“How’s your humanity?”
That’s the question we focused on when I recently had the pleasure of joining Courtney Maum and Parneshia Jones in conversation as part of “Virtual AWP: The Evolution of a Writer: Before, During, and Hopefully After the Pandemic.” AWP brought us together to discuss how we’re managing The Writer’s Life during this bizarre time.
This whole opportunity came about because I raised my hand, put my name out there, and showed up. In literal terms, I volunteered at the AWP Conference in San Antonio this year, literally the week before quarantine started. It was an incredible networking opportunity (not everything valuable costs money!) that resulted in meeting Juanita Lester, Director of Communications at AWP. We stayed in touch, and I was thrilled when she invited me to join this panel.
Our conversation inspired me to reflect on the mindsets that have guided my writing practice throughout the pandemic. Do I adhere to them every waking (or daydreaming) moment? Of course not. But when I feel myself straying from acceptance and calm, it’s comforting to have a home base to slide into.
So, here are 5 ideas writers can cling to during this pandemic:
1. Stay Close to Your Humanity.
Social distancing is isolating and increasingly demoralizing as the months churn on. Leaves will turn yellow and orange soon, meaning the pandemic has now touched 3 of all 4 seasons (a fact I’m still trying to comprehend). Check in with your friends (beyond sharing memes with them on Instagram). Laugh or cry or commiserate together. And check in with yourself, too. That feeling you’re experiencing right now — whether it’s elation or anxiety — is ok! Allow yourself to move through the rainbow of emotions, and give yourself space and patience to acknowledge each one. For me, it’s been especially challenging to ease up on constant self-pressure to achieve. (“You have all this time! Finish your novel! Publish one piece a week! Bake the damn sourdough starter!”) Sometimes achievement is ego-driven, and it needs to flutter to the ground along with the leaves. One of my favorite pieces during this time has been Fuck the Bread. The Bread Is Over. by Sabrina Orah Mark.
2. Focus on Your Internal Locus of Control.
For much of the pandemic, my knuckles have been white from clutching my phone too tightly, or clenching my fist at every headline. Through meditation (and in a pinch, just a few deep breaths) I’ve been able to release my grip. You can only control what’s in your immediate atmosphere, and if it requires listing those things out on paper, do it! Limiting the time you spend reading headlines and scrolling stories is life-changing (there are some great apps to help with that). I remind myself that I can only control what’s in my orbit: my creative practice, my mental state, and how I treat my body.
3. Set Your Boundaries, Protect Your Space.
One of my favorite metaphors is the oxygen mask. When you fly on an airplane (remember those days?), the flight attendant instructs you to “put your oxygen mask on first” before helping others. If you run out of oxygen yourself, it’s impossible for you to help anyone else. It’s a simple act, but it saves both your life and the lives of those around you. You have to practice self-care, whether that means weekly talks with your best friend or weekly therapy sessions. Ask yourself what you need, and be honest. Maybe that means taking a beat (or several) before editing a piece, or canceling a Zoom call with your writing group — you’ll catch them next time. It’s ok to rest and take time and space for yourself. Relish it, and know that you are breathing oxygen for yourself in order to be there for others, too.
4. Keep Learning and Growing.
Some parts of our world are paused, but that doesn’t mean you have to be. Networking is still a need your writing business has, and many fantastic conferences are going virtual (I’m planning to attend the Adobe MAX Conference in October). It’s a great time to take advantage of the cheap flight from your kitchen table to… your kitchen table. There are also countless craft talks out there just like ours for AWP. Why not take a deep dive into something that excites you. Perhaps you’re an essayist with a curiosity about fiction, or a journalist who hasn’t written poetry since college… scratch that itch! I started a list of good ones here.
5. Harmonize Your Social Media with the Life You Want to Live.
Nothing simultaneously unifies us and rips us apart quite like social media. No matter how jealous or curious or frustrated it makes you, it’s inescapable. I’ll be honest, I check my social media like a tick. I’ll close Instagram, committed to finishing the chapter in front of me, reopen my phone to check the time, see the icon, and open it again — in a 9-second span. I’m working on extending it to 60 seconds (baby steps). Since the pandemic began, I’ve noticed a shift in my corner of the social media sphere. Shiny pics of bikinis on beaches and staged brunch spreads no longer fill my feed. In fact, it feels like people want to get REAL. I think about the lovely responses to my rejection letter screenshots on Instagram — a badge of honor all writers share, but few openly advertise. Let your social media reflect (but not define) who you are and what you love.
Talking with Courtney and Parneshia made me miss the days of sitting around a bar table or dining table talking with the writers I love. But it also reminded me that they’re just a screen away. It’s not what we would have chosen, but it’s all we have right now, outside of ourselves.