Thank you for reminding us that Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” during the plague of 1606. It’s helpful to think about Shakespeare when we sit down at our computers. He was a model for productivity during a time of great suffering and social isolation. Of course Shakespeare didn’t have social media or a 24-hour cable news cycle to draw his attention away from his writing. And he wasn’t compulsively washing his hands, well maybe he was — Out, damn’d spot! out, I say — but he certainly didn’t have Zoom meetings, humorous TikTok videos, or Facebook updates with college friends he hadn’t talked to in three decades to distract him. And anyway, Shakespeare was Shakespeare. It’s actually not terribly helpful to use what Shakespeare did during his plague as a creative goal post for what we might accomplish during ours.
Since organizing the day to juggle the new set of realities that come with social isolation might be more challenging than expected, we decided to look closer to home than England during Elizabethan times for what we hope provides a bit of inspiration and motivation. We reached out to some of the writers who have taken part in Islanders Write to ask for their advice about starting a writing project, as well as a few other questions about their writing habits and what they’re working on.
Nancy Slonim Aronie (Founder of Chilmark Writing Workshop and author of Writing from the Heart):
Zoom! But that’s not the only thing I would advise. I think having a buddy, a partner, a small group, a huge group to be virtually connected, reading to each other, giving each other assignments. It’s hard to write in a vacuum, so find a safe place on the Internet and establish rules (like my only one: tell me what you loved) and meet online. If you’re already working on a project, then decide with your partners how long you get to read. If you want safe criticism, I say they have to start with something they loved before they say what didn’t work. But basically don’t try this alone.
If you prefer to stay quiet, here are a few solitary things you can do: Go through your old journals, old bits you’ve started and never completed, read, underline, and of course look through your home library and reread your favorite authors. Those are your teachers. Open any book, pick any line verbatim and make that your first line of a piece, a poem, a song, a letter.
Peter Kramer (Author of “Listening to Prozac, Ordinarily Well, and Spectacular Happiness”):
My favorite writing formula comes from the detective novelist, Raymond Chandler, who started when he found himself out of work in the Great Depression. He included the advice in a letter he dictated in 1949, in response to a journalist’s query: The important thing is that there should be a space of time, say four hours a day at least…[The writer] doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor, but he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks… Two very simple rules — A. You don’t have to write. B. You can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself. Chandler included drinking in the list of permitted activities during writing time, but I’m thinking not. Also, four hours would be a lot for a fledgling writer (or anyone). But the discipline is invaluable.
Justen Ahren (Author of “A Machine for Remembering” and “A Strange Catechism”):
Begin. You don’t need to know everything (or anything at all) about what you will write beforehand. Just begin. Starting often is the most difficult. One thing we tell ourselves to keep from writing is: I don’t know what I’m writing about. The act of writing is itself an act of discovery. Let the writing lead you to the story or poem or subject. At the very least you will have written something. Something is better than nothing.
Sally Taylor (Musician and founder of Consensus):
Don’t think, just start. Start with the sounds in the room, with the view from the window, with the pain in your back or your heart or your friend’s heart. Just start writing.
Arnie Reisman (Poet, essayist, filmmaker and playwright, whose latest book is “Light Headed in the Dark Ages”):
Do it. You have nothing but time. However, I find it darkening my days to throw myself into writing about this plague we’re trying to live through. I would seek distraction and write as if it’s any other day, saying what’s on your mind or would be on your mind if your mind wasn’t elsewhere. Looking at what I just wrote, I guess your first foray would be about these dark days. Get that out of the way first.
Judith Hannan (Author of “The Write Prescription” and “Motherhood Exaggerated”):
If you’re thinking of starting a writing project, begin with small bites. Something manageable that a distracted mind can focus on for a short while. I would stay clear of anything COVID related. Save that for your journal. Since it is spring and so much is happening in the natural world, perhaps turn your attention there. Pay close attention to sights, sounds, smells, wildlife, lighting, etc., and see what comes up for you. Channel Mary Oliver.
Nicole Galland (Author of “The Fool’s Tale,” “Stepdog,” “On the Same Page,” and “I, Iago”):
Lots of writers now have children at home with them all day; others (first responders, those crucial to keeping supply lines open, journalists, etc.) will have less free time and energy than usual. If you’re one of them, don’t despair. Take care of yourself and your loved ones and know that there will be time eventually. We will keep a space open for you at the collective writing table.
Jean Stone (Author of “A Vineyard Summer” and “A Vineyard Christmas”):
There has never been a better time to start writing! There’s nowhere to have to be, no one to have to see, and nothing — not shopping, not bringing your kids to soccer games, not racing around doing thankless errands — to use as a distraction. Best of all, no one will think you’re weird for turning down an invitation because you really, really would rather be writing. I have a favorite new word: hermitting. Now’s the time to take advantage of this time-out from life and write, write, write!
Elizabeth Benedict (Author of “Almost,” “The Practice of Deceit,” and “The Joy of Writing Sex”):
Writing is about social isolation! What a perfect time (or not) to begin something. It might just be a strange luxury to have the time, if you can concentrate.