Poets and Writers
Not Writing Right Now
WRITER’S BLOCK DURING A PANDEMIC
Writer’s block during a pandemic.
NOT long ago I wrote a piece published in this magazine identifying different species of so-called writer’s block and offering curative suggestions for each one. This “not long ago” time, however, was pre-pandemic time and, as such, feels eons away. And when my students and writer friends now tell me they cannot write, so much of my advice no longer makes sense.
What can we do in a time when time seems to be all we have? (Of course not all of us have more time right now; some of us have much less of it, depending on what we do to earn our bread. Still, for many of us, Time looms in a new way, unimpeded by novelty, friends, and the usual rituals.) The great gift writers pray for—time to write— seems to threaten us mercilessly when we have too much of it, in the same way that children, when they pray for candy but eat too much of it, collapse into a sugar coma.
Much of my pre-pandemic advice is no longer applicable. Write in a public place, like a coffee shop, to hear the hum of human music, which can help focus your solitary brain onto the page—now, not possible. Travel until you get to a country that speaks another language in order to hear language differently? Not possible. Take a bath: Possible. But perhaps we need more and other remedies.
The dread of time, and the formlessness of time, a dread particularly keen to the writer, now has new gullies and crevasses. Some say that the difference between a writer and someone who wants to be a writer is time management. And yet writers are some of the worst people on the planet at “time management”—in fact most poets would never think to put those two words together into a compound noun.
Those professionally able to bear large quantities of self-imposed solitude—Tibetan lamas or Benedictine monks, say—have years of tradition and training at their disposal. They practice being alone for years under the tutelage of others who have borne solitude, and only when they are ready, armed with rituals and technique, do they go into a cave in the Himalayas with enough food and look time smack in the face for three years.
We in the pandemic have not trained for this much
solitude, or even this much time. Writers have some training in solitude, but really we have training in carving solitude out from the rest of our more populated lives. When I was on bed rest during a pregnancy (and you could argue that bed rest is a form of training for extended quarantine), one of the only books I could focus on was Words in Air (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), the complete correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, two poets well versed in the art of solitude. Lowell once wrote in a letter to Bishop, “I guess I don’t really like solitude. The fun is hammering bits of it out of a crowded life.” Their eight hundred pages of letters to each other often describe the ragged edges of solitude, and the letters themselves seem a curative to solitude. I was so enamored by Lowell’s and Bishop’s letters that I made them into a play, Dear
Elizabeth, so I could hear the letters out loud.
Bishop said in an earlier letter to Lowell, “I think you said a while ago that
I’d ‘laugh you to scorn’ over some conversation you & I had had about how to protect oneself against solitude & ennui—but indeed I wouldn’t. That’s just the kind of ‘suffering’ I’m most at home with & helpless about, I’m afraid, and what with 2 days of fog and alarmingly low tides I’ve really got it bad & think I’ll write you a note before I go out & eat some mackerel.” So in honor of Bishop and Lowell, I offer my first cure for what I might call compound solitude—the solitude that is the writer’s to bear in general but is compounded to something almost intolerable by the inability to find contrast within a crowded life.
Write a letter to a friend. Possibly a writer friend. You could even write a letter to a writer who is dead, whose work you love. Give your writer an addressee, like the extraordinary James Baldwin piece “A Letter to My Nephew,” or Ta-Nehisi Coates’s piece in dialogue with Baldwin, “Letter to My Son.” Or write a letter to a childhood friend, a niece, an elder. Send your letter in the mail, send it via email, or never send it at all because the recipient is dead or imagined. But let the addressee build a sociable empathy around your compound solitude as you write. You are never truly alone when you write a letter. The imagined other hovers around your solitude, a thou for your troubled I.
I recently got a letter, a real paper letter in an envelope, from a librarian, and it was somehow delivered to me two years after it was sent. It began with, “I’m just a librarian.” And I replied to the letter, “There is no such thing as just a librarian. Librarians are everything.” This small exchange on paper in the midst of pandemic solitude helped me enormously on a grim day. Go through your old paper letters and take the time to reply, on paper. We now have time for paper. We now have time to wait for the post. The post office might even have helped save our fragile democracy.
Another simple remedy for the dread of time is to separate the day into two parts and nap after or
before you write. After a nap, the day looks new again. So if you haven’t written in the morning, you can wake up and try writing again. We have lost so many rituals in secular America that helped us divide and mark time. It might be worth it to borrow from
a tradition that was once yours, or from one that was never yours. Dress in your Sunday best. Mark Shabbat by lighting a candle and banishing your devices. Figure out the time when you definitely will not be writing so there is a parcel of protected time that carries no guilt.
