How to Keep Writing When the World is Falling Apart

It's been a tough summer, news-wise.  I'm not going to name everything that's happened, because you're as aware of it as I am–likely over-aware.  I've managed to keep my distance from most news stories.  Not that I'm not empathetic, I am.  But if I got worked up about every horrible news story I saw, I'd be a sniveling mess. Fountain_pencil_writing_238392_l

A couple days ago, though, I realized how much the combined weight of these horror stories had begun to affect me.  I watched this story about members of the Iraqi air force bringing relief supplies to Yazidis, and found myself unable to stop crying as I watched desperate family members throwing their children and elderly onto the helicopter.

I closed the page and sat staring at the computer.  Suddenly, the novel I've been obsessing over didn't seem so important.  The blog post I'd planned on writing didn't resonate much, either.  Because how could I focus on my petty little entertainments when people all over the world are suffering and dying?

That might sound overly dramatic, but I do think its s legitimate question: what is the role of the writer in times of strife?  

I believe one answer to that question is this: it is our job to bear witness.  Sometimes we may not know exactly how to do this, but let me tell you a little story.  In the days after September 11, I walked about in a haze, like everyone in this country.  I couldn't write then, couldn't focus on much of anything. What I did do was pick up my knitting, my favorite craft that I'd been out of touch with forever. Somehow holding yarn and needles was comforting.  The only thing, besides wine, that did the job. 

The knitting was all well and good but my lack of contribution to the world, besides attending a candlelight vigil, rankled me.  My initial training was in journalism, and that part of me still desired to bear witness in some way.  Finally, I picked up my pen and scribbled a few notes about knitting, how it made me feel connected to other women in my lineage, and how it was my response to 911.  A few months later, that essay was published in Interweave Knits, my first national magazine piece.

I had borne witness, and that made me feel like I was doing what I was supposed to do.

But odds are good that neither you nor I are going to be in Iraq to witness the current atrocities agains the Yazidis. Or in Gaza, or the Ukraine, or any number of other places that are full of strife.  So what's a writer to do?


Write because the world needs your story.

Write because you have something to say.

Write because its the only thing you can do.

Write because you think you can't.


Write because you are a chronicler.

Write because writing is what you do.

Write because so many others can't write.

Write because you are a writer.

And it's all you can do.

What do you think? How do you keep writing when the world is falling apart?

Q and A With Eric Maisel

Last week, I posted my initial thoughts on Eric Maisel's latest book on creativity, Making Your Creative Mark, and promised more to come.  Then his publicist sent me this interview, which I thought delved into more of the book very nicely.  So here you go!

An Interview with Eric Maisel

Author of Making Your Creative Mark

Eric Maisel is the author of Making Your Creative Mark
and twenty other creativity titles including Mastering Creative Anxiety,
Brainstorm, Creativity for Life
, and Coaching the Artist Within. America’s
foremost creativity coach, he is widely known as a creativity expert who
coaches individuals and trains creativity coaches through workshops and
keynotes nationally and internationally. He has blogs on the Huffington Post
and Psychology Today and writes a column for Professional Artist Magazine.
Visit him online at his website.

You’ve organized the book around nine keys. Can you
highlight one or two of them for us?

I start with the “mind key” because I believe that
getting a grip on our thoughts and doing a better job of thinking thoughts that
actually serve us are supremely important skills to master. Most people do a
poor job of “minding their mind” and choosing to think in ways that serve them.
It is a completely common practice for people to present themselves with
thoughts that amount to self-sabotage and to refuse to dispute those thoughts
once they arise. If people did a better job of “minding their mind” by noticing
what they were thinking and by making an effort to replace defensive and
unproductive thoughts with less defensive and more productive thoughts, they
would live in less pain and they would give themselves a much better chance of
living the life they dream of living. This is doubly true for artists who can
doubt their talent, take criticism too seriously, find a hundred ways to avoid
the hard working of creating, and more. There’s really nothing more important
than getting a grip on your own thoughts!

Why do you think someone would want to gamble everything
on a life in the arts when it’s so hard to make it as an artist?

Human beings crave the psychological experience of
meaning. We want that almost more than we want anything else. There are maybe a
score of ways that human beings regularly generate that psychological
experience: through service, through relationships, by excelling, by seizing
new experiences – and by creating. Creating is one of our prime meaning
opportunities and for many people the most important. Therefore folks who
decide to devote themselves to an art discipline aren’t making some sort of
calculation about risk versus reward. What they are doing is honoring their
need to make their own meaning. If you look at a life in the arts as a smart
career choice it doesn’t make that much sense; if you look at it as a
tremendous meaning opportunity, it makes perfect sense.

