Business Musings: Writing in Difficult Times
This morning, a tweet from a British comic book writer floated across my Twitter feed. He wrote (and I’m paraphrasing here):
Sorry about the flurry of political tweets. I’ll get back to light stuff—comics, games, graphic novels—when the world is no longer on fire.
Oh, boy, do I understand how he feels. I’ve been there. I am there for a variety of reasons.
But I’m going to disagree with him—on a couple of things.
First, the apology for the political tweets. If you feel the need to speak out on social media, it will impact your brand (both negatively and positively). Accept that. Then speak out and don’t apologize.
Second, the phrase “light stuff” concerning his art. Implying that what he does—what all of us do—is unimportant.
Or as another writer, an American this time, put it on Facebook a few days ago, (again, paraphrasing) sure is hard to write when the house you live in is tearing up its own foundation.
Yes, it is.
And still, you must write.
People need your art, now more than ever.
I wrote about this last fall, in a post called “The Importance of Fiction.” I’m going to repeat a bit of what I said there in this blog, because we need the reminders.
I learned this lesson about art during 9/11. I was writing Thin Walls, a Smokey Dalton novel, set in Chicago in 1968—one of the most terrible years of the latter half of the 20th century. The novel deals with racism, and murder, and hatred, and love and family, all tied into one package in a Chicago neighborhood during that bleak December.
I had just hit the climax of the novel—my hero, about to confront the villain—when terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Another flight went down in a Pennsylvania field because the passengers rose up and prevented more deaths than their own.
Evidence of real heroism, more as the news continued to unfold.
And more horrors too. For a while, it truly felt like the world was on fire, at least from a perspective inside this country.
(And, frankly, I never again want to wake up to these words coming out of my radio: …the fires at the Pentagon are still burning out of control…)
I have a vivid memory of standing in my kitchen, looking at the television, and stepping outside of myself, realizing that the government we have—the world we all have—is a consensus, something we all agree to. That it is as fine and as thin as paper, and it’s only as good as the people who are willing to uphold its ideals, laws, and values.
That realization terrified me as much as the events of the day. Because it became clear to me what shaky ground we were all on, we had always been on. Until that moment in September, 2001, I had been immersed in 1968, another time when it felt like the world was becoming unmoored, and I knew that these moments came about—for the world, for individual countries, for states, for neighborhoods, and for us individually.
I couldn’t get back to my novel. I felt it unimportant—light stuff. It didn’t matter, not like running into a burning building mattered to save people covered in dust and ash, not like jumping terrorists on a plane and sacrificing your life to save others.
Writing didn’t matter when faced with the loss of life and the outpouring of grief. It didn’t matter in the face of the kinds of horrors human beings can impose on each other.
And the irony was, for me, I had been writing a book that I believed did matter, that it was about things people needed to know and see and understand. I felt passionate about the book, until the world changed.
The night of September 11, when I knew that friends and family had survived, I turned off the news. Dean and I watched some fluffy crap on cable TV. Later that week, after trying to go back to the books I had been reading, I started the Harry Potter series—and allowed myself time to go somewhere else, because I couldn’t stay here. I would break if I stayed here.
And that was when I had my epiphany. I realized that escape is rest. It’s important. It gets us away from the horrors, the terrible things, the stresses and upsetting moments of every day life.
Sometimes, art provides a different perspective, a new way of thinking about important things. And sometimes, we just hang out with a little boy wizard fighting a big powerful evil because it entertains us.
This is not light stuff. It is not unimportant. It is extremely important.
As I said, I wrote about this in October. But I didn’t tell you how to keep practicing your art in difficult times. So let me add that.
So…how do we do our jobs when our world is on fire?
To start, we need to understand our priorities, and to understand them, we need a gut-check on what we can and cannot do.
I start with the gut-check.
- If You Have The Ability to Directly Help Alleviate The Crisis, Take Action Immediately.
If you have a job that enables you to make a difference on whatever it is that’s going wrong, then go, do what you can. Off-duty police and firefighters ran to the crisis in both Washington D.C. and New York City on 9/11. Attorneys flocked to airports around the United States (and, I’m told, all over the world) on the weekend of January 28, 2017, to volunteer their services for the people trapped by the ban issued by the president. Construction workers often head to disaster zones to help rebuild after floods or landslides or wildfires.
If you can help in a difficult situation, then set your writing aside for the time being and help. That’s the best thing you can do.