A humble but effective remedy:
Make a list. Make a list of what you did and what you will do. Make a list of how you will use time. Erik Satie wrote in his “Memoirs of an Amnesiac”: “Up at 7:18. From 10:23 to 11:47, Inspiration. Lunch at 12:11 .... Only white foods.” Make a list of what you have in the refrigerator. Then make a list of what the character you are working on has in the refrigerator. See if the lists differ. Lists are a form of writing, but it is hard to have what one calls “writer’s block” when writing a list. Lists are a form of hoping, a form of praying, a form of organizing thought and structuring time—as Sei Sho–nagon did in the year 1000 or so in courtly Japan. Write lists, as she did, of things that infuriate you, things that you find boring, things that you find elegant. You might also write a list of what you did do, to remind yourself that even in the midst of what feels like a lot of nothing, you are doing things, even if your list is as simple as: I did laundry. I took a walk. I called my mother so she wouldn’t be lonely today. These things, too, are important.
Now, the very opposite of solitude in a pandemic is: living with too many people underfoot at all times and having no privacy. Those with children will well understand this, as will those living with parents, grandparents, great-aunts, little brothers, or roommates. How does one carve out writing solitude from this situation, when there is no artist retreat in the woods to repair to, no favorite coffee shop that is open, no quiet library that is safe from germs to sit in, no quiet car on the Amtrak train? What if you homeschool your children and they
The words of my dear friend Max Ritvo keep
coming to mind, “The stage is empty. How do you
fill it? With music.” Max wrote these lines while
facing death at a very young age. The stage for
Max was an empty future, and he filled it with
the music of his poetry.
need you at every moment? What if at every moment you sit down to write, one of your children comes out and asks you to make toast? What if they are almost able to make toast themselves but might get burned if you don’t supervise?
The I am living with too many people all the time with no respite is hard on writing. I can offer two cures I have tried. One is to write in a very short
form—in my case, the haiku. I have written a haiku a day for most of the pandemic. Haiku truly can be written in the interstices of your children’s cries for help. They can be written when you wake up in the morning or while you walk around the block with your dog.
Another cure—write on Zoom
with others. “What?” you ask. “That is insane. Why would I want to have others watch me write in my treasured solitude, and how would that ever help me with the interruptions of children?” I, too, thought it was weird until I tried it. There is a wonderful group called the Writer’s Army in the playwriting community in New York City, founded by the brilliant playwrights Madeleine George and Anne Washburn. Writers pre-pandemic would gather together in person, daily, and write for eight hours at a time, silently, with no access to digital media. Now we write together on Zoom in three-hour shifts, and the name has changed to Writer’s Shift, run by the wonderful playwright Liz Duffy Adams.
But if the point is to escape digital media, then why write together on Zoom, I thought when first invited to the group. Wouldn’t it feel like Foucault’s panopticon, a weird digital surveillance—wouldn’t it have an inhibiting effect? But then I tried writing on Zoom and it was a balm. Not only did I see the friendly faces of writers I loved, but it forced me into accountability with time. The writer’s shift goes from 9 AM to noon. Not 9:15 AM or 9:30 AM, but right at 9 AM, or you aren’t let into the Zoom room. You have to show up on time for your writing. That simple accountability to time and to others moves mountains of inertia. Also, I can see other faces writing and I want to make it through to the end point with them. I’m inspired to see their devotion to their craft and to remember I’m part of a writing community. It diminishes the compound solitude. And when my children come in asking for toast, I can say, “Shh, I can’t talk, see, I’m writing on Zoom—people can see you coming into the frame.” And miraculously, the children sneak away, chastened. Whereas if I merely say, “I’m writing,” the kids say, “Oh, can you make me some toast?”
If you can’t stomach Zoom, you could text a writer friend every day at your best writing time, say 10 AM, which I did with my friend Sherry Mason, a fiction writer, for a week, and know that you are writing at the
same time for two hours. So, write
with surveillance or some kind of invisible company.
Speaking of having no privacy, you can always write in order to avoid
doing domestic tasks. Today I was looking at the empty space of my morning and said vaguely, aloud, more to myself than anyone: “What should I do this morning?” My beloved heard me and said, “You could tidy.” Very quickly, I ran to my desk and started writing and, in fact, began this essay rather than tidying.
Another pandemic form of writer’s block is what I might call inflated expectations. Due to the supposed increase in time, some writers I know think: Why am I not writing? I have all this time! I have no social engagements and perhaps no job (most writers I know are not also frontline workers), so I have the gift of time. It should be as though I am on a writers retreat at MacDowell. Why am I not doing anything with all of this time? And I say: We are not at #!$@*&% MacDowell. We are in a global pandemic. No one is bringing us lunch. (We are instead bringing lunch to our children.) There is no stimulating conversation at night around the dinner table for artistic fodder the next day. There is no sense that we are escaping the sweetness of normal life in order to write. Normal life hangs in the balance. And so we must adjust our expectations, we must lower
the bar. Our job right now is to live. To survive. To get through. To feed ourselves and our families. If we happen to be able to write at the same time, that is some wonderful gravy on our mashed potatoes. And the will to survive is not terribly compatible with the reflective mode.
Now, for those writers who are also essential workers, including teachers, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Your writing will come back to you like a lover from overseas when the pandemic recedes. You don’t have to wake up at 4 AM to meet your lover before you go to work, but if you have the strength, your lover is always awake at 4 AM to meet you. And for those writers who are offended that I don’t call writing essential work, I say: Okay, I get it. It hurts one’s feelings to not feel essential to the culture. And on the level of the soul, artists are and will always be essential to the culture, and our art-making, if nothing else, is essential to the self who makes it.
