A short bit of advice for those who are casting about during this crisis.
There are rare times when something takes place in history that is so large that we can think of nothing else. Pearl Harbor. 9/11. This coronavirus fear.
We try fruitlessly to look away, to divert our attention, to assert the normal. But we can’t. Beneath all our thoughts is the concern, even the fear, that this thing we cannot control is ultimately going to control us.
We fear for ourselves, we fear for our families, we fear for our elders, we fear for our children. We fear for our very way of life and the world as we know it. There is no escaping this fear.
These moments have great power, because they give focus to our minds and thoughts. We cannot escape into movement and diversion. Everything returns to the source.
One of the great balms in times like this is to turn to writing. We all have stories within us; we all dream of sharing them and telling them. But most of us never do, because we think we aren’t talented enough, aren’t important enough, aren’t capable of shaping something as shapeless as our lives into a something worth sharing.
But we are wrong. I tell you this as someone who writes for a living. This is a moment that needs to be recorded. It needs to be recorded for your children and grandchildren. It needs to be recorded for your own understanding. Writing it down, documenting it as you are experiencing it, will force you to give shape to the shapeless, and will offer a precious glimpse into a time that will be impossible to recreate in our hearts and imaginations once it is over. And it will be over.
Have you not longed for your grandmother’s memories? Have you not found the old letters from relatives and ancestors to be something precious?
Did you assess their writing style? Did you critique their spelling or the way they structured their thoughts? No. They were a window on the times, and no matter how they chose to express themselves, you receive it as a gift.
Did they speak only of their daily lives? Did they open their hearts and express their feelings? It does not matter. They gave you themselves.
I assure you that if you sit down with pencil and paper or at your keyboard, and just start where you are, your story will unfold. And in the unfolding it will allow you to walk through the confusion of your own feelings and give shape to this shapelessness, because you will have to choose what to include.
And here is the magic. Choosing will not be hard, because it will be done for you. You have wandered into a garden of possibilities, and no matter where you turn, no matter what you touch, it is a bloom worthy of the picking.
Do you write a journal, going day by day? Do you go back to the poetry that you used to write in high school? Do you just write down your shopping list and say why you chose what you chose? Do you start with your fear? It doesn’t matter. This moment will give you your voice, because only you can tell the story as you are living it.
I’ve used this time of enforced isolation and, yes, discipline, to work on a novel I’ve been threatening to write for years. And I have no greater pleasure than passing through the doorway of that world and finding the people and places who are living inside. But I could as easily be recording the thoughts and feelings and frustrations and fears that animate this moment. Once inside of any writing – any creative act, actually – the world starts to take form and you begin to give shape to the shapeless.
This moment gives us what I like to call “a fine attention.” It is giving us the gift of mindfulness, where the small is as large as the great. Take advantage of it. Grab a notebook or a legal pad. Open a new file on your computer. Speak in your own voice. Judge nothing. Throw away nothing. Everything you think or feel is important at this moment because the moment is important and you are given the dark privilege of living through it.
You are a living document of the times. Do not let your voice go unheard.