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Writing Through Turbulent Times: Using Uncertainty to Enhance Your Story

Flickr Creative Commons: Patrick Marione

2020 was destined to be a year of transition for our family even before Corona Time became a thing, but since March 13th these upcoming changes have been overshadowed by the odd reality of living in a pandemic “hot spot”. Don’t get me wrong; that reality hasn’t been all bad. Yes, my younger daughter did spend the last third of her freshman year watching TikTok videos and Netflix, with occasional breaks for pass/fail schoolwork, but her empty schedule allowed us to build a uniquely strong connection at a time when teenage daughters tend to butt heads with their moms. I have loved watching my girls turn to each other for companionship, to become friends as well as sisters. These things would not have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic.

No ceremony marked the occasion when my oldest graduated with both her high school diploma and an Associate of Arts degree in May. I’m beginning to wonder if this lack of closure, combined with that fact that “moving clutter” doesn’t look all that different from “quarantine clutter,” has kept me in a state of denial that she’s actually leaving home in two days, COVID be damned. The expected tears aren’t flowing. Instead, there is a mad rush to make sure she has her own medical insurance card and access to our reimbursement account. I’ve added masks, hand sanitizer (a.k.a. liquid gold), a non-contact thermometer and a pulse oximeter to her items to pack and noted that Medical City is seven minutes from her new home.

She’ll be two counties away, but if any of us gets COVID, she may as well be in Australia. That’s honestly what keeps me up at night—the idea that she’ll get sick and I won’t be able to be with her.

As you can imagine, I have the attention span of a gnat for most things right now, including writing this post. I have, however, learned to push past the notion that my WIP is small and pointless in comparison to overflowing hospitals, mass unemployment, worldwide protests, and a government that appears more fascist by the day. All of that underlying tension seeps through the cracks of my fictional world, infusing the story with conflicting bursts of dread and hope that would not have been there otherwise. It is morphing into a novel that is uniquely of this time.

Getting to this place took patience and a lot of soul-searching. Here are a few ideas that helped me emerge from my rut and start working again. Maybe they will be of help to some of you as well.

The Story You Planned May Not Be the Story You Write and That’s Okay

The world is not the same place that it was when 2020 began. The pandemic can’t be ignored if your novel is set in present day. A near future setting would be even more complicated, forcing the author to guess what the fallout from all this will be, and perhaps being proved wrong in a year or two. Yes, you may be able to avoid this by pretending it is 2019, but can you? Should you? Will your story, as you have currently planned it, resonate with an audience still reeling from multiple collective traumas? Does it resonate with you? If not, what would have to happen to make you feel connected? Could that be done? Give yourself permission to change course, to adjust your characters’ world to the new reality. If that feels wrong, give yourself permission to pause that project, to work on something else—a short story, a magazine article, a poem, a blog post, even another novel—anything that will provide a constructive outlet for the angst we are all feeling.

Uncomfortable Writer = Uncomfortable Characters = Compelling Prose

It’s impossible to completely disconnect a writer’s state of mind from what they are working on, so embrace that. These are uncertain times and we are all on edge. Let that anxiety seep into your prose. What frightens you the most? Does your character have a similar fear? Could they? If not, could they at least process fear in a way that feels natural and familiar to you? For example, when I panic about something, my thoughts immediately jump to worst-case scenario and then spiral through the potential consequences of something that has not happened and might never happen. Depending on who I’m with, and how sensitive they may be to the darkening cloud over me, I may start voicing these theories aloud. Being told to calm down only makes the racing thoughts speed up. I may start shout-talking then, not because I’m angry at the person trying to “help,” but because I need to hear a voice that is louder than the one inside my head. Since I know exactly how this process feels, and am well acquainted with the misunderstandings that can result, I wrote a damn convincing scene by channeling my panic into one of my protagonists. Even if I don’t ultimately use that scene in the novel, it reconnected me with a character who had become rather flat on the page. The words started flowing again.

If All Else Fails, Give Yourself Permission to Take Time Off

Obviously this isn’t ideal, and may be impossible for those working under deadlines, but all of us only have so much to give. If you are mentally or emotionally exhausted, your work may become more stressor than sanctuary and you’ll probably want to delete everything you write anyway. Consider giving yourself a week or even a month off to recharge. (If kids are home, if family or friends get sick, if jobs are lost or in jeopardy, there may be no choice in the matter.) Don’t beat yourself up. Binge watch a show. Do a paint-by number. Put together a puzzle. FaceTime a friend.

The work will still be there when you are ready.

How are all of you? Are your family and friends all okay? If you have kids, how are they coping? Are you able to write? Has that changed over the course of the pandemic? Have you switched projects?

About Kim Bullock [1]

Kim has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A. [2], a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.

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