by Indie Editor Mary Rakow
How can we “use” our feelings about the virus in this challenging time? Fear, anger, helplessness, worry, and also moments of joy, gratitude, hope?
Here’s an exercise I do a lot:
First, we can put ourselves onto the page just as we are. Let’s say you just woke up. You’re eager to check the latest virus update but you’re also sick of all the bad news. You take 2 minutes and write on your phone or in a handy notebook exactly what you’re feeling. Eagerness? Hope? Fear?
Then write your other feelings. Anger? Helplessness? Is there a third feeling?
Next, take those few sentences and transport them to a character in the text you are now writing, a novel or memoir, creative non-fiction, a poem. Take your feelings about this precise morning in your precise location in regard to this exact virus and give the feelings, not the situation, to a one of your characters who is in an entirely different situation, an entirely different time and location and predicament. Write the scene.
Which character do you select? Where is she/he? What is happening? Give her or him your feelings.
Feelings export perfectly. Maybe you feel both eager and fed-up and you decide to export your feelings to your character who is a different gender, in a different location, is a different age, is in a different circumstance. Maybe it’s a 10-year-old boy in Taiwan sleeping his first night in his aunt’s house because his parents are divorcing. You imagine him. You write whatever comes. Don’t edit or revise. Let’s say…
He wakes up in the morning eager for good news about his parents but also wants nothing to do with them because he’s so sick of their fighting. And he just wants his aunt to come tenderly to him as he lies on her tattered but clean couch, and to invite him for breakfast which he already can smell cooking. He has both feelings. What was you this morning with virus news is now him. Write the scene. Add the dialogue or not. Etc.
You write maybe 2-5 pages. And then you check the news on your phone.
Let’s say midday you venture to the grocery store, the empty shelves make you angry and you low-grade panic. At the same time, you’re grateful people are keeping their distance and being polite despite the shortages in every aisle. It even surprises you how civil people are. Some are kind. You jot these feelings down.
In the car with only a fraction of the groceries you were hoping to buy you check your notes. Add new feelings if they come to you. At home, you take care of business. Then you find you have 10 minutes to yourself. You give the feelings to the captain in the space fantasy you are writing and you’ve been thinking about since the grocery store. She panics with signs of an approaching fleet, enormous, deadly. But at the same time her co-pilot is ingenious, trustworthy and kind even under pressure. So she also feels gratitude. You write this scene. You don’t edit it. You turn your notebook to a clean new page. You prepare for nightfall.
You crash to sleep, forgot the exercise, but you wake up in the middle of the night with a text from your son, living in Bosnia. After, you write your feelings down. You walk around a bit. You know the character you want to give these feelings to. You write the scene. You feel good. You go back to sleep.
You do this three times a day and in a months’ time, you have something. Something good. Rough, but good.
As writers, we take our life and put it into our art. We don’t stop writing if there’s a pandemic. We start where we are, we get it down, we give our feelings to a character we’re working on.
The benefits are huge:
First of all, the simple exercise keeps writing as a consolation for us as individuals in this hard time. It helps us exercise our writer muscle, to strengthen it. It keeps us connected to the news not only as citizens but as writers, because instead of ignoring the news we go right into it. We face it. But one of the ways we respond is with our paper and pen, with our laptop, our phone.
If we’re scared or angry or need escape, it’s a lot better than over-drinking or binge online shopping. It’s better to write because we regain our steadfastness, our inner peace, our connection with our deepest selves. And from that, we help others. We’re less bitchy, more relaxed, more resourceful, more generous.
But I think there is an even greater good. Because times like this are when art really matters. A pandemic unfolding is when people turn to the arts, to music, to poems, to prayers, to friendship, to their deepest beliefs. We need these things now. This is when we realize how strong we are together. And everything suddenly becomes very precious.
Of all the professions, we writers probably are among the luckiest now because we can work anywhere, because many of us are naturally introverts and because we are acquainted with solitude… a real challenge for many people at this time, so perhaps we can also feel that we are very lucky!
I say, let’s be grateful we are writers, editors, agents and publishers. Let’s be good citizens but let’s also do our best in these coming weeks and months to treasure our gifts as makers of meaning and of beauty. Let’s daily, in very small ways, work to bring the fruit of our gifts to the human family.
See if you can do the exercise 3 times a day. It’s simple. It will keep you connected to your writer self. And it will help you move toward the art you alone can produce, the art that the world hungers for.
Writing in The Time of Covid
A No-Brainer Exercise
1. What am I feeling right now? Write it down.
2. What is the second feeling? The third? Write these down.
3. To which of my characters can I give this? What is his name? Her name?
4. Write the scene: Where is she/he? Who else is there? What is happening? What happened right before?
5. Turn the page or click “save.” Don’t edit. Just get ready to do this again in a few hours. Keep it simple.
7. Pat yourself on the back!
8. Repeat with each new day.
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Los Angeles gave his own take on “social distancing” in an online piece earlier this week. If he hadn’t taken the time to write his piece and others hadn’t published it, my Pastor wouldn’t have quoted from it today when we had no mass and gathered for the first time online. And I wouldn’t be able to send to you now. So… writing is important. Writing can help the world.
“Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place.
Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern.
Every inch and every foot that we place between ourselves and another person must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.” *
Mary Rakow, Ph.D.
Mary Rakow, Ph.D. is an author and freelance editor living in San Francisco. For 5 years she has enjoyed meeting writers through SFWC and the Writing for Change conference.