We’ve all read by now that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague. The takeaway seems to be that public health emergencies are conducive to great (albeit really, really depressing) art.
On the other hand, a few weeks ago, Ophira Eisenberg tweeted this:
When I complained to a friend about feeling anxious about not getting as much done as others seem to during this time, she yelled, “it’s not an artist retreat, it’s a pandemic!”
I needed / deserved that.
Clearly, there’s a split of opinion on this point.
In twenty-three years of freelancing, I’ve had plenty of dry spells when work slowed to a crawl. I learned early that for me, the best way to cope with these downturns is to take control by doing something to advance my practice: do some marketing, research possible clients, evaluate cost options. During the past few years as I’ve focused more on creative writing, I’ve used work lulls as a time to concentrate on fiction writing, learning about publishing, and researching markets. So when the pandemic dried up my stream of regular billable work, I decided to simply treat this slowdown like any other. I made a plan: work on my current novel-in-progress, submit my finished novel to agents, and generally act like a full-time writer until the day-job work picks up again.
I tried, I really did. First, I tackled my novel-in-progress. Since it has substantial structural problems, I listened to the audiobook of Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, by Jessica Brody, and I attempted to apply some of the precepts from that excellent volume. Instead, I found the book veering off in a completely different direction, one which required me to rethink virtually the entire story. Eventually, the whole thing felt so big and heavy that I set it aside and focused on simpler matters like applying for disaster relief funding and doing my taxes.
Early in the pandemic, I read an article by George Saunders in which he encouraged his writing students to bear witness to these times. In an effort to follow his advice, I began making notes about how I felt—things that caused stress, or brought a smile, or just seemed different.
I tried writing blog posts as a way to bear witness, but most of them didn’t make it to the blog because I couldn’t bear how whiny I sounded even to my own ears. Transparency and honesty are valuable, but I considered how my ruminations about not being able to find green beans at the supermarket might sound to a person living in a two-room apartment on the seventh floor of a building in the Bronx with two young children and a partner who is a first-responder. That person is nothing short of heroic, and my green-bean story sounded like a middle-class version of Ellen DeGeneres’s attempted joke about how being quarantined in her mansion was like being in jail.
Writing an entirely new story felt impossible. Coming up with characters, events, conflicts—it was all overwhelming. I wrote a fan fiction story, a short humor bit to try to make other people smile. It was far from my best work, but some lovely people said it made them laugh, which in turn made me feel as if I’d contributed something positive to this weird world.
Of course, there was always journaling, whether in an actual journal or in the form of essays for my eyes only. The problem with this approach was that sometimes I’d just end up tunneling deeper and deeper into darkness. I’m a big fan of venting feelings on the page as a way to lay them out and see them plain, but for me, there’s little benefit in simply burrowing deep into the mud and staying there. I write to find the light at the end of the tunnel.
But then something curious happened: the old urge to take control began to return. Turns out, there’s only so long a person can spend binging on old sitcoms, drowning in social media, and drinking way too much wine. This person, anyway.
I started to take tiny actions, like updating the whiteboard calendar over my desk. I erased March and early April (two months I guarantee nobody is going to miss), and I wrote in the few remaining commitments, including deadlines for literary contests and journal reading periods.
This time, though, I also entered the submission fees for these contests and journals. I added up five weeks of entry fees and winced. The total was just about what I’d spend on five weeks’ worth of wine. With practically no money coming in, this was an important consideration.
One of the contest deadlines was for a contest to which I’d submitted last year. I didn’t win, but the judges sent a personalized rejection complimenting my work and inviting me to revise and resubmit the story this year. The entry fee was the same price as a bottle of my favorite wine.
Aloud I said, “All right, then.” And I chose the contest.
When I was a college freshman, my friend Shari, a junior who was also a writing major, shared her editorial process. She demonstrated how she literally looked at every single word to determine whether it belonged where it was and whether it was the best choice. I’d never seen anything like that—certainly none of my professors ever suggested it—but last week, as I edited and re-edited that story, I did exactly what Shari had shown me all those years ago. I performed word searches to snag lazy or repetitious words. I tweaked imagery. I assessed cadences. I did everything I could think of. In the end, when I read it through and felt a tingle as I reached the climax, I knew that this time, it was as good as I could make it, and I submitted it.
Afterward, I felt energized. Even though I still couldn’t find it in me to create brand-new material, I had definitely written. I was creative, engaged, inspired. It was the best I’d felt in a long, long time.
So if you want to write, but you’re finding it difficult in this weird time, think about editing something you’ve already written. Pick one of the rough drafts languishing on your computer (we both know they’re there), and see if you can edit it into something more polished. It’s the best of both worlds: you get to feel creative and fulfilled without doing all the heavy lifting of creation.
If the prospect of a whole new draft feels overwhelming, start small. Try what I’ve dubbed micro-editing, which is simply the technique I learned from Shari so long ago.
Start with something easy, like finding overused words. Most writers know what their bugaboos are. I’m guilty of using “just” at every possible opportunity. No idea why. On the other hand, there’s something immensely satisfying about deleting all those justs during editing.
Along the same lines, my characters are notorious for a lot of nodding and head-shaking during conversations. When I edit, I try to eliminate, or at least limit, such stage directions and let the dialogue speak for itself.
Next, look for words that stand out. They’re not necessarily your fanciest words, but their sound or look may be so distinctive that they draw attention to themselves. For example, when I was reading over this post one last time, I realized I’d used “notorious” in each of the two preceding paragraphs. Believe me, if you’d read that, you’d definitely have noticed.
Look critically at your adjectives. Do you really need them all? One of my writing group friends routinely calls me out for using double adjectives, such as describing someone as short and fat. Must all this information be included in the same sentence? Can I communicate the same thing by describing a pudgy person standing on her toes, trying unsuccessfully to reach something on the top shelf?
Note: the thesaurus is a useful tool, but reading widely will afford you a much richer store of descriptors. Think of how Fitzgerald has Gatsby describe his beloved Daisy: “Her voice is full of money.” And then the narrator, Nick Carraway, considers this idea:
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it . . . High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl . . .
You won’t find that description in any thesaurus.
As you assess your words, test any generic ones to see whether a more precise word will strengthen the sentence. For example, your main character’s shirt is red. That’s fine, but you can shade the mood—and the reader’s impressions of that character—by how you describe the color. Is the shirt the red of a jolly Santa suit? Bloody crimson? Faded Nantucket red? Fire-engine? Brick? Ruby? The red-gold of tomatoes glistening on the vine in the late afternoon sun?
Or think about how your character enters a room. Rather than saying he walks in, look for a stronger word. Does he amble, strut, stride, march, limp? Telling us he stomped into the room can save you half a page of dialogue.
On the flip side, remember that not every detail is equally important. As W. S. Gilbert famously wrote in The Gondoliers, “When everyone is somebodee, then no one’s anybody!” What feeling or impression do you want the reader to take away? That’s the detail you want to punch up while others step back, out of the limelight.
In this bizarre time with all its demands on your energy and attention, when you want to write but you just can’t wrap your mind around whether you need to employ the objective correlative in your climactic scene, remember that there’s something simple you can do: spend fifteen minutes, or ten, or five minutes playing with words. If the only thing you do is remove “very” seventeen times, your story is already better, and you should congratulate yourself.
Because you’re writing.