We're going to toss our regular schedule, and do a couple of weeks of "Elephant-In-The-Room" posts about Coronavirus/Covid-19. They might be a little roughshod (as I'M a little roughshod right now). They might be a bit stream-of-conscious-y for what you're used to. They may be "about writing" in only the strictest sense.
Starting today with a big ol' affirmation.
It's okay to feel HOWEVER you feel.
It's okay to be anxious.
It's okay to not be anxious.
It's okay to be terrified.
It's okay to be serene.
It's okay to be worried about your income, even though "people are dying," and it doesn't make you a terrible person who should be more grateful.
It's okay to have your childhood trauma response kick in and be unable to feel anything except a cool and collected icy rationality that seems made for such a moment. It is okay if your reaction to strong emotions is to close down because you were taught that it wasn't okay to have them. So they go in a box and you'll deal with it later but right now there's shit to do. It doesn't mean you don't care. It doesn't mean you're a monster. It just means you're different and it's okay.
It's okay if it turns into hitching sobs that send you to back to therapy for the first time in years the minute the crisis is over.
It's okay for you to be happy that maybe you and everyone you know is hunkered down and safe. It doesn't make you a horrible person not to wallow in angst at the fate of everyone else.
But just for the record, it's okay to wallow in angst at the fate of everyone else.
It's okay to grieve. For the world we once knew and what is coming. For that feeling of normalcy that is fading from memory and seems to exist only beyond our reach. For the changes we can't stop.
It's okay to be angry.
It's okay to be sad.
It's okay to be desperately lonely, even if your friends with roommates can't get them to stop going out and take this thing seriously.
It's okay to be frustrated with your @#$*ing roommates who won't take this seriously even if your friends who live alone are getting desperately lonely.
It's okay to be horny as fuck. Like, someone just told you NOT to think about the color green. It doesn't make you petty or self-centered.
It's okay if your sad that your plans got cancelled. Those feelings themselves do not mean you are callous or wouldn't choose to keep people safe if the event were not cancelled.
It's okay to feel dread. (Because every health professional and person who is not a heartless Republican is telling us this is just getting started and is going to get much worse.) It's okay to feel the growing "That's not a moon," feeling as you realize you can't just wash your hands and "be smart."
It's okay to dig through the news from everywhere like you're scratching an itch. (Unless it makes you worse....then maybe try a little less.) It's okay to treat information like the understanding itself is giving you some measure of control over what is happening.
It's okay to avoid the news for self care. (Unless not knowing is making you worse...then maybe try a little more.) We pretty much have the bullet points being beamed at us from every media. We don't need to read grisly descriptions, every single person's predictions on how this will unfold, or a government trying to downplay the risk because the ONLY number our president is capable of reliably keeping track of as a bellwether for how he's doing is the stock market.
It's okay to be whatever the emotional equivalent is of that moment when you're about to throw up and your hands are clenching the sides of the toilet and you know it's coming and there's nothing you can do about it, but you haven't yet, but god is it ever coming any second now....but like, emotionally speaking.
It's okay to cycle through these emotions so quickly and powerfully that you are exhausted by ten in the morning.
We're deep in uncharted waters and someone used the map back to shore as a quick fix to deal with the toilet paper situation.
A lot of people feel a lot of different ways. And that's all okay. There are no wrong answers when you're sheltering in place, worried about the entire world but especially Nana and your friend who had chemo and radiation for Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma five years ago, and watching your leadership strategically NOT CARE how many people are going to die so that Game Stop and Starbucks can open back up right away.
It's okay to not be okay. In fact, you probably shouldn't be okay.
(But it's also okay if you strangely are––don't waste any energy on guilt––you just process differently.)