Don’t beat yourself up for not writing. But don’t devalue your writing either. Your writing has value too. It simply must get set aside during a time of crisis, like you would set aside a normal routine or even the opportunity to sleep in your own bed.
Realize that the writing will be there waiting for you when the crisis is over.
- If You Have Financial Resources, Use Them To Help In Times of Need.
Some people can supply expertise or labor or physical assistance in a crisis. But those people need to eat. Supplies need to arrive. Helicopters need to ferry the injured out of a disaster zone. Bottled water needs to be delivered to areas without fresh drinking water.
Political fires are similar. If you don’t like how things are going, then invest money in charitable organizations, legal groups that will fight for your causes, or organizations you believe in whose funding has been drastically reduced. Sometimes you can (and must) do this on a one-on-one level. If you know someone who will lose their home due to changes in the way laws are applied or because they only need $100 to make the last of this month’s rent, then for god’s sake, give them the $100 (even if you call it a loan). If you have the money, put it to good use—whatever that means for you.
There are people who act, people who finance the action, and people who inspire the action. Sometimes you can be all three. Sometimes you only choose one.
Donating money or supporting friends and family in difficult times is action, even though it often is not as satisfying as bandaging an arm or rescuing someone from a nightmarish situation.
Again, if you can give, do so. Money fuels the emergency vehicles, buys the lunches, pays for hotel rooms for volunteers. Money helps.
And if you can do so on an on-going basis—a weekly donation, helping someone monthly with their rent, supporting a public health clinic when its funding dries up—do that.
Value it. The people you help will.
- Get Involved.
Every organization needs volunteers. If you feel like you must physically take action, then do so. You will find a place. As a writer, you might end up writing public service announcements. You might letter signs. You might handle website responses. You might simply be a strong back, charged with filling and piling sandbags or carrying boxes of food into shelters.
But you will be in the middle of things.
- Get Involved Long Term.
You don’t like how things are going? Change them. Start at the local level, in some kind of grassroots organization. From working at the food bank to running for city council, you have opportunities in your home town if you want to take them.
Or if you don’t have the time or, as an introvert, the ability to be the front person, then finance someone else’s political career. Help them fight for causes you both believe in.
But…But…None of This is Writing.
Nope. It’s not. Because if your house is on fire, you don’t sit in your office blithely typing away. You deal with the fire.
It’s up to you to figure out how best to use your abilities.
So…the world is in crisis. It’s “on fire” as that British comic book writer said.
I used two different examples—one from England and one from the United States—on purpose. When I read the politics-filled Twitter feed for the British comic book writer, I recognized and agreed with some of the things he believed constituted that fire. But more than half of the political items he was tweeting about were unfamiliar to me. They were important in Great Britain, and not something I knew anything about.
When I looked at the social media feed for the American writer, I saw issues I was deeply familiar with (and agreed with him on). The overlap between the issues that concerned the American writer and the British writer was about 20% of what they were discussing. Everything else differed, because of their different geographies and personal concerns.
I don’t know about you folks, but my daily Facebook scroll fills with all kinds of concerns. Some are about the issues of the day worldwide, especially if something major has happened—an act of terror, the death of an international celebrity (we’ll miss you, Carrie!), or the results of a major election in a democratic nation (and we’re coming up on a few more of those).
Most of the issues that scroll through my Facebook feed are personal. Someone lost a beloved pet, a friend, a parent or a spouse. Someone else was diagnosed with cancer. Another person was in a car accident or had their home foreclosed on or lost their job.
Some people drop offline when these major events occur, and others stay online, seeking comfort and assistance.
But the important thing to remember about all of those items that scroll through my feed and yours is this: those items are a crisis to the person who is in the middle of that event. When you lose a parent, you lose a part of your world and your history. When you have to deal a severe health diagnosis, your life changes irreparably.
Those things mean the world is on fire for you. And you must go back to those four points above. Sometimes we get no writing done when the world is on fire, whatever that means in your case.
So point five, which I have just backed into, is this:
- Give Yourself Time To Deal With The Change To Your World.
I mentioned that in the 9/11 example. When 9/11 happened, I dealt with the immediate aftermath—finding friends, making certain everyone was all right, making sure we would be all right since (at the time) 90% of our living came out of New York. And then I took some days off.
