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

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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.

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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Rafal Reyzer

Hi Lisa! Thanks so much for sharing these valuable tips. During the trying times like these, we all need a little bit of encouragement to keep going. I’ve actually found that I’m more productive now than ever before because all of the travel and social engagements have been canceled. But the loneliness that’s associated with isolation is bad for creativity in the long-term. We need others to inspire us, and bring back the joy of life into our existence. Take care!

C. S. Lakin

Thank you soooo much for this. Yes, first dealing with the basic needs is important. What helps me a lot is taking walks and riding my bike, thanking God for all my blessings and finding peace in faith and trust that there are good things that will come out of this crisis. Also when I sit down to write, I compartmentalize and push everything out except what I’m working on, knowing there will be time later in the day to grieve and rage and allow myself to feel (which is crucial to do). Instead of working on my heavy thriller,… Read more »

C. S. Lakin

Thank you. I wonder how many novelists are now going to time-stamp their novels with the virus in mind. I’m already thinking I need to mention it as a past life-changing event in my hero’s life.


My writing teacher has put together 3 free optional calls each week. We write for 45 minutes, during the 15 minute break we give a quick sentence on how it went, then we write again for 45 minutes. It’s only three people at the moment. It feels good to have a routine writing practice with others, even if the outcome varies.

Aine Greaney

This is a wonderful article, Lisa. We do forget that we live with and for a hierarchy of needs. It takes getting reminded of that and accepting that some days just aren’t writing days (like yesterday and the day before).

Margaret Haupt

Lisa, thank you for this. Being as isolated as I am, I thought I was the only one NOT writing. You have helped me understand two things-I am not alone and there’s a good reason why I’m not writing. Being on the bottom rung takes energy. I find I am doing things that bring me comfort, like gardening and sewing. Creative non-fiction takes too much from my storehouse right now. Now I won’t be so hard on myself. By the way, I’m listening to a wonderful new, to me, podcast, Poetry Unbound. Hearing poems has encouraged me to write a… Read more »


Thanks so much for sharing this! I’m not feeling so bad about those days when I struggle with working on my WIP. Understanding the why is helpful! I’d been doing a bit of the pivot. Now I can expand that. And as someone with chronic Lyme, it’s inspiring that you wrote through it.

Patricia Josephine

Excellent tips. Thanks for sharing.

M. Hughes

Thank you, Lisa. I am black-and-blue from beating myself up over not writing, after several years of smoke rolling out of my keyboard during even fifteen minutes of spare time. Now. . . .nothing. I have more spare time but no inclination to use it for writing. How could I suddenly lose my creativity? Suffice it to say, I do not cry. (I ran out of tears years ago.) Reading your post made my eyes moist and my lips quiver. It brought a much needed understanding. I’m tired and I’m depressed. I’ve been taking time to recharge and recoup. Thanks… Read more »

helen lapakko

I would love to take your class “writing through challenging times”. Where and when are you offering it?

Gretchen Cherington

Hi Lisa, thank you for reminding me of Maslow’s hierarchy. It’s a super helpful reframe and insight into why it seems like I’m twice as busy as I was. The double time for keeping the bottom rungs managed while still having high expectation for creativity takes its toll. I’m grateful for free-write zoom meetings and having a M-W-F schedule of writing feel good enuf for now. Be well and thanks

Sandra Gulland

Cheryl Strayed has put together a podcast series for our time, talking to writers about how they are coping, etc. The podcast is called “Cheryl Calling,” and it has kick-started me out of the doldrums. I HIGHLY recommend the first episode, just out, where she talks with George Saunders. His letter to his writing students as the university was closed down is extremely inspiring, talking about the importance of writers at a time like this. Margaret Atwood will be the next episode. I immediately subscribed! One of these articles should have a link that works for you: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/03/podcasts/the-daily/sugar-calling-cheryl-strayed-george-saunders-coronavirus.html https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/03/podcasts/sugar-calling-george-saunders-coronavirus.html

[…] maintaining focus on writing these days. I came across this blog post by Jane Friedman “Writing from the Bottom Rung: How to Sustain Creativity During the Pandemic.” I think it’s really good, so I’m recommending it […]

Holly Seerley

For my 71st birthday, I asked my two grown kids to write and send me several memories that include me. They both wrote 2 pages. Reading these glorious memories and reflections opened up new memories for me and desires to write afresh. Sometimes we need to be given to in order to prime our writing pumps.

Richard Brady Williams

I typically don’t respond but am grateful for Jane and her network. Great authentic perspective on our crisis/writing conundrum by Lisa. Thx! Had a 1:1 call w a writing friend on Friday…nothing special just writing chat…great motivation and am back on track‼️

Sallie Lloyd Wolf

I spent over a week creating hand-bound, personalized alphabet books for my 6yo and 4yo granddaughters. I was writing, designing pages, cutting and pasting and it kept my mind engaged, focused on what was unique about each young girl, and what letters would be for what. My favorite page is: N is for “‘Noculars,” Kenzie’s word for binoculars. “Never take a walk without your ‘Noculars!’ ” She will outgrow that word soon, but it has great sentiment to me. She and I share many interests and birdwatching may be one of them.

Kimberlee Esselstrom

Thank you Lisa! I’ll be linking this in my next musing. Such good and comforting information for these unsettling times.

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