Writing Small in Viral Times

by Brenda Joyce Patterson
published in Writing

This is not the article I intended to write. 

But I found, just as likely you, too, that I couldn’t focus on anything other than the viral elephant in our global living room. This coronavirus, COVID-19, won’t let any of us ignore it. Constant news alerts about death, the reality of livelihood loss, and the often conflicting information on what to do next to stay safe makes it hard to live, much less write.

Early in my self-quarantine/social distancing, I noticed a push for productivity on social media and business networking sites. All penned by gurus, businessmen, companies, and yes, creatives. Articles posted about forging new paths and reinventing one’s company, brand, art, and self. There were also tweets about blessed solitude – finally! – and using the time away as a retreat, as an artist residency. It all boiled down to No slacking, people! There’s work to be done.

However, there’s been a social media wave against this ‘motivational’ pressure. On Facebook, Alaa Hijazi, a Beiruti trauma psychologist, reminded that “[w]e are going through a collective trauma” and  “[w]hat we need is more self-compassion, more gentle acceptance of all the difficult emotions coming up for us now, more focus on gentle ways to soothe ourselves and our pain and the pain of loved ones around us, not a whipping […]”. 

I have to admit a bit shamefaced that I was thinking about productivity too, albeit with a little slack allowed in. I decided I’d tackle a chapter of Denopath, my languishing sci-fi/fantasy novel. And maybe, also, write a few Writing Small articles ahead (to make Bess and Gabriela love me more).  

But…what I discovered was silence. Sensory deprivation-deep silence. During which the only writing I could/can produce was tweets, FB posts, AND daily poems for pinacasa, my poetry blog.

Habit Makes Good Enough

Habits anchor us, especially in crises. I am so thankful for my poem-a-day writing habit. It has given a structure to my writing practice as well as a bit of overall order in this uncertain period. What I began in April 2015 has also been the breadcrumbs leading me back to this article.

The unrealistic drive to perfection and the accompanying anxiety keep us from trying new things. A close-up brush with death made me willing to step outside my comfort. I took up writing a poem a day for NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month). I actually started 10 days late but that tardiness took the pressure off of writing those poems. I’d already ‘failed’ the challenge so I was free to be inventive, adventurous. A few years of daily poetry writing in months-long spurts have prepared me for this year’s full out effort. What a year to embark on my poetry expedition.

Writing every day doesn’t inoculate you from fear but it does remind you in your most anxious moments that you can write.

The Art of Distraction

But let’s face it, habit only gets you so far. Especially now, when we consider most of our usual habits have been derailed by our elephantine companion, COVID-19.

Don’t beat yourself up if your hard won routines seem in shambles. In stressful times, it’s difficult to acquire new habits or learn new skills. Thankfully, we humans adapt but it takes time. It’s ok if you take what you think is a little bit longer. It’s ok to go with the distraction rather than fight against it. It’s ok to do nothing productive. In farming, it’s called fallowing and necessary for the fields to become productive again. 

Below are a few ways to lie fallow productively. And it’s no mistake poetry is the star, it’s the perfect form for our pandemic-challenged attention spans.  

1) Watch

Poet Tara Skurtu (@taraskurtu) started #InternationalPoetryCircle on Twitter to share video poems by poets and poetry lovers. International Poetry Circle now has its own Twitter handle, @INtPoetryCircle, and YouTube account.

Sundress Publications hosts its Poets in Pajamas Reading Series to connect readers and contemporary writers – poetry and prose. 

2) Read

Two hashtags – #atlanticpoetrychallenge and #shelterinpoems (Twitter) – from The Atlantic and Academy of American Poets respectively offer a good place to start reading.  

Libraries too are great places to find digital material for free. They offer everything from movies, magazines, audiobooks, and craft instructional videos as well as music for the whole family.

3) Move

And don’t forget to move your body. However, it doesn’t have to be an exercise video, jumping jacks in the living room, or playing a game of H-O-R-S-E. A short walk in the neighborhood or improvising along with an improv troupe virtually can do the trick. Think of it as meditation and mindfulness training.

4) Journal

Simply paying attention to the way a stressful situation affects your mind and body can keep anxiety levels in check, says Danny Penman, author of Mindfulness: Finding Peace In A Frantic World. Journaling is one way to keep track of how you’re feeling. Author Suleika Jaouad’s Isolation Journals provide “an opportunity to pause, take a few moments to exhale and reflect, and to expand our creativity as a community during this extremely challenging time.“ Not ready to sign up for another community, list, or group? You can find an archive of the prompts here

The Rest of Your (Writing) Life

Ultimately, don’t sweat it if you’re not producing good stuff or any stuff at all. Think of today as you read this as the first day of the rest of your writing life. Then tomorrow think of that today as the first. And so on. 

There is no single first because each day is new. Each day gives us all opportunities for a first. 

Be kind to others. Be kind to yourself and your writing.  

Whatever whenever you start, start small.

Brenda Joyce Patterson is a poet, writer, librarian, and lover of short writing forms. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in Vayavya, Gravel Magazine, and Melancholy Hyperbole. Along with works by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Alice Walker, her travel essay “The Kindness of Strangers” appeared in Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure.

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