Tag: mental health

Writing for Myself: How I’m Staying Sane in COVID

Maddy Decker, Writing Consultant

I knew I wanted to be a writer by the time I was ten. Somewhere deep in my bedroom closet at home, there’s an ancient white binder that holds two embarrassing stories, the first being a romance between “Princess Maddy” and “Prince [popular boy from my class],” and the second being a similar but darker romance, foreshadowing my imminent emo phase, between the same “Princess Maddy” and “Prince [my actual crush].” I can’t retrace the steps in my logic that led me to think that my pencil-written, notebook paper stories would be in such high demand that I needed a decoy story to cover the identity of my true ‘love,’ but looking back, I love that I put such an effort into writing for myself at such a young age. 

            Somewhere along the way to where I am now, looking ahead to graduating at the end of the spring semester, I think I lost some of what pushed me to write my own stories with only myself in mind. Getting published has remained one of my main goals, and to that end, I’ve been producing most of my recent creative writing with a general audience in mind, inviting strangers to sit in my head and eat popcorn with me while my words put on a show for us. It’s an interesting exercise to work within the constraints of their potential judgment, but while I don’t exactly feel like a sell-out (if you can be one before you’ve sold anything), I do think that I’ve self-censored and produced work that doesn’t truly fit what I want to go back and reread for my own enjoyment. 

            I think that I can pinpoint where something shifted for me in this regard: in my undergraduate senior seminar, we read and heavily discussed Speak, Memory. I struggled immensely with deciphering what Nabokov could possibly wish for his audience to get out of reading this collection of essays. It was a relief when my professor told us that Nabokov was writing for himself rather than for us, but the energy I lost to his work solidified within me the idea that I would commit to not writing or distributing such work of my own, work that takes intense personal knowledge to decode. 

            I’m happy to say that I’ve started to train myself out of this two-year-old commitment, and it’s been incredibly rewarding, particularly during the relentless monotony of my more isolated COVID schedule. Sometimes I start writing something down just because I got a phrase stuck in my head. It either ends up in my graveyard Word document, or it turns into a story that I run with. If I run with it, I find it calming to remind myself that just because I write something doesn’t mean that I’m obligated to share it or to turn it into my new life’s work. Taking the pressure off of myself allows me some wiggle room, and it’s turned my pandemic experience into a surprisingly productive one. 

From an idea I mentally ‘wrote’ as I cashiered over the summer, I started a short story that I will be revising for my culminating project towards my degree. From getting the phrase “trial by earth” stuck in my head and finally typing it out, I generated an experimental piece that helped me understand how I want to approach an idea for a novel I’ve been thinking about since undergrad. From just desperately wanting to write something, anything, in a gorgeous new notebook, I started writing a horrendous fairy tale romance, one that I intend to burn before my death so that no one else can ever see it…but I like it as a story just for me.

Why write for yourself? It’s fun! It’s indulgent in a way that lets you exercise your thoughts and your writing voice. It can let you create a world you can escape to when you find yourself needing a break from the increasing everyday academic, political, and medical stress, and, like journaling, it can help you work through how you’re feeling and what you’re reacting to. You might find yourself stepping back from what you write and being surprised by how proud you are of what you wrote, and it can be so rewarding to have something that’s made by you, with yourself in mind, that only you get to read. 

Writing for Sanity’s Sake: A Quarantine Companion

IMG_3633Edward English, Assistant Director 

When considering strategies for staying emotionally and physically healthy during these times of closed borders, social distancing, and toilet paper depletion, for most people writing would be an unlikely choice. Writing does, after all, carry a reputation for being a solitary enterprise.  I do, however, believe that writing offers great potential to help many navigate these tough times and here’s why.

The importance of having projects. For those with an ample amount of free time, having a project, or projects, can be a fun and rewarding way to learn and stay occupied. My wife, a junior high science teacher now instructing entirely online, has a loom and is in a weaving frenzy.  I’ve started gardening a bit and trying to get better at home repairs.  It seems I’m not alone in taking on these tasks either—yesterday while driving around, I noticed what seemed to be a Louisvillian ghost town suddenly transform into a dense expanse of cars parked in front of Lowe’s.

For many attracted to writing, the biggest obstacles can be a perceived lack of time and difficulty overcoming writer’s block.  Now, however, free-time is no longer in short supply for the bulk of us.  Also, for myself, I feel that writer’s block is often a product of feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of a project.  Perhaps now is the time for you to start that novel you always wanted to write, but something of a more manageable size might be a better strategy: a short story, a screenplay, or a thoughtfully crafted letter or e-mail to connect with loved ones, offer consultation to those in a difficult place, or express appreciation to those who are working so hard and acting bravely—particularly those in the medical field.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that writing can often be an activity that requires slowing down and thoughtfully managing your time, as former writing consultant Abby Wills explains: Slow Writing: 5 Ways to Rebel against the Culture of Urgency

The importance of working through emotions—especially uncomfortable ones.  These are anxious times—especially to someone in tune with the current headlines.  As many people have little communication with others during this unprecedented time, it might be challenging to process through difficult emotions. For some in these and similar situations, writing can serve as an outlet. In my own life, I’ve found that writing, especially journaling and poetry, can be an excellent way to give definition and clarity to fears, questions, and concerns.  And while these steps don’t necessarily eliminate problems, more often than not they help foster much clearer, and more pleasant, headspace.

For fun insight into journaling, check out former writing consultant Rachel Knowles’ piece: The Writing Center Diaries: Dispelling Myths About Journaling

The importance of exercise and creativity.

If you have the ability to responsibly exercise, jog, or take walks, it’s likely a good idea. The benefits are numerous: physical health, increased serotonin levels, vitamin D to name a few.  But also consider that exercise could be a great way to improve your writing quality and overall experience.

In a recent interview, acclaimed fiction writer Chuck Palahniuk (Invisible MonstersChoke, Fight Club) detailed how much of his writing process actually revolves around lifting weights—arguing that the physical movement and circulation were conducive to helping him feel creative and organize his thoughts. While weight lifting might be a limited option for most—particularly with the closure of gyms—the sentiment is clear, and alternative ways of exercising indoors abound with a simple Google search.

Along similar lines, a few years back Psychology Today published “To Become a Better Writer, Be a Frequent Walker” exploring significant benefits walking can give to writers.  As the article explains, avid walkers abound among great literary figures like Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth and Henry David Thoreau.  Furthermore, walking can lead to increased creativity, provide inspiration, and hone one’s observational skills.

The importance of staying connected.

While a successful writer is frequently imagined as sitting hunched over a laptop typing away in a disheveled apartment, sterile office, or library, more often than not some of the most successful writers I have met put great effort into figuring out alternative and creative methods that work better for them, and this often incorporates social connection as a significant part of their writing process.

And, as many are discovering creative ways of connecting online, it might be worth considering that writing could be a useful means to get feedback or just brainstorm ideas with friends or people with similar interests online.  If you happen to be a faculty member or graduate student at the UofL and are interested, we are still our offering writing group online.  For more details, check out: Faculty and Graduate Student Writing Group

For many, these various options and suggestions might not be feasible. But either way, we at the University Writing Center hope you stay safe, healthy, and connected.  So happy writing…or whatever it is you do to help during these strange times.

Works Cited

“To Become a Better Writer, Be a Frequent Walker.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 28 Mar. 2016, http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/minding-the-body/201603/become-better-writer-be-frequent-walker.