I am committed to giving advice to any writer, anywhere, but today’s post is specifically for those of us in the U.S. and elsewhere who are deeply distressed by the thought of President Trump and deeply anxious about what comes next for the U.S. and the world. It’s a modified version of my post-election piece on goals and deadlines in a time of strong emotions. This one is more general, without the NaNo-specific content, and I hope it will be a post that you can come back to again and again.
As we face difficult times as creators of art, we will face a lot of pressure from different sides, and from within ourselves. We will be pressured to make art. We will be pressured to stop making art. We will be pressured to make different art, to be more radical or more moderate, to be commercial or to never sell out, to reach different audiences who are all in need of artistic sustenance. We will be pressured to depict the past, the present, and many possible futures.
Sometimes circumstances like these make it very easy to make art. Other times they make it very hard.
You will need to reevaluate yourself and your work and your way of working; you will need to do this frequently, because things will change frequently. Your priorities will change. Your needs as an artist and a human will change. You will need to set goals to motivate yourself, and then reassess them to make sure you can reach them. As it gets harder to make money with art, and as things like food and shelter and health insurance become more expensive or difficult for independent artists to access, you may have to make different art or move into a different career space in order to survive.
If you feel any guilt or shame about that, I absolve you. We have to exist in the world. We can work to change it, but while we’re doing that work, we must live in it as it is. Sometimes that world forces us to make difficult choices. There is no shame in being put in the position of, for example, choosing between writing for a living and having health insurance. All the blame goes to those who force that choice.
You will also have to take stock of your emotional landscape and of how your big feelings—anger, love, fear, worry, determination, and the like—interact with your writing, and decide whether that merits adjusting your approach.
This isn’t just a matter of balancing priorities or trying to figure out whether you get to write or to feel. I used the word “interact” instead of “conflict” very deliberately. Sometimes those big feelings are motivating. Sometimes they’re motivating in an unexpected direction; you may find yourself wanting to shelve whatever you’ve been working on and start something new that’s a better conduit for your emotions. Sometimes you may want to write or create other art but not know how to do it when you’re so amped up or crushed. You might lose focus, or start to hyperfocus. Sometimes writing is the best escape from what’s happening in your life. Every situation is different, and every writer is different.
So first, pause and take stock of your situation. Even if you’re on deadline, set aside any goal-driven urgency for a moment of introspection and analysis. Much as an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, half an hour of sorting out what’s going on and getting a handle on it will make the coming years much easier.
- Are you okay? What do you need right now? If you’re in crisis, please contact a helpline right away. Big feelings may make it hard for you to eat, sleep, take your meds, or reach out for support, but you need to do those things in order to survive whatever’s going on for you. If you are in a dangerous situation, focus on getting yourself to safety. Take care of yourself as best you can. Getting through this situation intact matters way more than meeting any particular goal or deadline.
- Are your feelings about the non-writing situation disguising themselves as feelings about your writing? For example, if yesterday you thought of yourself as a capable writer and today you feel like the world’s worst hack, it’s unlikely that you lost 90% of your writing skill overnight; your perception is what’s changed, fueled by your unhappiness over what’s going on in other areas of your life. Acknowledge and validate that unhappiness instead of yelling at yourself.
- Is it possible for you to write at all right now? When you try to write, how does it feel? Do you get the sense that you’ll feel differently once you’ve adjusted to any recent shock or change, or do you think you’re going to feel like this for a while?
- How are you feeling about goals and deadlines right now? Do they make you anxious or despondent, or are they welcome distractions? Does it feel like your emotional situation will make it harder to handle the deadline pressure or vice versa? Are you more motivated to make the deadline than you were?
- If you’re feeling very turbulent or distraught right now and have no idea how you’re going to feel in a couple of days, it’s fine to take that couple of days off from writing. When your emotions and situation settle down a little bit, reassess.
Once you’ve got a sense of what’s happening, make adjustments to your writing plan.
- Does working on your current writing project feel healing and good for you right now? Does it help you feel in control, celebrate the best parts of yourself, or escape into a happy fantasy for a little while? If so, definitely do as much of it as you can. Feel entirely free to use real or made-up deadlines as an excuse to duck away from social media, family conversations, or anything else that’s feeling hard right now, and to focus on your writing instead.
- Do you feel the urge to write but want to work on a different project that’s a better fit for how you’re feeling right now? Go ahead. It’s always fine to change your goals if your situation changes. You’re the boss of your own art; you decide how to go about it. Let go of “should” and focus on healing yourself with your writing.
- Does the pressure of a goal or deadline feel extra stressful right now, or interact in a toxic way with how you’re feeling? If you set the goal yourself, adjust it; if it’s an external deadline, see if you can negotiate some additional time. Again, writing in a way that feels healthy and good for you is what matters right now.
- Do you need different external circumstances for your writing? Maybe you were doing just fine writing alone but now you need people around, or you’d been hanging out in a café but need to be by yourself now. Maybe you need to write in shorter or longer bursts to balance your changing ability to focus. Maybe you need to cut into your writing time so that you have time to engage in activism, support loved ones, or just get some breathing room. Adjust your writing space and schedule to meet your current emotional and community needs.
And then persevere, in whatever way you can. Art is one of the primary ways we come to an understanding with our feelings and our situations. Angry art, healing art, activist art, passionate art, loving art, art that reaches out to people like you, art that bridges differences… when we make art in the midst of turmoil, we create what we most need to have in the world.
It’s easy to think “my writing doesn’t matter” or “I could be doing something more important” but your writing does matter and is important, as a way for you to express yourself and understand yourself and as a way for others to connect with what you’re writing about. We’ve all had incredibly precious moments of seeing ourselves reflected in someone else’s writing, of learning or comprehending something because of the way a person wrote about it, and of desperately clinging to the emotional catharsis of passionate words or the big fluffy blanket of a comfort read. If you, as a writer, give those things to even one other person, you will have made the world a better place. Even if you’re the only person who sees what you write, you will still have made the world a better place by enriching your own mind and heart or just scratching your writing itch. So yes, you get to write! Make space for your writing. Demand that others make space for it. And if it motivates you to visualize your eventual audience being moved by your work, keep that visualization front and center in your mind and your heart.
It’s easy to hear “we need art” or “your writing could help someone else” as pressure on you, specifically, to produce art or produce a certain kind of art. But the pressure that matters comes from within. If you’re not feeling the sort of internal pressure for which art is a relief valve, then let the external pressure pass you by. It is 100% okay for you to not make art right now, or for a while. But at some point, when you feel the urge again, let yourself do it.
It’s easy to honestly say “I can’t write right now” and then to let “right now” sort of extend forever, until you’re out of the habit and don’t know how to get back into it. For times like that, an external motivator can be helpful. Set a goal with a friend or take a writing class or do a small-scale work for hire on deadline. Let that motivator push you into doing what you know you need to do but can’t quite figure out how to do.
We are all in this together. We will fight and rest and weep and embrace and make art together. Do what you can, as you can. Be kind to yourselves and one another as we find a way forward and through.
Hang in there.
All my best wishes,