Writing from the Bottom Rung: How to Sustain Your Creativity During a Pandemic

Image: cat staring from behind a window
Photo credit: ilandil on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Today’s guest post is by writer, coach and editor Lisa Cooper Ellison (@lisaellisonspen).


Quarantine day one. I sit at my desk and hold my pen. Nothing happens.

Quarantine day two. I stare at my computer screen and wonder what the hell is wrong. I mean, I wrote through Lyme disease, even on the days when my brain barely worked.

Quarantine day three. I scribble in my notebook. There are no words even though I feel so full of words I might explode.

Quarantine day four: I scribble and remember that time my dad said, “Don’t be so sensitive,” as if my greatest gift was really a curse. As my pen slides across the page, I realize I’m saying this very thing to myself. Don’t be so sensitive. Don’t be so sensitive even though it feels like the world is falling apart.

Maybe you’re sensitive too. Maybe all this suffering hurts deep in your marrow. Maybe the fear is like lightening coursing through your nerves. Maybe you’re expecting yourself to write as if this is not happening, somehow thinking all this free time will make you more productive.

All writing requires a certain amount of heart space. We tap into our feelings and memories so readers can inhabit our story worlds. Keeping your heart open enough to do this requires an energy reserve large enough to feel and deal with daily life.

Creative nonfiction, which often mines from our most painful experiences, requires an even bigger reserve.

Right now, our hearts are filled with COVID-19 cases and deaths, and which relative might be at risk, or which grocery store has the food I can eat—or better yet, toilet paper—or how much space is required to actually socially distance or how I will get paid or when will this end.

The bottom two rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs include our physical needs for food, water, warmth and rest as well as security. The top rung—self-actualization—is where creativity happens. Many of us are just not there, yet.

So, what do you do when your creative desires don’t match your rung?

  • Focus on those bottom-rung needs. Make sure you have enough healthy food to eat. Rest more than you think you need. Turn your house into a sanctuary. Exercise outside when possible.
  • Help yourself feel safe. Stay home as much as you can. Wash your hands. Limit your news intake. Journal about your fears so they can live on the page instead of inside you. Develop a gratitude practice that helps you pay attention to what is going well.
  • Tap into your wisdom. Practice meditation. Download the Insight Timer app on your phone. Set aside some time to just breathe. If you’re looking for a guide, consider Tara Brach or sign up for Deepak Chopra’s free 21-day meditation challenge. If sitting feels impossible, try walking meditations or join that YouTube yoga class everyone’s talking about.
  • Accept what is. We are living through a pandemic. If your mind is swirling with worries, or your day is focused on getting the kids to do that one online lesson, or you’re trying to figure out how to pay your rent, you’re not wasting your creative time. You’re just living from the bottom rung. Before you can climb, you have to make sure your current rung is sturdy enough to support you.
  • Keep showing up. Sit at your desk and try to write. If your work-in-progress calls to you, say thank you. If there’s silence, thank your unconscious for reminding you to practice self-care. Have faith that your pre-COVID-19 projects are still valuable. You will return to them when the time is right.
  • Pivot. Maybe now is not the time to work on your memoir or the novel that taps into a deep emotional vein. Keep a journal. Write a blog post or essay. Try poetry or fiction. Switching genres might help you exercise the heart space that is available for creativity.

There is strength in numbers, so I’m offering a mindfulness-based writing class, Writing Through Challenging Times. It’s a class about pivoting and playing and activating our internal wisdom. We’ll commit to self-care and perform acts of kindness in their communities. Each week, we’ll sit at our desks and try. Some of us will scribble a few words. Others will jot down new ideas. A few will dive into their works in progress. Old messages will surface. Together, we’ll combat them. Success depends only on showing up. As a team, we’ll rebuild our energy reserves. In the process, creativity will happen.

What practices or methods have helped you during this challenging spring? Share with us in the comments.

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Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Guest Post.

Lisa Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. She has spent the last two decades helping clients and students turn difficult experiences into art and currently teaches courses in memoir, creative nonfiction, and mindful writing practices. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, Huffington Post, and The Guardian, among others. She’s currently working on a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped her survive her brother’s suicide. To learn more about Lisa’s work and writing, check out her website or follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.

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