Ninety percent of the emails I’m sending to students this semester start with the phrase “In these strange times…” and I’m sick of it. I’m aware that I sound like the beginning of a speech from a shady politician. There’s something so facetious about it, even though we really are living in strange times. I think it’s the fact that, like many politicians these days, I’m talking around the issue at hand: we are in the middle of a pandemic and everything is fucked.
These emails are mostly to assure my students that they can have some leeway. I don’t want to pressure them, or to set hard deadlines, or to chastise them for turning in things a little late, because that’s how I want to be treated. My writing schedule went from steady to nonexistent in a matter of weeks. If I get out a hundred words in a day, I feel so proud that I allow myself to stop writing for a week. How exactly do we begin to write when we’re in the middle of a terrible worldwide first?
Here are the rules that I set for myself and then immediately broke:
- Write a little bit every day. Even if it’s fifty words. Or twenty. Or four.
- Don’t let the stress of the outside world get to you when you’re writing.
- Remember that you love doing this, and that’s why you’re in grad school.
- Buck up. You’re a good writer!
Every single day, I let the guilt get to me a little more. I think about my thesis due dates when I sleep. The four short stories I’m working on simultaneously bite at my ankles. I sit in front of my computer and experience heart palpitations. The one thing I know for sure is that this is not healthy.
When my hands shake during an interaction with an anti-masker that I can’t avoid, when I feel rage hot in my ribs after watching another video of fascist rhetoric being spread by people that don’t know the textbook definition of fascism, I find myself thinking what all writers think during times of tragedy and hate: this trauma will be great for my work. At least, I assume that’s what all writers think. It could be a really messed up coping mechanism on my part, but everything I’ve ever written has come from trauma. Every guilty character, every person I’ve thought up that feels like they don’t deserve to be loved, every strained father-daughter relationship. We pull from places we’ve been, both physically and mentally. None of us will leave this period of our lives without a mass of internal scarring, a root that lies dormant deep in the brain. No one can tell us how much time it will take to unpack our collective grief.
Despite the callousness of the statement earlier, it’s a large part of the new rules I’m setting for myself. This terrible new thing I can’t avoid thinking about will break any rules I set if I don’t address it head on, and I think inviting it into our writing can be cathartic. No one controls your writing more than you do. It’s an outlet for everything you have inside, so you have to let it do what it was meant to. (By you, I mean me, but I know that I can’t fully absorb this concept right now, so I’m telling you in hopes that maybe someone will tell me that I’m right, and I can start to rebuild the extremely tentative set of rules that I put in place to guide myself, and maybe I’ll feel less guilty if I break one, even if it’s more than once.)
So here are the new rules:
- Be productive, but don’t kill yourself over a bad day.
- Be kind.
- If you have days where you don’t love doing this, where you can’t stand to let the words out of your head and onto paper, then read a good book and sit outside and think about every single person in your life that loves you and call your mom for once.
- Buck up. You’re a good writer! Even when you think you’re not.
I’m not cut out to give advice, and I don’t think this is something I’m writing with an angle to give advice, either. Right now, I think people just need to know that other people know what they’re going through. That’s why I start my emails with “In these strange times…” and that’s why I cut myself slack more than I should and that’s why I cry when another friend tells me that a relative has died after contracting Covid-19. We’re still human—the pandemic didn’t change that. What more can we ask from each other than empathy, towards both ourselves and others?
Eli Rowell is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Central Florida. She is a soft-shell crab enthusiast and a purveyor of coffee cups. She is currently reading Buzzfeed skincare articles. Her favorite genres are horror and sci-fi with a little bit of yearning. Show her some love @elirowell_ on Twitter.