Writing Through COVID-19

It’s been a rocky several weeks for many of us, and it’s understandable that we’re feeling some hefty negative effects from things like job insecurity, social isolation, food and TP shortages, and the health of our friends and family. It’s a scary time for everyone, even if we’re not directly affected by COVID-19 ourselves. However, I’d like to take a moment to challenge the popular message that says it’s okay to do nothing right now; that it’s okay to indulge your desire to crawl under the blankets and not emerge until this is all over. While I absolutely do not want to mitigate the stress and anxiety many are experiencing, I strongly disagree with the idea that now is not the time to be productive. I’m not saying we should all be striving for new heights of writing and exercising and learning a fifth language and an instrument while reading three books a day, but it’s not reasonable to let your negative thoughts take full control and prevent you from doing anything at all. This is not simply two rough weeks that we can easily bounce back from. Those who’ve experienced depressive episodes know all too well how easy it is to tumble into disruptive habits that later feel impossible to revert. Every day you play video games and watch Netflix instead of writing is another day you’re shoring up neural connections that normalize what should be an exception.

This is not a motivational speech. This is a reality check. Those of you who are casual hobby writers can feel free to wander away now, but those who would like to someday be published absolutely need to read this…

There will always be something standing between you and your goal. It is how we face these obstacles that defines us as creators.

I want to talk about grit, which psychologist Angela Duckworth (MacArthur “genius” grant winner) defines as:

Passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way. It combines resilience, ambition, and self-control in the pursuit of goals that take months, years, or even decades.

I could write thousands of words about how valuable this is, so let me keep it simple and say that grit is the one key element that separates successful authors from all the hopefuls. Once this pandemic is over, we will continue to face difficulties like illness, job loss, divorce, the introduction of a needy little human being who hates the idea of you sleeping normal hours, sociopolitical-induced depression, your favourite café closed down, or some asshole driver nearly ran over you at the crosswalk and you can’t stop imagining all the witty and cutting things you’d say to them if you had the chance. If you let them, these things will get the better of you every time. At a certain point, you have to say “yes, this is hard, but I am going to do it anyway.”

Lest anyone accuse me of spouting r/WowThanksI’mCured rhetoric, I want to emphasize that bit about this being hard. Grit is not a magic bullet. It won’t address the root causes of your emotional distraction. What it will do is give you the discipline to sit your ass in the chair and do some work even though you’d rather be doing anything else. If you want to be an author, you have to write books. If you’re lucky, much of that writing will be fun and easy, but eventually you’ll hit a rough patch. When that happens, you absolutely must be able to tap into your resilience and persistence in the face of adversity. You have be willing to adapt to new complications. Successful authors write books despitethe persistent negative forces threatening disruption. I’m not suggesting you ignore the troubling realities of this unique situation we currently find ourselves in. I don’t know anyone who’s been through an international quarantine before. There’s no playbook. We don’t know how long it will last or how it will affect us tomorrow. This looming unknown is terrifying, and it’s only natural to be afraid. What we can control, however, is this moment. Do you have shelter? Do you have food? Are you healthy? Can you work to mitigate the negative forces acting against you? If you need to meditate, do it. If you need to exercise to clear your head, put on some loud music and have a solo dance party in your bedroom (this is honestly way more effective than you can imagine). If you need to talk to a friend for 15 minutes to tell them that you’re afraid and that you don’t know how to move forward but that you really want to try, pick up the phone or make that video call. Do something. Do anything.

The 100k in May Challenge

I’ve been struggling over the last six weeks. My productivity has dropped to half of normal. I feel lonely. My book sales are a third of what I’d expected during my launch cycle. I was stressed about getting groceries and helping my mom after she had to undergo emergency surgery after the hospitals had already begun locking down. I don’t qualify for any of the financial aid being provided by the government. Big chunks of my weekly writing time have disappeared because my kid isn’t going to school and has begun waking up earlier than she used to, effectively killing my morning and afternoon writing time and leaving me too exhausted to want to work in the evenings. Everything feels tougher than it should. Most days I don’t want to work. I’ve taken more days off in the last month than I have in all three prior months combined. Because writing is my job, and more importantly because I want to keep writing books, I have to continue putting in the hours. I could easily justify pulling back and doing a fraction of what I used to, but I know I won’t come out of that with the work ethic I want to have. If I work my butt off this weekend, I can wrap up the last of my revisions and edits by the end of the month, freeing me up to return to first draft material in May.

I’m setting a personal goal to write 100,000 words in May, and I challenge each of you to create a seemingly unreachable goal of your own.

I don’t think I can actually write 100k words this month, but I’m going to try. I don’t feel less stressed out or unafraid after spending an entire evening watching cooking shows on YouTube, so I’d rather be doing something that helps me work on my grit (which was never strong to begin with) while moving me closer to my long-term writing and publishing objectives. I know things are hard for you right now. I know it’s easier to not write. I know your routines have been disrupted and that the circumstances are not ideal. If you’re not writing at all, commit to 15 minutes a day. If you’re doing 15 minutes a day already, push yourself to do 30 or 60. I’m not expecting anyone to jump from nothing to insane productivity overnight, but I would really like to see you push yourself beyond your comfort levels. It’s okay to fall short, but the important thing is that you try. The more you want something, the more daunting it can feel. There will always be a reason to avoid doing the challenging things in life, and right now we have more reasonable excuses than ever. If you can dig deep and find your inner grit, you will be developing the most valuable tool a creator can have. If you’re going to set yourself a May challenge, please share it here so you can be accountable for your effort. No one will judge or criticize you if you don’t get anywhere close. This is not a zero sum game, and I want to see each and every one of you achieve your writing goals. Now more than ever we should be working together keep moving forward, even if all you can do today is crawl where you’d normally run.

Disclaimers: Some of you are dealing with considerably more difficult situations than others. Some of you are losing loved ones. Some of you are taking pay cuts yet working more hours than ever before. This message is not directed at you, and the last thing I want to do is add feelings of guilt over non-productivity to your concerns. Please take the time to ensure you’re doing all you can to preserve your mental health. No one should feel obligated to do more than they feel they can reasonably accomplish without a bit of temporary discomfort. Writing is not worth losing sleep over… unless maybe you’re sleeping 16 hours a day right now.

More on Grit:

If you’d like to learn more about the concept of grit, check out these resources:

5 Characteristics Of Grit — How Many Do You Have?

The characteristics of grit outlined below include Duckworth’s findings as well as some that defy measurement. Duckworth herself is the first to say that the essence of grit remains elusive. It has hundreds of correlates, with nuances and anomalies, and your level depends on the expression of their interaction at any given point. Sometimes it is stronger, sometimes weaker, but the constancy of your tenacity is based on the degree to which you can access, ignite, and control it. So here are a few of the more salient characteristics to see how you measure up.