On the subject of the will to survive, let’s talk about another form of pandemic writer’s block: constant political trauma and anxiety. Consider changing your form to express your political feelings. Write an op-ed. Write a sign. Write a speech. Write a manifesto. Write a petition. Write a letter to your senator. Consider all of these as forms of writing and as an important part of your work right now—perhaps it is even your whole work right now.
Also—how can we be politically informed but not informed all day long at every minute when there is often not new information but the constant hum of stimulation? How can we turn off CNN and our phone apps and our notifications? My friend Phillip Howze,
also a writer, has spoken to me about how we can live through the times without commiserating with the times. How can we get out of a reactive mode and into a creative mode? The writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal pointed out that the words react and create use all the same letters, but what a difference that extra e gives you. To have that extra e, you must turn off your phone, radio, or television for disciplined chunks during the day. You must slip into that extra e like a bath, climb it like a ladder onto the blank page.
Speaking of the times, how to resume work on a play or novel that one started before the pandemic, or before the murder of George Floyd, and now seems irrelevant or small? Can one pick up a skein of wool one is knitting and simply keep knitting when the world and one’s own interior life have moved on from it? Perhaps the trick is trusting that an idea, when formed in a deep enough crucible, can still refract in a changed world. Or perhaps the trick is to abandon the project, and to write instead about what you find in front of you. Perhaps you are writing only pages and not “projects”—you are, in effect, composting, writing compostable material that might or might not get used later. We need so much compost to make the soil fertile, and now can be a time of hibernation, a time of brewing, of waiting.
The last impediment to writing during this time in my little corner of the writing world is mourning. I am in mourning for the theater, which is my primary form. I know the theater will return, but at the moment my plays have been shelved; none of us can gather in a dusty rehearsal room to hear drafts with actors. My friends who have worked in theaters for twenty years have been fired or furloughed. Treasured actors in the New York theater community are finding it too expensive to live in the city without work and are leaving.
Beloved actors, playwrights, and directors in the theater community have also died of COVID-19. And we still have not gathered in person to mourn them. It is hard to imagine writing a play for a vanished world.
And yet the uncertainties of theater in general mean that we often never know, even in times outside of the pandemic, if a new play will be produced—so why does that uncertainty become almost existential during the pandemic and lead to an inability to write in that form? It requires such dumb faith in general to write a play—so many things must conspire to get the play out into the world—that the theaters’ shuttering requires a faith that is almost superhuman. How to conjure this faith?
The words of my dear friend Max Ritvo keep coming to mind, “The stage is empty. How do you fill it? With music.” Max wrote these lines while facing death at a very young age. The stage for Max was an empty
future, of essay don’t the I his think conscious Mourning mourn poetry. and about he the mind, filled and the lost Melancholia—if it thesis the love with unconscious object of the Freud’s music with we takes the theater’s my over inability and absence—because creates to properly pathology. mourn I want Perhaps to an be unconscious faithful to refusal its return—creates to write a new play. Music does seem like the proper way to fill an empty stage now. The music of poetry calms me—and poetry happily does not involve contagion— it does not necessitate bodies onstage that can get sick. But oh how I miss the press of bodies in space, which is the end point of the solitary writing of a play. At night my unconscious tries to catch up with reality, and I dream that I’m at the theater again, only to be told by an actor, “Five of us died last week.” And then I flee.
Some of you reading this have sick loved ones. Perhaps you are in mourning even now. It is very hard to write while you are ill, while you are a caretaker, while you are in mourning. Caretaking requires single-minded devotion, as does getting healthy. In this case, abandon all guilt about
not writing. Your job is to get well. Your job is to get your father, your brother, your grandmother well. Your job is to mourn. Your job is to rest.
When put in the context of mourning for other people, mourning for a form like the theater might seem pretentious or silly. And yet—for many of us, our identity is intimately bound up with curtains, rituals, and telling a story in a room with other people. I ask myself for advice about this mourning, this desolation of form. And the answer that I get back from myself is: Be sad for a while about theater’s devastation before you write a new play. No amount of pretending will convince me that Zoom the thing itself. No amount of mental trickery will convince my unconscious that it’s easy to write a new play for a stage that does not exist for the foreseeable future. Wordsworth said, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: It takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Perhaps I simply have to wait for tranquility, and then for recollection. One final piece of advice: Take a
mistress. When I say take a mistress, I mean write in a form, or about a subject matter, that is so secret, so private, so not long-term that you want to go to her in the dead of night. It is not the play that was commissioned. It is not a deadline that was imposed by a teacher, or a colleague, or a magazine, or an editor, or your own superego. No one but you knows about your mistress. Come to your mistress quietly, with joy and tenderness. Don’t tell anyone about her, except in whispers.
Take a mistress. Take a bath. Take a nap. Take a walk. Take heart.