Over at the Writing About Writing Facebook Page it's very common for me to put up a "You should be writing" meme about the time each day when I'm sitting down myself to get a little bit of work done. I try to make them topical and mix things up. A slightly altered catchphrase here. A popular meme reworked there. And there have been a lot of things lately about writing while sheltering in place. What a good time to get that novel done, right? Hey, Shakespeare wrote King Lear when he was staying home to avoid the plague, right? CovidWriMo. Let's do this thing!
And if that's you? Great. If you are drowning in a gush of creativity in spite of (or perhaps BECAUSE of) everything that's going on, that's awesome. If you can write, rock out with your.....well whatever you've got out. Invent calculus. Become a five star chef. Write your entire trilogy.
Those posts are a gentle nudge to the "I want to be a writer more than anything ever in the whole wide world!" crowd and a reminder to anyone who means to be writing but maybe got caught up in taking a quiz to figure out what Kazuo Ishiguro novel they are. ("I wanted to be Remains of the Day, but it turns out I am Never Let Me Go...what a pisser!") It might be a blink and an "Oh yeah!" moment to a few of us working writers who are just as human as everyone else and do not have ice in our veins.
However, if you can't write, that's okay too.
If the words aren't coming at all, that's okay.
If you find that you can't do a whole lot more than spit a few angry sociopolitical paragraphs onto Facebook and can't really focus for more than a few minutes (so just fucking FORGET your work in progress), that's also fine.
If you can kind of manage to get bowls of Honey Nut Cheerios put into your face with enough frequency to not die and watch Star Trek: The Next Generation through for the tenth time, that's...hey, that's pretty great. Two pandemic thumbs WAY up. We regress under stress. We downshift into a mental state that is easier to maintain. We conserve our energy knowing that we might need to outrun a group of survivalists out of The Walking Dead instead of debate the finer points of Jon Snow's characterization in novels vs. movies.
And of course, of course, of COURSE this a little thing like half the planet getting sick and 3% of THOSE people dying is going to stress us the fuck out. So give yourself permission to feel how you feel.
Okay....so you're watching "too much" Netflix and eating "too many" carbs. It's okay. It's conserving your energy....because you don't feel safe (and you might very suddenly need to be the adult in the room so you want all the energy you can conserve).
And if you are in crisis, and need outside help, that's okay too.
"Productivity" and a culture of produce-or-die is a byproduct of our fierce capitalism and consumerism. If anything, we're learning in real time how dangerous it can be to have layer upon layer of the economy so dependent on our constant, pulse-pounding PRODUCTIVITY and CONSUMPTION that we can't even stay home and NOT DIE without our leaders shitting the bed.
"Global pandemic" is a pretty fucking reasonable excuse that you had a not-so-awesome March on the writing front. Hell, it'll probably work for April too! Sure, some of us working writers have had to try to find SOME kind of focus with a pickaxe and a miner's hat (the kind with the light), but I guarantee we're not like: "Ah...finally some QUIET around here!"
You know what I thought when we got the Shelter in Place order? I thought a few frozen pizzas, some PB&J fixins, maybe one of those giant jars of pickles and some canned soups, and I was going to sit down and basically KNOCK OUT a novel before they told us we could go fuck people again. (Can I just say that global pandemics fucking SUUUUUUUUUUCK for the person who has several partners that they don't live with.) I figured I was born for this moment. A distraction-free, introvert wonderland with no obligations but the blank screen. "Why don't they just GIVE licences away*?"
Want to know what actually happened?