You present what you call “the stress key.” What are some
of your top tips for reducing the stress that a life in the arts produces?

Life produces stress, the artistic personality produces
additional stress, creating produces even more stress, and living the artist’s
life is the topper! An artist must learn how to deal with all of these
stressors—and how to deal with them effectively. There are many tactics an
artist can try—the key is actually trying some! You might try “writing your
stress away.” Research reported in the Journal of the American Medical
Association suggests that writing about stressful situations and experiences
can reduce your stress levels – and can actually lead to improvements in immune
functioning, fewer visits to the doctor, and an increased sense of well-being.
You can reframe a given demand as an opportunity, turning your “stressful”
upcoming gallery show into a golden opportunity. You can have a fruitful conversation
with yourself and answer the following four questions: 1. What are my current
stressors? 2. What unhealthy strategies am I currently employing to deal with
these stressors? 3. What healthy strategies am I currently employing to deal
with these stressors? 4. What new stress management strategies would I like to
learn? An artist needs to honor the reality of stress and make plans for
dealing with it!

Is there one habit or practice that really makes a
difference between getting your creative work done and not getting it done?

Yes. The most important practice an artist can institute
is a morning creativity practice where she carves out some time bright and
early every day, five, six or seven days a week, to work on her novel, practice
her instrument, or get right to her painting studio. There are three important
reasons to institute a morning creativity practice. The first reason is the
most obvious one—you’ll be getting a lot of creative work done! Even if only a
percentage of what you do pleases you, by virtue of working regularly you’ll
start to create a body of work. That’ll feel good! A second reason is that you
get to make use of your “sleep thinking”—you get to make use of whatever your
brain has been thinking about all night. Create first thing and capture those
thoughts that have been percolating all night! The third reason is that, by
creating first thing, you’ll have the experience of making some meaning on that
day and the rest of the day can pass in a half-meaningless way and you won’t
get depressed! Getting right to your creative work first thing each day
provides you with a daily shot of meaningfulness. That’s a lot of goodness to
get from one practice.

I’d like you to chat a bit about what you call the
“freedom key.” What sort of freedom are you talking about?

Many different sorts—let’s look at just one, the freedom
not be perfect; or, to put it slightly differently, the freedom to make big
mistakes and messes. Not so long ago I got an email from a painter in Rhode
Island.  She wrote, “I'm a perfectionist
and I want my artwork to be perfect. Sometimes this prevents me from getting
started on a new project or from finishing the one I’m currently working on. I
think to myself: If it's not going to be the best, why bother to do it? How do
I move past these feelings?” One way to get out of this trap is to move from a
purely intellectual understanding that messes are part of the creative process
to a genuine visceral understanding of that truth.  You need to feel that freedom in your body. As an intellectual
matter, every artist knows that some percentage of her work will prove less
than stellar, especially if she is taking risks with subject matter or
technique.  But accepting that
obvious truth on a feeling level eludes far too many creative and would-be
creative people. They want to “perfect” things in their head before turning to
the canvas or the computer screen and a result they stay in their head and
never get started. You have to feel free to show up and make a big mess—only
then will good things start happening!

Another key that interested me is what you call the
“relationship key.” What sorts of relationships did you have in mind and what
can an artist do to improve his relationship skills?

All sorts of relationships! And relationships in the arts
are frequently very complicated. You may be very friendly with a fellow painter
and also quite envious of her. You may actively dislike a gallery owner or a
collector but decide that he is too valuable to cast aside, maybe because he is
your only advocate or your only customer. You may respect your editor’s
opinions but despise the rudeness with which she delivers them. There may be no
such thing as a genuinely straightforward relationship anywhere in life but
relationships in the arts are that much more complicated and shadowy. The main
improvement an artist can make is to actually think about the matter! You can
decide how you want to be in relationships but only if you actively decide. You
get to decide if you want to be honest and straightforward even if others
aren’t, if you want to be polite and diplomatic even if others aren’t, if you
want to be quiet and calm even if others are stirring the pot and making
dramas. It may not prove easy to be the person you want to be at all times and
in all situations, especially since the marketplace has a way of throwing us
off our game, but you can nevertheless hold the intention to try your darnedest
to be the “you” you would most like to be. This takes thought and preparation!

So that's it for the interview.  Do you have a favorite book on the creative process?