It is a difficult time to be a human in the world right now.
Not insurmountable, but there are challenges. Aside from a sweeping global pandemic virus that currently has no cure, there is the social distancing and isolation, abrupt changes to schedules and lifestyles, fear for health and financial futures, worry about family and friends … the list goes on and on and could really be an entire piece in and of itself.
But you know the circumstances of your current existence, and probably don’t need me rehashing them for your mind to start spinning on.
Instead, we’re going to talk a bit about the reality of writing and creating in times of uncertainty and chaos, why it is important, how entirely impossible it can seem, and how you can overcome that.
Thanks to the hustlers of the internet, the stories of William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton have been spreading like wildfire.
In case you are unfamiliar, it all seemed to start when musician Roseanne Cash shared this nugget of wisdom on Twitter:
Well, actually Roseanne, he likely started King Lear in the autumn before the plague, as many historians have proven.
(To add insult to injury, he also wrapped up Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra.)
Or, you could pop over to the world of science and knowledge, where someone alerted the world that Isaac Newton created calculus and discovered gravity while working under quarantine during the plague.
The message being that we should all be pumping out some of our most magnificent pieces (magnum opuses, if you will) during this time of social distancing and isolation.
Of course, there are at least 37 different factors that led to these successes.
Shakespeare was an established and sought-after playwright by this point. Isolating to write was his daily routine. King Lear was first performed for a small audience at the court of King James I, and (spoiler alert) it was not well received. There are few references to the original performance because it was … awful.
He later wrote a revised version of the play, called The Tragedy of King Lear, which was published in his 1623 First Folio. Though there are many similarities (i.e. it was an obvious revision, not a totally new piece), the update was overhauled for better performance and scriptwriting.
Newton was a student at Cambridge University when the school sent everyone home as a precautionary measure against the Great Plague.
While he was home for a year, he wrote the initial scrawlings and papers that would eventually become his foundation for creating calculus and the laws of motion and gravity.
It wouldn’t be until two years later that he first shared his findings on this newest field of mathematics, modern calculus, in a paper he submitted for his Cambridge studies.
And he didn’t write anything definitive until 1669, which he told people about but did not publish. He wrote another paper in 1671 and another in 1676 … but didn’t publish publicly until 1711.
Oh, and as a revered playwright and 20-year-old uni student, these guys likely didn’t have to worry about childcare or household maintenance.
Or contend with entertainment streaming services or constantly updating social media feeds.
Still, for many this feels like the ideal opportunity to gather some of the momentum and write that novel we’ve always been planning to write.
But how do we go about doing that?
Remember how I just told you, about 100 words back, that Shakespeare and Newton didn’t actually write or create anything particularly good in their year of isolation?
What Shakespeare was able to perform was largely overhauled, and Newton spent a ton of time gazing through a prism out a window – not even publishing anything.
Instead, they took this time to think.
So let’s reframe this whole “use this time to write something epic” instead to be “use this time to work on something epic.”
Because here’s the thing most online folks trying to sell you courses and services won’t tell you … epic takes time.
As the beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk-ox that is Ann Handley recently shared over in her personal newsletter, “in life there are key moments when we need to slow down now to speed up later on.”
This is one of those moments. You might actually have time to sit and think seriously about some of those “one day” ideas that have been bumping around your grey matter.
Heck, if you are feeling super ambitious, start writing those ideas down.
Get them out of your brain and onto a piece of paper (or a computer screen.)
Spend some time snazzing them up. Walk away from the piece for a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks. Come back. Lovingly cuddle with it on the sofa while gazing outside at the apocalypse that is unfolding in the streets.
Er…we’re not quite in zombie end-times yet.
Let’s cut back on the melodramatics a tinge, eh?
Instead, just remember this simple starting point : give yourself a break.
One of the things that stands out to most when looking at the famous routines of various writers is the fact that their lives were mostly catered to.
Going back far enough, these were mostly dudes (and some ladies) who didn’t have a care in the world besides making time to write and think. Women took care of the house and children, managers and money houses took care of the finances. Servants took care of things like cleaning and making food.
It’s a nice life if you can get it.
However, I’m gonna take a wild guess and say that most of you reading this do not have that luxury.