I experienced the same shit as everyone else. I was moody. Distracted. I couldn't focus. I scrolled Facebook for hours, sometimes writing reactions to news stories but desperately unable to focus for the time it took to focus on a work in progress. I would go to get a link for something I was writing, and end up spending two hours looking at exponential growth curves for every single country. I felt sad in one moment and kind of twisted into glee the next at the vast expanse of writing time available and my relative good fortune at finding toilet paper and bread before I pulled the hatch closed behind me. But then I felt terrible about people who can't work from home and other people who have simply been laid off. I felt guilty about feeling glee. Then I found myself checking on Facebook ten times more than my USUAL "way-too-much" pace and reading everything about this virus. I did this not out of any sense of actual curiosity, but just a compulsion that couldn't be sated that maybe one more article will be the one that gives me enough understanding and sense of CONTROL to feel like I can focus on something else for a moment. By then I was exhausted, so I took a nap that was not a quick thirty-minute thing but one of those behemoth three-hour monsters that have you wake up wondering where the day has gone. I stared at some TV, but I couldn't follow anything I hadn't already seen.. It just took too much concentration. So I just put on an old show and kind of zoned out. I ate those Hostess donettes (the little mini-donuts with the chocolate covering that feels more like wax than actual chocolate) until I felt sick. And then I realized it was after ten and I was exhausted.....somehow.....from a day of doing nothing.
And the next day the same thing happened. I kept thinking for the entire day that I should at least play some video games. I wanted to turn on my new PS4 and play Horizon Zero Dawn. Instead I watched one episode after another of shows I have already seen multiple times.
And the day after that.....I managed to take an entire day––eight hours––and write a page and a half newsletter.
Because it had nothing to do with where I work or my usual lifestyle. It's not a "quiet getaway to work on the novel." I'm not in a remote cabin choosing to only have wifi if I go down the hill to the diner. It's a pandemic, not a vacay. It's a little different when you can't leave the house, even if you want to, and there's a ticker adding up the death toll in the other window.
This is something different and it's okay if you don't spring into action and churn out your magnum opus on day ten.
I'm writing (today). I'm writing, but I'm not "better." I might be right back to cramming doughnuts in my mouth and Supernatural in my eyes tomorrow. I may hit news at 2pm after a great start like running into a mine at sea. This is a lot like grieving. (In many ways it basically IS grieving.) I know my "getting better" curve isn't going to be a linear or smooth process. I'll have some good days and I'll have some shitty days, and I have to leave myself some space for the shitty ones. They're out there.
And I know at least a few of those days are going to be saying goodbye. To whom I do not yet know, but friends are already reporting deaths of people they know. Right now it's like that first pop of popcorn. (Just like the announcements of "I think I have it" were a week ago.) More are coming. And my love is not going to magically protect the people I care about.
Oh yes. More "unproductive" days are coming. Many more.
Write if you want to.
Write if your heart burns for it.
Write if the forced time alone is doing for you what discipline could not.
Write if you feel it. (And if you don't feel it, that's okay.)
But don't write (or hate yourself if you can't write) to stay “productive” or because any moment not filled with work feels uncomfortable. Those are cultural messages from a different place that has nothing to do with art, creativity, or writing. And if anything, we’re about to learn how broken they have always been.
This isn't going to go away tomorrow.
This isn't going to go away next week.
And maybe the worst part is, we don't know when it's going away. Two months? Three? Surely four or five......right? RIGHT? If bottom line wanks who care for nothing but the economy don't flatten the curve, it might be a pretty long time.
And at some point in this, it is almost a statistical certainty that we're going to lose someone––maybe a few someones. There will be grieving. Not this "anticipating throwing up" grieving but the kind with the fat tears and the hitching breath and the wails that do not sound altogether human. And it will be okay to feel how you feel THEN too. Numb. Overwhelmed. Devastated. It will be okay.
When this is over, you don't have to have written your novel or invented calculus or have six pack abs or be a concert pianist. It will be enough just that you made it.
...even if your kids had too much screen time and not enough vegetables. It. Will. Be. Enough. That. You. Made. It.
This is not a time you don't have a "right" to feel some way or a responsibility TO feel another. You do not "really need to pull yourself together." This is some WILDLY FUCKED UP SHIT, and it's okay to feel however you feel.
(*This 30 year old reference is from Licence to Drive, the cinematic masterpiece with Corys Haim and Feldman where the first question on the driving test is SO easy that Les Anderson wonders why even bother taking it at all.)