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  • Denise Santomauro

It's okay if you can't write



The last few weeks have been surreal, to say the least. For some, it’s been an adjustment and while things are challenging, they’ve been able to still move forward with life, including getting to work on finishing that novel, querying agents, or finally writing that picture book. If you’re one of these people, hell yeah. I’m seriously excited for all the incredible work that will come out of this time. For tips on how to keep up that momentum, check out last week’s wonderful blog postyou by my fellow editor, Jay Whistler.

If you are not one of these people, though, that’s okay. Writing might not feel like an option right now. The thought of writing may feel so daunting that even opening your computer feels like the hardest thing you’ll do all day. Yes, some people create masterpieces and finish novels and get to work during crisis. Others just . . . can’t. No matter how hard they try.

I am one of these people.

I learned this about eight years ago when my husband was diagnosed with a rare condition. In a matter of a week, my husband went from healthy and active to showing symptoms so dangerous he was hospitalized. With that hospitalization came procedures, plans for surgery, and a complete overhaul of our life, including him needing to take time off from work and pushing back his career indefinitely. Within a month of him showing symptoms, our lives had been completely turned upside down, including loss of income, change in lifestyle, and accompanying mental health concerns.

In the last two weeks, I’ve thought a lot about that time and the months and years that followed. I learned something important about my creative life during all of that: I cannot create during times of high stress and crushing anxiety. During the time my husband was sick, I kept a journal, and would jot down my frantic, scattered thoughts on occasion, but the work of getting these on paper would often drain the little energy I had. I am like Elizabeth Gilbert, who in her book BIG MAGIC: CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR wrote, “Emotional pain makes me the opposite of a deep person; it renders my life narrow and thin and isolated.”

Many writers feel this way about creating during crisis. In STILL WRITING: THE PERILS AND PLEASURES OF A CREATIVE LIFE, Dani Shapiro refers to these events as “before and after moments.” She experienced this when her infant son was diagnosed with a life-threatening seizure disorder. She writes, “My usual way of moving through life was no longer possible. I could not hover at an outsider distance. I was not filing away details for later. Being a writer offered me no protection.”

We’re all experiencing our own before and after moment, and for some, this isn’t just a brief change in lifestyle, it’s a massive overhaul. Trying to work on your writing at the moment may feel daunting and exhausting, which makes sense. The act of creation requires a certain level of emotional accessibility, and, for some of us, writing through challenging times feels impossible because we are already vulnerable and raw. Any additional exposure to our emotions is too overwhelming to even consider, let alone act on. In moments such as these, it is okay to slow or pause your artistic work in order to reconfigure your life.

It is okay if you can’t write at the moment.

Trust that you will again. Take it from someone who has gone through a major crisis that happened practically overnight. You will write again.

In the meantime, take in everything happening around you and store it away to examine later. We never completely lose our artist selves, and what you are experiencing at the moment may one day provide the tools you need to understand a character or a world you’re building. Even if we can’t see it happening, stories are always forming under the surface.

To stay connected to your writing during this time, consider the following areas:

Inspiration—What are you called to at the moment? What is lifting you up? Follow that.

Interests—What is sparking your interest in a way that feels healthy? Follow that.

Investment—What do you actually have capacity for at the moment? Respect that.

And if writing feels like a distant memory, try using this time to build up your creative bank account so you have things to pull from later. Try meditating. Explore other creative outlets you might be interested in, like watercolor painting or knitting. Develop creativity habits for yourself, like taking a walk without your phone or spending a few minutes every morning reading poetry. And stay active. Lastly, don’t forget to stay connected with your writing community. They can be the tether you need when writing feels like a distant memory.

Exploring some of the above has the potential to help you navigate this crisis, both creatively and personally. On the other side of it, you may find your artistic interests have changed or been renewed. Remember that life feeds art and art feeds life. Or, as Audre Lorde once said, “Art is not living. It is a use of living. The artist has the ability to take that living and use it in a certain way, and produce art.”

You will produce again. But it’s okay if can’t right now.

Denise Santomauro provides a range of services for middle grade and young adult authors, as well as coaching on material for live performance.

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