That I only needed days was about me, not about the severity of the crisis. I didn’t live in New York. I wasn’t seeing the dust and ash. I was living on the beautiful Oregon Coast, and dealing with the changes, but they weren’t as impactful for me as they were for my friends from Manhattan.
I had a tougher time with some of the recent political changes here in the United States. I’ve had to rethink how I do things, and where my priorities are. I also had to deal with emotional fallout. In fact, I’m still dealing with it.
Neither of those two events, however, were as immediate as dealing with the death of my father—an event that made it impossible for me to read or write for six months. I have had health concerns flare up and deal with them, and I’ve had to help others through some of their emergencies. All of them have had an impact on my life.
Those events also took time from writing—expected time, when you look at it in hindsight, but time you can’t plan for because you have no idea it’s coming until it hits.
And the worst thing you can do as an artist is to blame yourself for missing work when life gets very hard.
Again, though, you don’t devalue your writing or your art. You haven’t abandoned it because it’s worth less than whatever else you were doing.
You set your art aside, the way you might take a leave of absence from your job to care for a sick relative. Your priorities had to change because of the change in circumstance.
I need to note here that there are good changes which also take time away from the writing. New parents who also happen to be writers are often surprised at the fact that they lose writing time during the years before their children go to school.
Often those writers come to me and ask me how they should get to work and I always surprise them. I say, Your children are only young once. These moments will never come again. Enjoy them while you can. The writing will be there, waiting for you, the day the bus takes your baby to kindergarten.
In some of the teaching Dean and I do, we call these events—good and bad—life rolls. Back when there was only one path into a writing career, we used to role play how that path worked, and always, someone ended up with a roll of the dice (yes we used dice) that would have them lose years of their writing.
Think that doesn’t happen to professionals? Remember when Stephen King got hit by a truck? He lost months. Greg Iles, who was in a serious car accident, lost years.
Both men came back, their writing stronger than ever. But the not writing was a struggle for them. Just like it is for all of us.
So the corollary for #5—let’s call it 5.5.
5.5. Forgive Yourself for The Time You Spend Away.
You gave yourself permission to set the writing aside. When you come back to it, realize that your absence was okay. Time to face forward and start again.
But…But…What If 1 through 5.5 Don’t Apply to You?
You’re upset about the fires in the world. You want to help, but you can take no direct action. You don’t have the time or the ability to volunteer. You live hand-to-mouth and barely make your own rent, so you can’t give money away, at least not right now.
What can you do?
You can write. Create fiction. Make art. Help people escape.
You don’t think that has value? Then look at the comment section in my October blog. The comments tell the story of how important fiction was and is to every single person who took the time to share.
That will help, along with realizing how much you probably rely on fiction and stories and art as well.
But how do you write when so much is happening and it is taking all your attention to keep track, keep up, and remain vigilant?
- Give Yourself Permission to Write
Yes, it’s important to remain vigilant, to hold others accountable, to protest or weigh in on the issues of the day. Speaking out is necessary in times of turmoil.
Speaking out can be scheduled. You don’t have to do it every minute of every day.
You need to work on your art, just like you would (or are) going to your day job.
- Prioritize Your Writing
Figure out where it fits into your every day schedule. Yes, the world around you has changed. Your writing time might be truncated because of that. You might have taken action (see the points above) and so rather than having five hours of writing time each day, you only have an hour.
Make that hour count.
- Remove All Distractions From Your Workspace
Shut off your wireless. Turn off the television. Listen to recorded music or some kind of streaming service that does not have news breaks. Better yet, work in silence. Absolute silence.
Do not bring your phone into your writing space. Even if you need to be on call all the time, move your phone away from your desk/computer/laptop. Do not have your messages show up on your computer as you work.
Set your message tone to something different than your ring tone. Shut off your email alerts, your social media alerts, and your push notifications—on your phone as well as your computer.
I’m pretty sure, although I don’t know, that all smart phones have a do not disturb function. I use mine liberally. If I need to have my phone in the same room as me because I’m expecting a call or a text or some important notification, then my do-not-disturb is set up so that only that call/text/notification can get through. I don’t use a manual do-not-disturb. I use the automated function. It shuts off for my writing hours, and turns back on when I’m done.
Yep…I said it. I am not connected 24/7.
And it’s freeing.
- Give Yourself Permission to Get Lost in Fictional Worlds
If you escape the real world for an hour or two, you’ll create a fictional world in which people who really need the escape (after long days at the hospital or rescuing trapped people) will be able to escape to as well.
