7 Ways Writing Saves Us When Life Is Hard

Tick-tock. The clock rolls on—marking time for all of us who are in the day-by-day progression of processing our understanding of and reaction to the nearly global and mostly voluntary quarantine in response to the startling arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My own emotions have been all over the map—from a rational and pragmatic outlook one minute…

…to having all my germaphobic tendencies massively triggered the next…

…to a deep wrenching sadness for just everything

…to a somewhat out-of-character need to connect with a larger community…

…to sobbing in the bathtub…

…to gasping in joy because the redbud tree in my backyard is starting to bloom…

…to waking up after a huge hailstorm and forgetting for a minute that there was a pandemic at all…

…to experiencing a wondrous sense of hope and gratitude as I see so much good arising from so many people in response to the needs of others…

…to feeling like a crazy person for reacting like this…

…to remembering that probably most of the population is or has been feeling at least some of the same shifts.

Throughout it all, one of the constants that has shown up moment after moment to ground me and keep me moving forward with purpose and hope has been… writing. Whether in other authors’ books or in the Golden Hollywood classics I’ve been marathoning in the evenings or in my own writing, words and stories are what keep centering me in the present and giving me hope for the return of normalcy and purpose in the future.

Last week, I wrote about how I’ve learned to solidify and maintain a daily schedule while working from home as a full-time writer. While this schedule has been helpful to me during these weeks (and I hope to you as well), it would be a total lie to say it’s been easy to keep writing this past month. And yet, even as I have tried to be very gentle with myself, I have persevered determinedly with my daily writing schedule—because I am absolutely convinced that writing is the single best thing I can do right now for myself and for others (well, other than staying home…).

I’ve been hearing from other writers who are striving through the exhaustion and confusion of these times to pursue their creativity in ways large and small. I particularly loved this email from Joe West, who is currently hunkered down in New York City:

The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

I should have written before to thank you for all you do for us struggling, bumbling, and ofttimes clueless writers. But today I have to make special note of your recent post mentioning Julia Cameron‘s amazing book The Artist’s Way. I’ve seen it around for years, of course, but was never tempted before. What serendipitous force (You!) prompted me to get the book on March 8th just before this pandemic hit the fan?

I’ve just completed Week 3 of the program. It has provided a framework and grounding and a secret safe haven in the midst of:

– losing my job
– my kids’ schools closing
– my city on lockdown
– the whole world going bonkers
etc., etc.

I’m really not sure I could have faced all this had I not already made a 12 week commitment to restore my creative self via The Artist’s Way program. So far it’s been more therapeutic than creativity enhancing, but if that’s the most I get out of it, it will have been well worth it. Thank you very much.

Keep the posts coming. Stay safe.

I spent most of last year struggling my way back to creativity (which is where The Artist’s Way came in for me). When everything else in life seemed so much much more important than writing—to the point that writing didn’t seem very important at all—something kept me showing up at the desk and poking at the keys. Deep inside of me I knew that my writing was my lifeline, that it would save me if I could just keep going and never give up.

Now I believe that more than ever.

7 Ways Writing Can Keep You Going

If you’ve been struggling to write these past weeks, consider first that writing doesn’t always have to be a big production. Sometimes the most important writing is the “worst” writing—the throwaway poems or emotional journal entries. What you write during this time doesn’t have to measure up to Shakespeare’s “plague plays.” It just has to be enough to keep you going.

Even if you can’t quite muster the energy to write, at least make sure you’re interacting with other people’s writing. And I’m not talking about coronavirus news articles. I’m talking about Shakespeare’s plays. I’m talking about John Ford’s westerns. I’m talking about Charles Dickens and Stephen Ambrose and Madeleine L’Engle and Margaret Mitchell and J.R.R. Tolkien and John Keats and Carl Jung and Emily Dickinson.

Writing and stories have the power to help all of us—but especially writers. Here are some of the ways.

1. Writing Offers Escape

Let’s just get this one out of the way. Although I often get sniffy at the idea of “stories as just escapism,” it’s really the “just” I take exception to—because of course stories help us escape. I ended up choosing a Golden Hollywood marathon this month not just because it takes me back in time to an often gentler and in some ways more sensible era, but also because it takes me back to my own childhood when I watched these movies incessantly. For two hours in the evenings, I forget what’s going on in my own life while I watch stories about people from the Great Depression and World War II finding courage and meaning in their own struggles.

When I write, it is the same–only perhaps more so. I disappear into the place in my head where the stories live. The daydreaming aspect itself is powerful, but when I’m also trying to juggle pretty sentences or wrangle difficult story structure and character arcs, I am apart from the real world. It can be tricky to get to that “place apart” when the real world is clamoring loudly (if only through my own physical tension), but when I persevere hard enough that I do get there, what I find is always worth the effort.

2. Writing Creates Catharsis

Ye olde Greek philosophers wrote a prescription for every citizen that directed them to watch a good tragedy play every so often in order to purge their emotions. The reason a story’s escapism is so powerful is not only because it distracts us from our problems, but even more so because it has the ability to aid in processing and even purging our emotions about our real-life problems. This is why we love a good cry over a sad movie or novel.

Again, the effect is magnified when you’re the one doing the writing. When it is your emotions pouring out onto the page through your own words, the catharsis can be deeply powerful. This is true whether you’re venting emotions in an argument between characters or whether you’re taking the more direct approach in a morning journaling session—such as Cameron’s recommendation of three “morning pages.”

