My debut novel was signed in 2018 and came out in March 2020—straight into the maw of Ye Pestilence, the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 global epidemic. Since then, I’ve had five more books come out (only some of which existed at deal time) and several more contracted, which I will have to figure out how to write. Out of necessity I have become one of those writers who went from needing to be perfectly in the mood to write to saying, “Well, if everything’s burning at least I can use the firelight to see the notes on this manuscript.”
Which is easily accomplished if I’ve gone dead inside. I cannot verify that I haven’t, but I think I’ve gotten better at deliberately compartmentalizing and here seems like a good place to talk about it!
To start off, let’s picture yourself—your everything, who you are, mental, physical, spiritual—as a country. You have natural resources! You have imports and exports. You have, maybe, a government center—let’s say it’s a castle if you’re in fantasy, and a nice arcology if you’re in sci-fi—and you have neighbors, local flora and fauna, a population of citizens, all that. The goal is to keep your country stable and running.
And now let’s picture all of that on fire.
- “Everything around my country is on fire and it’s burning up my allies and friends and the flames are licking at the borders!”
In the old days you would have known the fires were at your door by hearing the shrieks of the villagers living in the evacuation zones. Now, thanks to the firehose of social media, ads, and every webpage boasting a little box on the bottom saying, “NEW THING ON FIRE,” not only can you not avoid knowing, but you’re now worried about fires burning a thousand miles away. The goal here is to protect your own citizens from real harm, prevent panic and irrational behavior, and help your neighbors—if you can, and in that order.
For me, that looks like muting hundreds of words and phrases on social media and blocking people at will. Enough slips through that I stay informed about wars or climate change or natural disasters or murderous legislation, but instant curation makes me feel less overwhelmed and helpless. When I can, I also boost and donate to the people putting out the fires. I may not be able to send firefighters of my own across the ocean, but helpers always need money and visibility.
This also applies to non-world-changing things like The Latest Outrage About Some Celebrity or Hark, The Town Crier Is Salty About a Publishing Thing. Generally as soon as they come up, if I’m interested, I read one thing from someone who seems like they’ll say something intelligent about it, and then I block and mute. If knowing about it isn’t going to enrich my life but will instead impoverish it, who’s got that kind of money?
If each of us is a nation as I suggested, you’ve got, maybe, a taxpayer-funded Innovators & Changemakers reserve to administer as you see fit. We should definitely fund the groups in your country that are doing good work and keeping the lights on. We absolutely must not fund the useless outrage manufacturers that are just running around screaming, “Everybody, tools down! I just heard that this one director doesn’t like Marvel movies!”
- “But I don’t have time to both write and run the country!”
As writers everywhere keep pointing out, it’s not a matter of just writing the thing, selling the thing, repeat. We also have to scream at our printers (why can’t printers just work?), complete edits, research our stories, organize notes and files, track tax information, do interviews, podcasts, livestreams, charity events, and giveaways, write essays and articles to promote our own books, blurb other people’s books, appear on panels, volunteer for writing organizations, keep up on craft and our fields of expertise, and…somewhere in there…also write more fiction?
“Wait a minute,” you’re saying, “I don’t do all that.” Congratulations, you’re smarter than me. “Write” is a verb that includes about 50 other verbs these days, and a lot of those verbs have significant demands on time and energy. Everyone tells writers, especially newer ones, to learn to say no. Unfortunately, many of us (me) are natural people-pleasers and also live with the eternal fear that the next opportunity we decline will be our last, because someone will declare us uncooperative or grumpy or a demanding diva who doesn’t want to give back to the community, and that’ll be the end of that.
First of all, that won’t happen.
Second, you literally have to say no because writing is more important than any of those other things. (Especially if you have deadlines and people will not give you money if you miss them.) The Word Mines of your country generate all those other industries. If nothing is coming out of the mines, those so-called precious opportunities will dry up anyway. Writing comes first. The time you take away from your writing and give to these other things is time you will never get back.
If it helps, I’ve also made a kind of rubric for saying yes to things myself, in order of priority:
- Will I be compensated fairly for my time?
- Is it for a friend?
- Will I have fun?
With a real job and volunteer commitments and publicity and other demands on my time, I started getting sick of hunting for fifteen-minute scraps in which to actually write. I know a lot of people who can write in those odds and ends, which is amazing! Tell me your secrets! I, sadly, cannot. When I carve out time, I really carve. I turn down things I don’t desperately want to do (or that I can be paid to want to do). I examine my fears of invisibility, failure, letting people down, and I know that I fear the results of not writing more than any of those things.
- “Speaking of writing, I am serious, how do you write when the world is on fire?”
Have a process. Trust your process. Make sure the machinery does not break down when everything is on fire.
Alongside my Word Mines, whether or not there’s actual ore coming out, all the local factories are still running regular shifts using existing feedstock: revising, editing, researching, outlining, submitting. Even if the mines themselves are temporarily dark and silent, that whole little valley is always full of light and industry. If I can’t draft, there’s always something: I take notes and do line edits at lunch because an hour isn’t enough for me to descend to the good word seams; I highlight nonfiction books on my e-reader during my commute so I can use it in stories later on; I keep a trove of craft e-books so I can open the app on my phone and get a quick belt of motivation or do a writing exercise if I find myself with a spare fifteen minutes.
