How Do You Write When the World Is Falling Apart?

I can barely write this title because I’ll miss a second of news coverage. Here’s an update: Beeker has blown the whistle on Facebook data mining (no idea what this means) and a horse-riding, chest-baring dictator has won an “election” for the fourth time. In the U.S., leaders are running away, crumbling, getting sicker while others tread water, wondering if it’s really so bad. Some are working very hard to fight and keep the faith. If I sleep, I know I will miss something important.

This is sort of how I feel when I’m flying. Even though a few competent professionals have control over my life, the plane will crash if I fall asleep. Because I’ve never witnessed such chaos in my lifetime—sort of like the time I flew through three storm systems at once, thank you, Toronto to NYC October 2006–I must pay attention.

Our world is very different from what it was two years ago. With so much going on, creativity can either thrive or vanish. For a writer, a personal or external crisis affects that right brain (or is it left), which serves us so well on some occasions, then goes silent on others. As a writer, I know this. As an editor, I see this. As a human being, I want to understand how to safeguard my creativity during these very bumpy times.

It seems trivial, though, to worry about creativity or the state of one’s imagination. Kids and teachers are getting shot in schools. Basic human rights are being questioned, which is absurdity itself, that time has gone backwards. Each day brings a new shock. So why get anxious about the inability to write?

There are several reasons:

The creative state feels the most normal to so many of us. Take it away and your zombie has won.

Shutting down the thinking, imagining brain for an extended period of time can turn into a habit, not necessarily a good one, i.e. a week of “coping” can turn into years. Some writers, like Anthony Trollope and romance writers, are highly disciplined. Many will stop to pick up a speck of dust, then mop the floors, then go out for a smoothie, then come home to realize the day is gone. These not-normal times only exacerbate one’s distractibility. I write this with love because I’m frequently distracted by dust—and Breaking News.

I won’t go into the medical repercussions of ignoring your creative urges. You know what they are.

I’d say this is the most important reason: Am I going to let Armageddon or a group of psychotic criminals take away my future legendary status? Absolutely not. Here’s where I get mad.

There is too much to do. Great theater to watch. Books to read. Books to write! Tap dancing classes to embarrass myself in. Cakes to bake not from scratch. Husband’s sunshine to bask in. Selfies to take. Restaurants to try. Walks to take. Moms to fuss over. Siblings to have church giggles with. Cats to purr with. Music to blow out eardrums to. Coffee to drink. Madeleine moments to have. Blog posts to post. Stories to dream.

There is life flashing in front of our eyes, which is why this is the moment to reclaim your writing and creative time:

Know that you may still be preoccupied with the crisis, i.e. watching a lot of CNN, checking Twitter, who used bad grammar to say what thing to whom? A total news fast is not recommended but if you can turn off the TV and social media for at least an hour, you’re a fierce warrior.

Schedule your creative time. I tend to set a clock or insist on a number of pages. If I’m too ambitious, I will not meet the goal so I do a little at a time, with dust-busting and cat-chasing sandwiched in there. If I do anything, I feel great.

As you notice the silence around you, thoughts might happen. It’s very strange. I went out for this walk, which is when you put one step in front of the other and the scenery changes in a three-dimensional way. My brain switched on. Taking advantage, I kept my devices off and got to work, digging out a thought, one by one, and putting it on the page. You’ll be surprised by how much you have locked away. I remembered how to conjugate second conjugation Latin verbs.

Find a book that has nothing to do with what you write or what you read from day to day. Get lost in something totally different. For me, that’s been books about gems and how to boost my intuition, which I don’t think needs boosting, but it’s fun to dream that maybe I’m secretly Samantha from Bewitched.

Notice things on your own, without having them presented to you on a screen.

Repeat all of this, maybe not the next day but the day after. You can’t be perfect every day. Maybe you can, in which case, more chocolate for you.

For the 10% of energy you have left, by all means, I invite you to join me as I keep tuning in to our world and staying informed. If there’s ever a time when it’s understandable to be confused or outraged or paralyzed, it’s now.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t be inspired, too.

Thanks for listening.



Writing Tips

Ramble On (but please edit), Brave Writers!

When I decided to be a great novelist, I knew exactly how to start my story. With me! And my Extraordinary and Very Rare experience of dating a tortured intellectual who drank…in college…and sometimes he was mean! This narrative went on for pages and pages. Oh, the pages! The fact that my pen glided so effortlessly across the paper meant I was genius and this story would capture the hearts of millions. I wasn’t even at the good part or even the beginning. By the time I was done, I had filled a notebook, one I couldn’t go back and reread because, I’ll be honest, it was a little boring. But someone else would find it fascinating!

And so I began my relationship with writing fiction. As an editor, with now daily experience in reading critically, I notice how rambling points of view can kill a story. Mind you, I still do this—go on and on for pages (or even blog posts). What one writer might consider fascinating character revelations, one editor might use as a sleeping agent.

Is this Rambling POV bad?

Only if you don’t edit it. Rambling POV is actually a good thing. It gets your brain moving and pushes you to free your imagination. In editing, you can make that point of view more succinct and targeted to your storytelling.

How do you know you have rambling POV?

Keep rereading what you have written. If you find yourself skipping over paragraphs, consider cutting those paragraphs. You might feel liberated. In case of regret, always save your drafts. If you have the energy to go back, cut and paste, your words were meant to stay.

When I read submissions, a common mistake is a rambling POV at the beginning. Too much of a good thing can bog down the pacing and a character with sass can quickly turn off an editor if the sass goes on forever before anything happens.

Just remember that all talk and no action renders your character a big snooze fest.

When can rambling POV be good?

In narrative nonfiction, it can be lovely. Though in this format, it’s not so much “rambling” as “telling a true, gripping story.” You can bet that the editor is looking at every word and trimming what comes off as rambling.

One way to tell rambling from elucidating prose is that it seems to be more about the author than about the reader. There’s a sense of “I so love my voice” or “I need to get this out before I move to the next thing” or “I’m writing so fast, this must be brilliant!” So, in the end, rambling POV can be good—as in, a good start, but amateurish if not done well.

How do you deal with rambling POV?

Understand from the beginning that may overwrite in places. Often, it’s to show your character. You can always go back and cut. In fact, you should go back and cut.

Think about how your character moves through the scene rather than thinks. We all think. It’s easy to share thoughts on a page. But what does your character do?

Don’t censor yourself from rambling. More writing is better than no writing.

Remember that most of the time, rambling doesn’t help. There are many exceptions, authors who do it brilliantly. Sophie Kinsella comes to mind. She can immerse you in her story with her rambling characters, who do very little but are ablaze with thought and insight, all of which is highly entertaining, at least to me! Those thriller writers with the unreliable narrators or fascinating protagonists, also pros at rambling POV. And good memoirists can go on and on with a purpose.

It’s always good to err on the side of knowing you’re probably not an exception, though maybe you are. It never hurts to experiment.

Back to important stuff: my “fictional” story about the alcoholic in college. Yeah, she’s sitting somewhere in my mother’s closet along with Teacher’s Pet, my attempt at writing a romance. And my master’s thesis, a truly rambling onus from the depths of Hades.

May you fare better than this. Go forth and ramble, experiment, and edit. And lastly, read the exceptions and learn.