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Writing in a World on Fire

Photo by id-iom.


There is a meme, started by Matt Jones (@tinyarmoredone), that goes as follows:

me: *opens mouth to scream into the void*
the void: sorry, man we’re full up
me: what?
the void: there’s no more room, we’re teeming with screams
me: but –
the void: We. Are. At. Full. Capacity. Sir. Try a pillow.

It’s been feeling like the teeming void for a long time, and 2020 has only amplified it. The void’s at full capacity, but the screams just keep on coming.

I write romances. To be even more specific, I write geeky romantic comedies. All my agents have characterized my voice as incorporating humor: it’s a selling point, it’s my shtick, it’s my brand.

Needless to say, I have not been feeling inspired.

It’s been hard for me to be motivated to write about love, no matter how much I believe in it, and laughs have been thin on the ground. Rather than story ideas, I have been hit with a powerful and inchoate rage, so immeasurable and overwhelming that I feel like I could spontaneously combust.

Putting my writer’s coach cap on, I keep trying to think of what I would say, if I were faced with a writer who was struggling with depression and despair in the face of a world on fire. This is the best I can come up with:

1. Self-care first. I literally always say this to my clients. We are writers, but that’s not all we are. Martyring ourselves for our writing is not doing anyone any good. Without a reserve of health and energy, your writing will suffer anyway. Drink some water. Get some exercise. Take deep breaths. Stay away from social media if you need to. Keep track of your health, physical, mental, and emotional.

2. Don’t discount what you’re doing. I saw a post from a friend who remarked that she’d felt bad about being “nothing more” than a mid-list romance author… until a woman brought some well-worn books for her at a book signing, asking her to autograph them because they had helped her mother get through chemo. From then on, she said she shook off any critique from people who wanted to belittle her writing or her genre. You don’t need to be writing War and Peace in order to have a large influence on people’s lives.

3. Don’t discount what you’re doing, part 2. Just because you’re writing what might seem like a silly story – a space opera, a high fantasy, a romance, a cozy mystery – doesn’t mean that you can’t get across bigger, meaningful issues if you want. People wrote off YA fiction for decades, and now it’s a showcase of political and personal discourse, from The Hunger Games to The Hate U Give. Across a spectrum of genres, you can take what you’re feeling, what you believe, and give it a voice. In fact, if you’re struggling with making sense of what you feel the world ought to be like, or how bigger evils need to be faced, this might be the perfect outlet.

4. Lean in. This will seem completely counter-intuitive, but bear with me. If you are feeling anger at injustice, say, or the anxiety of the pandemic, don’t try to distract yourself from it or frantically escape from it, at least not in a manic way. Compulsively trying to run from a thing or pretend it doesn’t exist isn’t going to banish it, and ultimately the emotion will come out in some more insidious, possibly destructive manner. Process it. Talk to someone compassionate. Be present and feel what you’re feeling. It’s cliché, but the only way out is through… and a lot of what’s happening in the world has been a direct result of ignoring the obvious for too long.

5. Scream on the page. There is a danger in keeping your emotions locked in your head and your heart. Think of your psyche as a finite container: if you suppress what you’re feeling, and continually add more and more information and fuel for the fire of anger and despair, then it’s no shock that you’ll either shut down or explode, however that looks. Whether it’s fiction or journaling, if you identify as a writer, odds are good you’ll feel better if you leach some of the poison via writing. It will give the amorphous emotion structure. If it doesn’t, it will at least give it space, which sometimes is all you need.

6. Try something new. Rather than trying to figure out how I can take my current emotional state and carve out a comedy, I’ve been experimenting in new genres that better reflect what I’m feeling. I’m writing more non-fiction essays. I have been reading suspense, thrillers, horror. I’ve been doing cultural research in alternate mythologies. I have no idea if any of this will pan out in the long term, but it keeps me from spinning in that horrible whirlpool of fury.

I don’t have any better answers, and honestly, most days I feel like I’m barely keeping it together. But I am doing my best to speak my truth when possible, take care of myself when necessary, and keep moving forward as best I can. And I am sending all my care and love to people, especially my fellow writers who are struggling to scream into their pillows before getting their words out to the world.

What is your advice to stay stable and keep writing when the world feels like it’s in chaos? What support can you offer others? What are you finding helps you?

About Cathy Yardley [1]

Cathy Yardley is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin's and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She's also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Sign up here [2] for her newsletter to receive the free course Jumpstart Your Writing Career. [2]