- Enjoy Your Writing
I used to work for a psychologist. I talked to him, and the other psychologists I met through him. One thing they all agreed on (and I’ve since seen research to back it up) is this: the worst thing you can do is depress your mood because others around you are depressed.
Don’t feel guilty for enjoying something, even in dark times. Laugh at someone’s jokes. Listen to great music. Look at a lovely sunset.
Enjoy your writing—and others will as well.
- Limit The Time You Spend Consuming News Or On Social Media.
Protect your workspace—again. I’m an omnivorous news junkie, but in November, I had to take a short hiatus. My stress levels were much too high. I limited what I consumed, discovered a balance, and have now returned to my earlier ways.
I choose the time of day that I monitor the news, however. I catch up at breakfast, just to make sure something didn’t happen overnight that I have to deal with. Then I decompress, head to my office, and don’t deal with media until after my daily run.
Yes, you heard me. Walk, run, bike, swim. Move. Listen to music, or exercise in silence, talk to friends, whatever it takes. You will feel better. You will sleep better. You will think more clearly, because you have walked away some of that stress.
- Commune with Nature
Look at the damn sunset now and then. (Or the damn sunrise, you morning people.) Realize that there’s still beauty in the world, no matter what is happening.
- When It Gets to Be Too Much, Talk To Friends, Loved Ones, Like-Minded Souls
Vent a little. You’ll feel better.
- Vent in Your Writing
Reimagine the crisis that you’re experiencing in fictional form. Write murder mysteries for the first time in your life. Write fantasy, defeating some metaphorical version of the problem you’re dealing with. Or figure out how to give yourself and the world a happy ending.
Me, I’m one of those let’s see how others solved this types, so I always look to the historical record. I write historical fiction, and I know from my reading that dark times happen. I am fascinated by those dark times, particularly one aspect of them: How did people survive the darkness around them? The answers are there in the past, along with hope, courage, and amazingly great people.
- Continue to Publish Your Work
If you escaped while writing something, a reader will find an escape while reading it.
- Write More Words of Fiction than You Write in Email or on Social Media
Keep track. Make sure that fiction always wins. Walk away from flame wars on social media. You’ll never convince someone else that they’re wrong.
It’s better to listen—find out why they differ from you—than it is to bludgeon them with your opinion.
Although I get it. Sometimes you want to bludgeon them. I know I do. Usually I walk away. If, however, I can’t let go after several hours, then I have to craft a response. But I do so on my time, away from the social media platform, and like as not, I don’t send that response.
I’d rather educate and humanize than scream. It’s not about catching more flies with honey. It’s understanding that we human beings are not one thing. People do things for reasons important to them, reasons you might not understand.
Does that mean you have to remain friends with them on Facebook? No. You don’t have to read their tweets either.
And you need to ask yourself what you gain—what we all gain—when you fight with them. If the answer is I don’t know or satisfaction and nothing else, use your energies elsewhere.
Some of my vociferous writer friends set aside an afternoon each week for social media venting. They save up arguments for that day. Like as not, the arguments are dated by the time the day rolls around. The arguments that aren’t dated are the ones they go with—often in the form of a blog post.
You can do that too.
Sometimes silence is not an option, particularly when your core values are at stake.
But use #12 as a guideline. Write more words of fiction—every day, every week—than anything else.
Remember This: Human Beings Learn Best Through Storytelling
We live inside stories. We learn empathy from stories. We gain other points of view and other ways of thinking from stories.
Stories open new worlds. Stories create community.
Stories have great value—not just as entertainment, but from one human being to another.
Your readers might love your characters, characters those readers would hate in real life, and those characters might make it easier for your readers to understand their corner of the world.
Finally: Value Your Art
I can’t say that enough. The British comic book writer whose tweet started this denegrated the work he’s doing, and he shouldn’t have.
Yes, we all face dark times. I wish that weren’t so. I wish we constantly moved forward, without the backwards steps.
But that’s not the way the world works.
I firmly agree with Dr. Martin Luther King’s quote “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” However, that arc is not a clear path. It meanders.
It is our job to maintain hope. To provide comfort. To help each other.
We writers nurture through stories.
So please, take care of yourself during these times of stress.
And keep writing.
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Writing in Difficult Times,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2017 Can Stock Photo / Choreograph