In many ways, I think the catharsis offered through writing is perhaps its greatest gift to us during this time. With so much fear, confusion, and pent emotion, we need a safe and useful place to pour it all out. Even if what you write goes no further than your notebook, it will still be valuable. It may also become at least the rough draft for something you can use to reach out in empathy to so many others who are seeking their own catharsis for the same emotions.

3. Writing Offers Hope and Faith

When this all started, I wrote a post about “The Power of Hopeful Stories During a Stressful Time.” In times of darkness, we’re looking for answers, but as we experience the extent of our own helplessness, we’re also looking for hope—whether it be the hope of a greater meaning, the hope of a greater good, the promise of an ultimate purpose, or even just the encouragement that those who can do more than we are doing it.

Stories of truth—even if it’s just the truth of your own quest to keep faith and do something good for your neighbor—are powerful in this time. Fictional stories are equally powerful. Essentially, a story is a logical equation positing that when this happens, this is the outcome. When stories tells us everything will be okay, or at the least that we will grow and find gratitude, or perhaps that this is how we find our courage and our surrender, we instinctively know when they are offering us a plausible truth. When that truth is one of hope, it encourages us. When we find that truth in our own stories, then we know we already have that hope and that courage somewhere inside of us.

4. Writing Is Meditative

For years, I resisted the concept of meditation. Just the idea made me fidgety. I don’t want to clear my thoughts. I like my thoughts!

Then I realized that in many ways the “writing zone” is a very meditative state. It’s a blocking out of everything around us and a deep sinking into our intuition and imagination. It’s a melding of our conscious and unconscious, not unlike a dream state while sleeping.

Or at least that’s the goal. Most of us scrabble around in the more conscious parts of trying to create sentences and stories that make sense. I notice that I, for one, often resist the effort required to get into that zone in much the same way I do the idea of actual meditation. It requires the same quieting of my “talky” brain, the same groundedness and deep stillness within myself.

One trick I’ve learned that is helpful in getting me into that meditative writing zone is to set the timer for fifteen minutes and then just go! Entering that state of wakeful dreaming is less difficult when I’m not demanding I do it for an hour at a time. I’ll surface at the end of fifteen minutes, take a drink of coffee or whatever, maybe look over what I’ve written, then dive back in for another fifteen minutes.

5. Writing Helps Us Access the Healing Power of Archetypes

The unconscious doesn’t speak a language of words. Rather, it communicates with your conscious self through images—symbols (such as what you remember from your sleeping dreams). These symbols, especially the universal ones that we recognize as archetypes, have the ability to cut right to the heart of our human existence. This is why experiencing a deeply archetypal story—such as Lord of the Rings—can produce a feeling of psychological and emotional healing.

All stories are archetypal to one extent or another if only in their adherence to the structure of the story arc. But the more you understand and apply archetypes, the more opportunity you have to access (and wield) their healing power.

I’ve become increasingly excited about archetypal storytelling, especially after reading Kim Hudson’s The Virgin’s Promise and realizing my vague disaffection with the Hero’s Journey comes down to the fact that it is but one of several “life arcs” we all experience. I’ve been spending much of my writing time these weeks working through my own theories of six progressive types of arc common to human development (something I hope to share in a new series soon). These studies have been both grounding and exhilarating for me in a time when I need both experiences.

6. Writing Gives Us Connection and Community

The first (and perhaps most important) person who will be impacted by your writing is you. But writing is a form of communication. We share ourselves and our views of the world in our stories in order to share them with others.

I doubt there has been anyone during this quarantine who has not reached out to writing, in some form or another, in order to feel connected to specific people or simply to humanity in general. As writers, we not only have the opportunity to access this same connection and its sense of community, we also have the ability to lead the way in helping others find connection as well. Even when you are sitting alone at your desk and not a soul but you has yet to read your words, you are still reaching out, you are still connecting. It is a powerful feeling.

7. Writing Provides Purpose and Meaning

Finally, writing gives us something to do with our time that has a purpose, that feels productive, and that has at least the potential to find, create, and offer meaning to ourselves and others in a time when we desperately need it.

Life doesn’t always make sense. Its hardships often seem unending, and we rarely understand why we are facing specific challenges.

But stories always make sense. Stories tell us thematic truths. These truths are wide and varied—some hopeful, some not. But the very fact that we can write a story, create a narrative, and recognize the universal patterns of our existence is a powerful tool for bringing order to our own chaos.

More than that, when we can share ourselves authentically through the guise of a story, we give others the opportunity to recognize themselves, their own experiences, and their own truths. In so doing, we fortify their ability to stand strong. I’m sure we’ve all read or watched a story that made our own feeble hopes feel that much stronger simply because we’ve suddenly recognized we’re not alone! there’s someone else who dares to hope for the best as well!

***

If you haven’t the energy to write right now, don’t beat yourself up. There is a time for everything. The page will turn eventually, and a new chapter will begin. Perhaps that will be the chapter in which you return to your desk.

But if you can summon the energy to write something right now, even just a little bit, then I encourage you to do so. There are gifts waiting for you at your desk, and they are gifts that give to all of us.

Stay safe and healthy, friends!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How is writing helping you (or not) during this time? Tell me in the comments!

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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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Date:
  • April 6, 2020
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