Friends, it has been some spring. As I write to you, we’re in the thick of self-isolation for coronavirus in many states: the state I live in, California, is in week four. My husband, like so many others, is working from home. And creatives everywhere, I think, are struggling with what kind of work we should be producing. We are all wondering if we shouldn’t be doing more, if this thing we’ve been told by a lot of people is a leisure activity “counts” in this time of great global need.
I have already mentioned in a post at my website that I believe our work matters at a time like this: we need to be able to express, through art, how we’re feeling and what we’re doing more than ever. And creativity, as the writer Elisabeth Egan put it in a recent column for the New York Times, is a “survival strategy.” It’s how we can help ourselves and society when the going gets rough.
But a lot has been written about that already, and by the time you get this in your inboxes, I’m hoping we will have weathered the worst of it and be less uncertain in our daily lives.
This month’s column is related to that. This month’s column is about jettisoning some outdated ideas about what writers “should” be doing – and about taking a hard look at what you want to be doing. I call it Kon-Mari’ing your writing life, after Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. You know, it’s that movement where you only keep the things that give you joy.
Instead of pining after the kind of work you should be doing, consider instead the writer you already are and the work you are already doing.
The theory that you should jettison anything that doesn’t make you happy is especially significant to writers in times of great stress because we can feel pressure to be doing “something productive.” I think this is true of everyone, no matter what career you’re in. This sentiment is why charities thrive when terrible things transpire around the world, whether they be caused by humans or caused by nature. When earthquakes happen, we give. When floods happen, we give. When we see pictures or read reports from war zones, we give. We long to be part of the solution.
In the event that we can’t talk ourselves immediately into the idea that our art and our passions are inherently important to the world, I’m here to tell you how you can feel a little bit better about your place and the work you are producing.
First. Instead of pining after the kind of work you should be doing, consider instead the writer you already are and the work you are already doing. My friend B is a master at daily communications. He used to write updates for a humanitarian organization. He said he recently embarked on a program designed to help writers to produce a novel. B wrote 300-some pages, he said, and then “this thing” happened – “this thing” being the dumpster fire that is the United States’ response to coronavirus – and he felt drawn back into nonfiction daily writing. He seemed to feel guilty about this, as if he “should be” working on something else.
I don’t want to dismiss this sentiment. It’s powerful. But what I said to B, and what I genuinely feel, is that, in times of crisis, our bodies kind of do what we have to do. Our brains gravitate immediately toward what’s minimally needed in order for us to keep on functioning. (I learned that there is actual science to back this up in a podcast about fear, where the fearologist – yes! a real thing – being interviewed essentially says that, in fight or flight mode, your body shuts down everything but the most essential functions. And let’s not fool ourselves by saying that we’re not all currently living in a state of fear.)
So when push came to shove, all of B’s training, all of his faculties, were directed at what he’s been trained for – what he knows he’s good at. And that’s OK.
In my own case, to keep myself productive in a good direction, I opened up a Medium account and started posting once a day, whatever the heck I felt like: survival guides on self-isolation, featuring lessons drawn from my work in disaster relief. Illustrated memoirs of the first apartment I ever lived in by myself. A love letter to letter-writing. I even wrote a short story comprising those insipid cheerful sayings on Dove Chocolate wrappers. (“Hands are for holding.” Seriously.) My stats say that tens of people are reading my work daily!! I don’t care. I’ve posted something every day since I started the project, and it is keeping me sane. I feel freer, clearer, and I conversely have more brain space for everyone from my students to the four families we’re grocery shopping for.
In times of stress, my brain generates ideas and tangents. It is what I am good at. And I’m okay with that.
So listen. If your brain tells you it wants to write something that isn’t “what you should be working on,” listen to it. And then tell the other half of your brain, the one that’s still shrieking about that thing you should be working on, to go suck an egg. That’s not what you need right now.
The other part of Kon-Mari’ing your writing career looks like shedding expectations of what you think everyone else thinks a writer should be. Follow me? By way of further elucidation, let me posit something my friend Peter said to me: “The beauty of Kon Mari is that it lets you do away with the idea of who you thought you were going to be.”
(Peter is one of those people who posits things that make me stop talking. Everyone needs a friend like this.)
So what does that look like in writerly world? Well, let me tell you a few things about the writer I’m not:
I’m not the writer who reads issues of The New Yorker from cover to cover.
I’m not the writer whose books sell a million copies.
I’m not the writer who is ass-in-chair eight hours of the day, working on her creative writing.
I’m not the writer who will starve for her craft.
I’m not the writer who values literary fiction above all else.
Aaah. How lovely it feels to jettison all that.
I don’t usually give you homework with the column, but I’d like you to try this, too. And I’d like you to use the exact same phrasing I did: “I’m not the writer who…”
And then I would like you to follow this up with a list of who you are as a writer. I’ll give you an example:
Today, I’m the writer who sends something out into the world for people to read once a day. The writer who still turns in her assignments on time. The writer who is teaching three classes. The writer who still walks her dog twice a day.
The reason is this: We are not closing any doors on you or your future self. We are telling you about the writer you are today.
That writer is doing whatever they can to get by, leveraging all of their energies toward keeping their household, their family, their extended family, their own survival going for just one more day.
That writer is you. And tomorrow, or next week, you might be the writer whose books sell a million copies; who reads one issue of The New Yorker from cover to cover. But today, you are getting by. And that is OK. In fact, it’s probably what you, and everyone else, needs of you the most.
Yi Shun Lai teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire Universities. Her book Pin Ups is forthcoming from Homebound Press in September. Visit her at thegooddirt.org.