Instead, your kids are home from school and you are expected to suddenly entertain and educate them. Your significant other is talking in some weird voice to their colleagues using Zoom, from the end of your sofa, and you have no idea who this person is.
Oh, and your housework is piling up and the natives have been reduced to eating wheat germ and offbrand soy milk, because that was all that was left when you popped into the store for a quick restock of the isolation rations you blasted through in the first 5 days.
We’re not even gonna talk about what you are wiping your ass with.
The ideal “I’m going to make the most of this time of isolation because hustle hustle hustle” mantra is a great motivator.
It isn’t reality for most of the people trying for it, though.
Life is going to happen.
It’s been happening for all those times before, when you wanted to start writing more, and never got around to it.
If you want to write and create more in this current state of chaos, then talk with the people you are isolating with.
Tell them how important this is to you, and figure out a plan that will give you the time and space to do that.
Yes, this means you might have to put the toilet seat down and sit cross-legged on the floor at your new porcelain writing desk to get some peace and quiet to work.
Find the ways to make this happen for yourself, and enlist the help of others to keep it happening.
Also, don’t be a jerk. If you are asking for this for yourself, remember there are other people in your quarantined quarters. Find out what they want to do with their time and space, and make sure they are able to make this happen for themselves as well.
You know the old saying: The family that is considerate and compassionate to each other in isolated quarantine situations stays together.
It was a lot easier to isolate yourself in the plague pandemics of the 1600’s, when you had no idea how close the outside world was to the aforementioned zombie apocalypse.
Social distancing was pretty standard as well, with far fewer people on the planet and societal standards for touching and closeness.
These days, you can’t attempt to engage with anything outside your home without being bombarded with the doom and gloom of the future.
In some ways, it is warranted. We need to keep reinforcing to people that it is dangerous and scary out there so people don’t get complacent and start carrying their little germ buddies around to every public space they visit.
It would be foolish to think hanging out inside for a week will flatten the curve into remission.
Especially when there are still a number of people who are bouncing about in the bump of the curve, whether by choice or by necessity (not everyone can afford to take unpaid leave or work-from-home.)
With this constant assault of bad news, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Or sad. Or frustrated and angry.
If you live with a mental illness like depression or anxiety, this current situation is essentially lighter fluid on a dumpster fire.
So when you are feeling a bit down, your brain is feeling taxed, the exhaustion from life is setting in … don’t drag yourself to a manuscript or WordPress dashboard because you must use this time to write and create.
In these moments, give yourself the biggest break of all.
Play a board game with the family (or hide the board games if your family is the type that makes playing board games feel like a whole new form of bloodsport.) Turn on your favorite music and cook something in the kitchen or dance around your living room. Sit down with a good book and a glass of doomsday-prep chardonnay. Go for a run or find a YouTube fitness channel that has some workouts you’ll enjoy.
Or – god forbid – just sit in front of your television or laptop for the night and binge-watch old episodes of The Great British Bake-Off to be transported to a time when you were calmed and soothed by the dulcet tones of Mary Berry’s gentle laughter.
We are not just learning how to work remotely or create in the midst of free time.
We are figuring out how to live and, quite literally, survive in a time of chaos and uncertainty. Of fear and worry. Of sadness and strife.
Perhaps it is a macabre way of looking at it, but I am excited to see what comes out of this time of slowing down and reflection.
Many people are figuring out the things that matter most to them, when things they use to distract themselves are largely removed from their reach.
But to get to a point where great works are being written and created, we need to recognize that it will not be as easy or fun as we are being led to believe.
It is rare that the things worth doing are.
So give yourself a break, or give yourself ten breaks.
Whatever you need to do to make magic happen, go make it happen.
I’ll be eagerly waiting to see what you put out.
Or sit back and escape into your favorite television series with a jar of comfort Nutella.
Whatever you need to get you through the day is a perfect solution for that day.
Elisa Doucette is a writer and editor who works with professional writers, entrepreneurs, and brands that want to make their own words even better. She is the Founder of Craft Your Content, and oversees Client Strategy and Writing Coaching. Her own writing has been featured in places like Forbes, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yahoo! Small Business, and The Huffington Post, among others. She also hosts the Writers' Rough Drafts podcast here on CYC. When she isn't writing, editing, or reading words, she can usually be found at a local pub quiz, deep in a sun salutation, or binging TV shows for concept ideas and laughs.