forget about them—at least temporarily.
Step 2: Stimulus Control
The human brain tends to be more drawn to bad news than good news. Our brains, in fact, evolved to pay attention to stimuli that might harm us so that we could survive.
But when you get into a pattern of reading bad or alarming news, you can easily get addicted to it and end up reading far more information than you need to read.
So you may want to employ what Cognitive Behavior Therapists call “stimulus control.” The idea here is that you want to interrupt the link that occurs between the stimulus (reading news about the pandemic) and the response (increased electrical activity in the brain).
Put aside the anxiety-producing stimuli. Notifications, emailed articles, social media, TV news, radio news, texts from friends, etc. It’s probably best to just turn off your wifi, put your phone in airplane mode (and maybe put it in a different room), turn off the TV and radio.
Step 3: Clear the Mind
Try to think about nothing.
You’re transitioning from distraction and stimulus overload to creative mode. I’m not asking you to be a pro with meditation. Just try box breathing: breathe in for a count of four, hold it for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four, hold it for a count of four. Repeat five times.
Step 4: Show Up
Now, we’re going to write. But you don’t even need to tell yourself that. The important thing is to just show up to your writing (be it at a computer—again, with the wifi off—or with a pen and paper).
Keep low expectations. Shoot for just ten minutes. Go longer if you can, but don’t sweat any kind of quota right now.
Writer’s block and writer’s anxiety and writer’s panic often stem from a fear that you’re not hitting a bar you’ve set for yourself. That is, they’re often rooted in feeling inadequate.
So think about this as just showing up to keep your writing company for a little while. Tap out a few sentences. Allow your mental energy to be totally consumed by your story and nothing else.
Will you get some writing done? Probably. It’s likely to be less than normal. But even if you get very little done, you’ve succeeded in giving yourself a much-needed break from the unhealthy cycle you’ve been in recently.
Some other tips to help manage things
Social distance doesn’t mean anti-social
Set up a call with a writing friend and talk about your story. Credit to Matt Bell for this one (he’s one of my favorite writers to follow on Twitter). Social distancing is just physical; it shouldn’t mean losing all other kinds of contact with people—especially those who can relate to your struggles. So make an appointment with a writer and call them up.
Schedule your day
For most of us, home is about unstructured, unscheduled time. It might seem counterintuitive, but creativity can actually benefit from structure. Sure, there are the famous eureka moments in the shower and whatnot, but those only happen to people who have primed their subconscious to be constantly problem-solving.
In chaotic times like these, creativity is more likely to arise from your making time for it.
You may have heard that exercise is good for you. It’s true. 🙂 Get some physical activity, even if it’s just one of those seven-minute circuits.
I know the feeling: it can seem irresponsible to ignore what’s happening. But that’s not what I’m calling for. I’m just saying that it may be best for you to set aside times to get updated and then otherwise ignore the hysteria.
Information is important. Go ahead and dig into things. But most of us don’t need more than 30-60 minutes of taking in such information. So limit your time.
Some further reading
- How Do We Write in Times of Strife?
- Why We Love Bad News
- Dopamine Fasting
- Dopamine Fasting from a skeptic
- How Fitness Will Make You a Better Writer
- How to Beat Writer’s Block
- Science Can Help You Beat Writer’s Block
- How Your Attitude and Approach toward Habits Can Revitalize Your Writing Practice
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