Writing in the Time of Weirdness: How to Focus in Chaos

Bad Omen Bird

Creating art—any kind of art—demands two things: time, and focus. Right now, time, for many of us, is no longer a factor. We’re working from home or in half-empty offices where no one is calling, there aren’t any social obligations (except virtually), activities and trips are cancelled, and we’re not spending hours in the car commuting or running errands. If not all the time in the world to write, we at least have more than we did before. But what I’m hearing from many of my writing friends is this: “I’m like that guy in the Twilight Zone episode who finally had all that time to read … and his glasses broke.”

Why?

Because right now, there is no routine, no stability, no telling what the hell is going to happen tomorrow, and no hope of it ending any time soon. Anxiety, even in those who aren’t chronic sufferers, is taking over. For artists of any kind who need to have stability in the rest of their lives to create, it’s debilitating.

But there are some things writers can do to get themselves back on track.

I grew up in a completely destabilized household. Between the ages of 8 and 18, I lived my daily life at the level of anxiety, dread of the scary unknown, intense worry, and constant distraction that most “normal” people are feeling now. While my mother was dying of cancer—and then following her passing—I would come home from school every day, stand at the bottom of the porch steps, and think, What fresh hell is going to be beyond that door today? Death, contagious illness, cancelled activities because of whatever was going on, lack of food, a giant mess the kids made, the news that we had to go to Yale New Haven and sit in waiting rooms for a week, we were leaving our church and going to a different one, your brother burned down the woods again and is in jail—there was no routine. Not ever. That was my daily life. I’d wake up and have absolutely no idea what was going to happen to me or those I loved. Quite frankly, the only thing I could count on was the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head.

As C-19 began to spin out of control, I was, at first, in the same boat as everyone else—unfocused and crippled by the terrifying uncertainty. Then, one afternoon, I suddenly recognized what I was feeling—and it was familiar. I realized that I was uniquely qualified to keep focused and working when others couldn’t. I said, “Holy s***. I’ve been here before! I got this!” After all, despite all of that, I graduated from high school with fantastic grades, participated successfully in several after-school activities, kept up my personal hygiene and always looked put together, and managed to not only write, but complete many creative projects.

How did I do it?

I learned how to shut everything down.

If you’re a writer, I hope these tips on how to get back to work will help you. We are the chroniclers of these extraordinary happenings, the people who will tell the tales of what this was like to live through it, the people who will tell the first-person stories of the nurses, doctors, truck drivers, and others on the front lines while the rest of us were quarantined, the people who will share the stories of tragic loss and heartbreak. Our fiction, drama, poetry, and creative nonfiction will, one day, provide a snapshot of this historic event on a personal, emotional level. Honestly? Some really f***** good work is going to come out of this, whether it is actually about this situation or not.

TIPS

1 Find, or make—yes, even if your home life is now disrupted by children—the time to go into your writing office each day (if possible) and shut the door. Light a candle, put on your music, whatever it is that you normally do, as though the world isn’t losing its mind. Think of the closed door as that barrier between you and chaos. Whatever is going on beyond it? Not your problem until you emerge. You see, hear, smell, and are distracted by nothing while you are behind your door. If your “office” is in a shared space in your home, then make a temporary place in a closet, laundry room, or wherever. But it should have a door that closes. That part is very important. Also, tell the people in your household you cannot be disturbed for the hour. There is nothing that could happen in an hour—short of burning the house down or someone getting sick or bleeding to death—that they can’t handle. It can wait.

2 Set a designated time to watch the news or get C-19 updates, but don’t be checking all day long. I was writing in the early 1980s, and we didn’t have the Internet, but man, did we have TVs in every room and Atari video game systems, and believe me, it was just as tempting. This is an upsetting thing to watch unfold. Just step away from it—twice a day for ten minutes is enough to get the important things you need to know. It’s not necessary for it to be in your face every waking minute.

3 When you talk with your friends on the phone or through video conferencing, don’t dwell on what’s happening in the world. Talk, instead, about anything but: what you’re writing, what you just bought online, how your family is doing—whatever—just NOT the C-word. It’s important to feel as though life is going to carry on as normal, even if, deep down, you know it won’t. Dwelling on it makes it worse. When my mother was sick and I was living in that hell, only a handful of my closest friends knew what was happening at home, and none of us talked about it. When I was with them, when I was at school, I wanted things to feel normal. It kept me functioning and hoping for a brighter future.

4 Indulge in fantasy—check out when you can. That’s right. Sit around and day dream, think about being someplace else, and if you get the urge, write stories in which you’re the main character doing all of those things you wish you could do or being a different version of yourself. Your imagination is a powerful tool. Use it to go live the life you’ve always wanted (when I was 15 I was spending a lot of time with Indiana Jones).

5 When you’re tortured, get it out on paper. You’d be surprised how awesome spewing a bunch of emotional garbage onto a piece of paper or on a blank document makes you feel, and you might even get a story out of it.

6 Step back and realize that this, hopefully, will never happen again in our lifetimes, and watch the drama unfold as though it were not happening to you. This requires an almost disassociation with that of your physical body, but it can be done.

7 Frame the future and know that you’ll feel good again someday. Look at this time as a gift, and know that everything you do now is going to prepare you for something exciting later. Trust that the work you are doing now is important, and make it as much of a priority as you can, even as the world is heaping new demands on you and saying it isn’t. Never give up on your work or your vision of success, and believe that it will happen. All things come to an end—bad things, too.

About kristipetersenschoonover

A ghost story writer who still sleeps with the lights on, Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s fiction has appeared in countless magazines and anthologies. She has received three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies, served as a co-editor for Read Short Fiction, has judged both writing and grant competitions and co-hosts the Dark Discussions Podcast. Her work Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole is a collection of ghost stories set in Disney Parks; her novel, Bad Apple, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She’s also a member of the New England Horror Writers Association. More info: www.kristipetersenschoonover.com

Posted on March 20, 2020, in Deep Thoughts & Fun Stuff, Events, The Writing Life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I trust what you say about chaotic times more than I trust others because you say you’ve BEEN THERE. You “get it.”

  2. Melissa Martin Ellis

    I am so sorry you had to go through such an extraordinary amount of ongoing, sustained trauma, Krissi. I too had a very challenging childhood and know how profoundly it changes one’s worldview. But as you say, it certainly kicks the survival skills into high gear. Sending love and light.

    • Hello, Melissa! Thank you! Yes, I think I’m seeing the value in all of it now. I’ve been up since about 4 am here, working on a new story that just sort of showed up out of what’s happening now in the world, whether I do anything with it or not means nothing, and so I suppose that my writing very much came out of all of this, too. I’ve been seeing your posts on FB and I think of you guys every day. I love you and miss you, and there isn’t one day I don’t go to RI and/or Newport and, even though I know you are so fulfilled where you are, wish that I could still just drop by and see you. Love you, and thoughts and prayers!

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