I also, in this metaphor, occasionally block all signals coming in and out of the mines so that people can do focused work—I write in Google Docs so I use the Forest Chrome extension for productivity to temporarily “lock” myself out of my most egregious time-wasting websites. This works for me because I feel too guilty to kill the little trees, and it’s easily customizable in terms of time periods and tagging. It also does what my therapist encourages: puts a pause between emotion and reaction. I notice that when I feel reluctant to do something, my emotion can be “NO TOO FRIGHTENING,” and so my action is “I’M GOING TO GO FIND SOMETHING COMFORTING AND FAMILIAR.” Usually this involves opening Twitter and going to see what my friends are up to. Friends! Good! Safe! Will not hurt me!
But just sitting with the anxiety for the five seconds it takes to show me I might kill my tree is enough to go, “Oh, okay. I could choose a reaction, instead of acting reflexively.” Breaking that cycle never happens automatically for me, so I’m glad I can outsource it.
Ditto with occasionally planting a tree so I can devote it to a “writing stretch” (I particularly like the ones from Cat Rambo’s Flash Fiction class) which keeps all the processing equipment in good repair, helps with everybody’s muscle memory, and can produce great, emotional, unselfconscious writing with no pressure to do anything with it afterwards (although actually I often do).
- “Okay but none of these workers are paying attention and I feel like that’s totally okay on the one hand because everything is, in fact, on fire, but on the other hand, words are our main export!”
Yeah no listen, after my Adult ADHD assessment one of the team members pulled me aside and asked if it was okay to use my data for a research paper. Their verdict was that I had the most severe case of Inattentive-Type ADHD they’d ever seen—the computer test results, in particular, put my attention span at a maximum of two to eight seconds.
“But you’ve exported so many books from Great Country Premonia!” Yeah, and they all got written in five-second bursts. My entire life is a tissue of coping mechanisms to deal with the ADHD that I didn’t know I had; so now that everything is on fire, I’m just leaning harder on them and hoping they don’t collapse.
The main one, as discussed is Forest, which does not force me to focus for 45-minute slots but does prevent me from focusing on anything else. Secondly, I try to automate as much as I can—recurring items in Google Tasks, for instance, so that I don’t fall behind, and reminders in my calendar so I don’t miss deadlines.
I also try to create specific deliverables and make them as binary as possible. For housework this might look something like, “Are all the dishes in the draining board dried and put away Y/N.” Being able to say one or the other is way more motivational to me than some nebulous spectrum of “done-ish.” It also means that each individual thing can be as small as needed, which is useful when trying to write through disaster. “Did I email that one podcast guy back Y/N.” “Did I complete those short story edits Y/N.”
This also, somewhat weirdly, fed into why I taught myself how to outline—with limited attention, time, and energy, I could no longer keep my “I’ll do it when I feel like it” style of writing and still meet deadlines, ditto with “I’ll just pants my way through it and fix it later.”
Fixing a poorly built piece of infrastructure isn’t too bad if you have the time and labor and no one’s waiting for it to work again! Sometimes, though, you’re sitting there muttering about how much easier and faster it would have been to build it properly to begin with, and how you literally can’t do that now without tearing down the whole thing—instead painstakingly extracting embedded wires, laboriously replacing the damaged drywall, dismantling all the shoddy work so you can rebuild to current standards. Some people enjoy this kind of thing! I don’t mind it. It used to be my whole M.O.
But it’s definitely more time-consuming and time is the one thing I cannot afford any more. If changing a major item in the plot affects every scene that happens before and after it, it’s better if that change happens at the low-stakes, quick-to-fix outline stage, so when I’m ready to draft I can do so knowing that I won’t have to constantly interrupt myself to go back and build part of the structure.
- “Sounds good, but last big thing is that, uh, everything is so much and so relentlessly on fire that the country’s morale is in the toilet, people are too tired to even protest, and I think entire provinces are physically falling apart at the seams.”
Nothing I can say about self-care will be anything new to anyone reading this—including the idea that most self-care suggestions are for people who have a lot more free time than I do. We already know different maintenance teams are needed for damage in different regions. I need a two-hour bubble bath like I need a hole in the head—but making popcorn and spending a few dollars to rent a movie is a good way to patch the holes in my soul. Choose what works for you and ignore the generic self-care lists out there!
Other authors have written at length about this problem and going to them for support and encouragement worked for me when nothing else would have. Never Say You Can’t Survive, by Charlie Jane Anders was a favorite recent read, and I cannot recommend it enough both as food for the writerly soul and also crammed with practical ways to write through either personal or global disaster. On the other hand, The Organised Writer by Antony Johnston gave me the priceless gift of a non-prescriptive framework that helped implement all my existing half-baked plans to organize my writing, my process, and my time—it’s full of good ideas that can be picked out and used on their own.
Distraction doesn’t put the fires out. But it is good for the ability to work and for morale; people who feel hopeful about surviving long enough to get one more treat are in better shape than people who can’t even hope for that.
Hope is the one thing. Then there’s all the other emotions…anger, frustration, and righteous lust for vengeance can be treated like radioactive waste and decanted into barrels to be stored in salt mines, absolutely. But they can also be reprocessed into fuel—ask any writer. For me, journaling is the first step of doing something with all that sloshing toxicity. The feelings aren’t gone, they’re just easier to manage when I put them on the page.
It’s the same with venting on social media. It’s good to let off steam, of course, but steam is what runs power plants. Your anger may be generating it, but you get to decide where the steam goes after it’s made. Maybe that can be into stories. Maybe that can be into action.
Everything’s on fire? Not ideal, but let’s burn it under something and put it to work.
© 2022 Premee Mohamed