When the world gets bleak, that’s when we need the power of story more than ever. But during the really horrendous times, such as a global pandemic, generating all that storytelling goodness can become way more difficult. Bad news can drown out that inner voice that creative people need to listen to, and it’s easy to get demoralized. So to celebrate the upcoming release of my book Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories, I asked a dozen of my favorite writers how they manage to keep creating during the awful times we’ve been living through.
Charles Yu (Interior Chinatown):
A good cry helps. A minute or two, and then back to it. Also, I try to imagine two people: Me from ten years ago. If he could see what now-Me is doing, which is writing all day every day, he would say stop wasting time, you idiot. The other person I imagine is a reader out there, who might one day read the thing I’m working on and laugh or feel something or be a little less alone for a moment.
Julia Serano (99 Erics: a Kat Cataclysym faux novel):
Sometimes when I’m struggling with writing, I try to listen to my subconscious. Often, that voice in the back of my mind will start fixating on some article or passage I’ve read in the past. On many occasions, upon re-reading it, I’ll find that it provides a new idea or missing key that helps me with the piece I am working on. Even if it doesn’t, that brief moment of escapism and appeasing my subconscious often rejuvenates my thinking.
Rebecca Solnit (Men Explain Things to Me):
Your writing doesn’t ignore what you think, your writing doesn’t think your body is weird, your writing is not going to nag you about that thing you did when you were eleven, your writing thinks you are the boss, and so it’s the best thing to do in the worst of times, as well as in the best, or so I have found. Writing a sentence is drawing a line and some of those lines are roads out of hell
Rachel Khong (Goodbye, Vitamin):
It goes without saying that writing is hard in hard times, but writing is also the only way I know how to make my way through hard times. Writing, despite its difficulty, is a way to process—”process” isn’t even the right word here; maybe it’s just “give shape to”—all the things I’m feeling, whether sadness, or anger, or heartbreak. It’s a way to be truthful with myself, to learn, and maybe heal, or just begin to. I think James Baldwin put it best: “I know that if I survive it”—and by “it” he means whatever hard thing—”when the tears have stopped flowing or when the blood has dried, when the storm has settled, I do have a typewriter which is my torment but is also my work. If I can survive it, I can always go back there, and if I’ve not turned into a total liar, then I can use it and prepare myself in this way for the next inevitable and possibly fatal disaster.”
Aimee Bender (The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake):
I’ve been relying on the ten-minute write during the pandemic. Just getting down a few fragments of sentences. Because then the next day, maybe one of those fragments will stretch. Even a rant about why ten minutes is not enough time to get anything done equals words on a page to look at again later.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Not “A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion):
I wrote a book during the 2020 pandemic, during which massive demonstrations for racial justice were pumping me with energy and hope, while an extremely conflictive national election took place, followed by the losing incumbent refusing to step down. Writing that focused on unjust immigration polices took on added resonance with farmworkers, meat packing workers, and delivery workers, many undocumented or with precarious status, risking their lives to feed over three hundred million people.
Jennifer Finney Boylan (Good Boy, She’s Not There):
Telling stories is one way of making sense of a world that so often just feels like chaos. Seeing your life as a narrative, as a thing with a thread that connects who you have been to who you become—well, that’s a process that has pulled me out of despair many times, and more than once come pretty close to actually saving my life.
Pagan Kennedy (“The Rape Kit’s Secret History“):
As a journalist and narrative nonfiction writer, I don’t make up stories; instead, I forage for the amazing tales that no one else has told yet. In the first months of the pandemic, I went all-in on the story of Marty Goddard, the inventor of the rape kit, and wrote about her saga, connecting it to the justice-reform movements of today. The New York Times published my 10,000-word story in June; it took up nearly the entire Sunday Review section. Readers seemed so hungry for this tale—many people responded by sharing their own stories of abuse, as well as their dreams of a new kind of policing and justice system. In the isolation of the pandemic, I felt so grateful for the chance to teleport into other people’s lives and to resurrect a lost hero.
Gayle Brandeis (The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide):
I was a competitive figure skater as a kid; almost every day after school, I’d practice an hour of figures, slowly tracing 8s onto the ice with one edge of a blade, then do an hour of free skating, where I’d leap and spin and speed around the rink like a demon. As a writer, I prefer the equivalent of free skating, gliding wildly over the page, but when life slows the words down, I remember those figures, those edges, are there for me, and I’ll give myself a simple task, a constraint—a sestina, say, or a 100-word story, something small to pour my depleted energy into until the words are ready to fly once again.
R.O. Kwon (The Incendiaries):
Something that has helped me write in difficult times, including during this past year, has been forming and participating in close-knit communities around the act of writing itself. I have a couple of daily check-in groups with writer friends: we update one another on whether or not we were able to work that day—and if we did write, what we worked on that day—and I can’t overstate what a lifeline this has been.
Michelle Tea (Against Memoir):
I’ve learned that how I feel about my writing, or how I feel about the act of writing, has less to do with it being good or bad and everything to do with the mood I am in, how caffeinated I am, etc. Sometimes writing that felt terrible to get out is actually pretty good! I’ve learned this the hard way and so I just make myself keep my butt in my chair and keep going, even if it feels awful. Another trick I learned, from the writer Blake Nelson, is to stop writing in the middle of something juicy, where I know what I’m doing and where the story is going. It makes it easier and more exciting to return to than if I write through a whole scene and am like, ‘Now what?” That feels harder to return to. Good luck!
Jonathan Lethem (The Arrest: A Novel):
For years I’ve made a religion of writing every day, somehow, no matter what, how little inspired, how unclear my direction in a current project, whether the project is big or small. The longer this persists, the less it seems a noble thing, more like habit. Blowing my nose, drinking coffee, shoving the alphabet around a few times. It becomes muscle memory, the thing I do that makes me know I’m still here. Obviously, this encompasses now days where I or others or both are in despair. Surgical-waiting-area days, glassy-eyed can’t-turn-off-the-news days, heartsick days. The alphabet doesn’t save me. It doesn’t hold me up when I’m down. But I have lived long enough at this point that when I reread the results, I don’t know which pages were written in exultation, in states of intoxicated new love or self-love or giddy belief in the sacred meaning of it all, and those written in depths of despair. It just doesn’t seem to actually be detrimental (nor an advantage) to the work. So, the alphabet holds itself up, if you show up and let it.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of Victories Greater Than Death, the first book in a new young-adult trilogy, along with the forthcoming short story collection Even Greater Mistakes. She’s also the author of Never Say You Can’t Survive (August 2021), a book about how to use creative writing to get through hard times. Her other books include The City in the Middle of the Night and All the Birds in the Sky. Her fiction and journalism have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, McSweeney’s, Mother Jones, the Boston Review, Tor.com, Tin House, Teen Vogue, Conjunctions,Wired Magazine, and other places. Her TED Talk, “Go Ahead, Dream About the Future” got 700,000 views in its first week. With Annalee Newitz, she co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.