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How to Write During a Pandemic Even If It Feels Like You Can’t

On my office door is this little sign, Discipline, Priorities, Boundaries. It comes from the teachings of the Stoic philosophers. I printed it out during a particularly bad week in the middle days of quarantine, when the abject terror for all my beloved family and friends had subsided and the boredom of not doing anything, ever, had set in. I was having trouble getting my writing done, despite a looming deadline, and would spend entire days in a fugue state, unable to recount a single thing I had done besides eat Starburst.

Starburst were my Corona habit. That waxy paper, the chewy sweetness, the burst of nerve-soothing sugar got me through a lot of anxiety.  I know lots of you found some other bad habit to ease yourself through the uncertainty.

But of course, a person can’t indulge a really bad habit for very long without consequences. After a few weeks, that excess sugar started to make me feel like crap, and I knew it was just a mindless pacifier helping me to deal with overwhelming, brand-new uncertainties. Would my mother get sick? Would I? What about that grandmother dying alone in the hospital with no one to talk to her. (Of all the things, this one bothers me the most by far, and it is practically inhuman.)

We all have been through some version of this, and you know, it’s not appreciably improving. There is just no way to predict anything. We are stuck, living day to day, in this reality.

Seems like a perfect time for a writer to escape into the work. Can’t go anywhere. Can’t visit anyone. Have already binged everything on Netflix. Maybe escaping into the world of my book, a world I control (more or less), a world I invented, would feel great.

Except, like many of you, I’m sure, I just couldn’t get into it. I wrote, because that’s what I do, but it was never for long, never very much.

Which is where the stoics come in. Last year, I went to the West Country in England for research on what became The Lost Girls of Devon. In Glastonbury, my partner picked up a book of daily readings from the Stoics, a group of Roman philosophers I didn’t really know much about. We established a daily habit of reading them over breakfast every day on our travels, and kept it up when we got home.

If you know me, you probably think this is a strange fit. I tend more to the excessive (see Starburst, above) and intense than measured and thoughtful.

The idea of stoicism seems austere and rather dry, but in fact the Stoics were quite interested in living a good, full life, but they wanted to live mindfully, with good character.  The writings are almost always simple, straightforward, and profound. More than anything, it reminds me of Buddhism, with echoes of 12-step programs.

Back to the lack of writing. The long days with nothing to show for them. One thing the stoics value is self-discipline, and a whole month of readings was devoted to that idea,. It suddenly came to me that maybe what I needed to do was simply do the work.

Discipline.

I tried. More days of spinning my wheels. The stoics, like the Buddhists, suggest observing your behavior.

I observed my behavior.

Which revealed my penchant for reading all of three newspapers, every day, before getting into my work. Because I’m a news junkie and I know myself well enough to know I will never stop needing to know and understand the world around me, I asked myself how to change that habit. Maybe read them after the work was finished?

Priorities.

Worth a try. As much chaos as there is in the world, I could still probably catch up in an hour or so. If I placed my writing in the hours I always had, first thing, before anything could interfere, maybe I’d be more successful getting words on the page.

Shocking how well it worked. Just shocking.

The final piece was understanding that my world really has changed. My partner, who has worked out of the house since we’ve known each other, was suddenly home. He’s a loner, just as I am, and is perfectly able to entertain himself, but in all my thirty years writing, the only time I’d had people home with me during work hours was summertime with my kids.  Ages ago.

It was far more of an adjustment than I expected. I felt disconnected and not myself, and it took weeks to understand that it was this was interfering with my process the most.

Boundaries.

Like many women of my generation, I was raised to put family at the center of everything. (When I was first starting out, my office was in the very center of the house, right off the dining room, so I could hear in all directions and could be easily reached.) It was very hard for me to even articulate that having my partner home in the mornings was interfering with my ability to get into my book world.

The minute I brought it up, he started working on solutions. Neither of us could go out into the world, but he could drop the dogs at his doggie daycare (open because frontline workers used the service) and go up to the mountains and set orienteering courses in the back country a couple of days a week.

That helped, but it was only two days a week. I tried my noise-cancelling headphones, but they didn’t really transport me, so I brainstormed. I knew it was some kind of boundary issue, but couldn’t quite get to it until one day when he was working on something downstairs, and I needed to take one of my 10-20 minute nap breaks. My usual practice is to keep my bedroom fairly dark in the morning and then I can just pop in there and lie down for a few minutes when I get to a natural break. I’ll actually fall asleep for 15-20 minutes, wake up refreshed, and get back to work.

But I hadn’t been doing this. My partner’s usual spot to read or watch something on his iPad is in that very bedroom. Which was fine if it happened in the late afternoon or evenings, but if he was there in the morning, I couldn’t do my little catnaps the same way.

Also, I realized I didn’t even want him on the same floor. If I was to experience the sense of being alone that gave me the opening to my book world, I couldn’t feel him moving around upstairs. I wanted him on another level entirely.

It was extremely hard for me to ask for this. I didn’t want him to feel exiled, and it seemed so selfish that I couldn’t make this little transition during a really topsy-turvy time.

And yet, what did it cost him to take his books and iPad and cat and go down to our perfectly comfortable living room on the first floor? Absolutely nothing, and he was happy to do it—once I could articulate it.

I recognize that there’s a lot of privilege in that story, that I live in a big enough house to make that work, that I have the luxuriousness of time to allow for cat naps whenever I want. I don’t have children, which I have to say would probably have derailed me rather desperately.

But perhaps you, with whatever your challenges are during this weird time, will find some nugget of help in discipline, priorities, and boundaries.  I’m happy to say I’m only a few days from completing my 2021 book, and it feels great.

(Also, he’s out running this morning.)

Hey, it’s great to be back here at WU after my hiatus. How’s it been going for you with this upside down world? Have you found some hacks to get your creative work done, or has it been impossible? Share your tricks or sorrows in the comments. 

About Barbara O'Neal [1]

Barbara O'Neal [2] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [3], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [4].

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