Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 21, 2016

How to Preserve Your Creative Self In Times of Trouble

Kate Moretti



This is not going to be a political post. But I am going to talk about politics. Sort of.

As writers, we’re sensitive souls. We observe the world around us, and as Kimberly Brock called us in a beautiful post earlier this week, we’re lightning collectors. I loved this analogy; it’s so perfect. I wait for the idea that always inevitably comes, whether it be a plot twist, a scene conflict, a character. Our subconscious does most of the heavy lifting.

I have copy edits and a draft to write. My manuscript is due to my editor on May 1. I’ve written eight thousand words, and two weeks ago, was moving at a decent clip.

Then the election happened. My gal lost. Political upset, you know all about it. But now, suddenly, the world doesn’t make sense anymore. Not because my gal lost. But because there are so many people I don’t understand. No matter which side of the aisle you fall on, I imagine we all feel this way. The election has been so divisive that we’re all looking around and saying, wait, I don’t know you. Some of us might be dreading Thanksgiving, or even seeing our neighbors at the mailbox – bracing ourselves for the anger or the gloat, depending on where you fall. It’s draining, no matter where your ideologies lie.

The most fundamental aspect of my job is to understand people. I pride myself on it. Now, it feels like a little bit like the world’s gone mad, and maybe I don’t actually understand anything. As a writer, who needs to tap into human empathy at the most basic levels, this was terrifying.

Thursday, November 10th, I sat down to write. I had a scene in mind and a blank page in Scrivener and nothing happened. There was no lightning. Or rather, there was lightning all around me and I couldn’t catch any of it. Friday was more of the same.

I worked in the corporate world for eighteen years. I still do. On bad days, I can phone it in, literally sitting in my home office, calling into passive conference calls, doing the easy work: trainings and email replies. In the creative business (yes, that’s a thing: the business of being creative), our brains have to be on. All. The Time. The downside to this is my brain is never off. I absorb all this unrest and internalize it. It’s clogging my creative pipes.

By Saturday, I knew I needed an action plan.

Step 1. Channel your negativity. Yes, this is so obvious. But I wasn’t at the right point in the book for so much uncertainty and I didn’t know exactly how to DO THIS. Like most things, when you take a deep breath and clear the brain clutter, the answer is obvious. I opened my Scrivener file and down under “Research” I opened a new file. An unnamed character (not my current WIP) is standing in the middle of a crowded amusement park and a bomb has gone off. What does she see? Feel? What are people doing? I wrote about 1400 words, a scene. She helps a woman with a baby. The paramedics come. Writing this scene, while not related to my character or my WIP, became a weapon in battling my powerlessness. I hope I use it someday.

Step 2. Do something creative besides write. I play the piano. Not well, mind you, but well enough. Sometimes I go months without touching it and it’s badly out of tune. I’m sure you also know, this week Leonard Cohen died. I wasn’t a diehard fan or anything, but it felt like another needle stick: in the midst of chaos, a great artist leaves us. Hallelujah has long been one of my favorite songs (honestly, the Bon Jovi rendition is pretty freaking beautiful. Yes, I said Bon Jovi. Don’t judge). It’s also ridiculously easy because the chord progressions are the lyrics. I figured it out, taught myself to play it. I won’t open Carnegie hall or anything but something about it felt so right.

Step 3. Bring light.  I’m an introvert. When people talk to me in public, I smile (seriously not even a real smile, mostly like a terrified don’t talk to me smile) and move on ASAP. This week, I went out of my way to reach out. I’ve never been so uncomfortable in my life. I talked to grocery store clerks, guys pumping gas next to me, toll booth collectors, people in line at CVS. I challenged myself to be ridiculously, over-the-top kind to everyone. I told a woman at the post office that I loved her bag. My kids picked up on my energy, too, and the three of us became a traveling team of chatterboxes. People’s faces transformed and I knew it was because of me (well, us. My kids are pretty cute). I gave a stranger light, just for a second. I bought the car behind me coffee. Step 3 felt so good I haven’t stopped. I wondered why I’d been so afraid, kept to myself so much?

Step 4. Take action and move on. There is always going to be something going on in the world that is out of our control. The past two weeks have felt like a maniacal version of the teacup ride at Disney. In order to get my mojo back, I needed to take back some of my own power. I started my morning by calling my senators and representatives, expressing my views. It’s a small thing, but it’s a thing. It helps me cross off the worry, even if just subconsciously. Just for today, I was able to file my anxiety in a box, put a lid on it. Tomorrow, I’ll repeat. But I know that I’ve done what I can. While my action was political, I realized I don’t do enough of the small things. It’s so easy to let life take over and consume you and feel so helpless. Sometimes, doing the small thing can have a significant impact on your mental state.

Step 5.  Meditate. Download the app, get comfortable and for ten minutes, clear your mind. Breathe. Works wonders.

On Monday, after completing my five step sanity program, I’m happy to report that I wrote 1200 words. Are they any good? Well, that’s beside the point. Am I still worried? Uncertain? Sure. Nothing about this is a cure-all. It’s hard to be an adult in the real world. If we don’t preserve our pretend worlds and protect them with everything we’ve got, what good are we as writers?



Your turn, WITS readers. What is your coping mechanism? Share, you could help others.

    *     *     *

2347337.jpgKate Moretti is the New York Times Bestselling author of the women’s fiction novel, Thought I Knew You. Her second novel Binds That Tie  was released in March 2014. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She’s worked in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years as a scientist, and has been an avid fiction reader her entire life. Her latest book, The Vanishing Year is available for pre-order and will be out September 27.

She enjoys traveling and cooking, although with two kids, a day job, and writing, she doesn’t get to do those things as much as she’d like. Her lifelong dream is to buy an old house with a secret passageway.


55 comments on “How to Preserve Your Creative Self In Times of Trouble”

  1. OMG Kate. I understand. I was feeling numb and disjointed myself. I am a musician/singer/songwriter/blogger so I understand all about absorption! But, I just released my first CD, and there is so much to do now to promote it. I realized that I had to re-focus on this thing that is more important, my huge accomplishment. It is such an amazing work of art on all levels and I can't let all the negativity block me from the tasks at hand!

  2. My two writing partners and I have been unsure how to proceed, as writers and as bloggers, in this strange new world. Your post is reassuring and reaffirming because separately and together we've written about and done the things on this list. So, from personal experience, I can say that the steps are incredibly helpful.

  3. Perfect ... everything about this post ... perfect!
    Including the Bon Jovi version of Hallelujah which I've listened to over and over in the last couple of weeks.

  4. Me too. Deadlines looming and me without a direction, squeezing out a few words a day just so I could say, look, you're not brought down by this. You can be valid. This was chapter one. Then I thought, just write something happy. Not much success there either but at least I'd made it to chapter three, when I read Porter Anderson's post about Escapism. So I went down to the beach. Stood there and yelled. Okay, now what? Came back, not with a plan, but with a responsibility. My responsibility. To write true to me and true to my readers stories. We'll see what happens.

  5. Good post. And yes, I removed facebook from my phone. The anger out there scares me. And then i get angry too. My guy won, and yet celebrating only ticks people off. I appreciate your feelings. And how you cope is a wonderful example.

  6. Kate, this is such a beautiful post and expresses so much of what many people feel, no matter which side of the election they were on. (Thank you for being brave enough to post here, Alice.) The smile--which I saw for myself when I met you in Providence, lucky me!--is definitely the first thing we can offer other people. You've got great tips here for what we can offer ourselves. My own coping strategy has been to take long hikes--in the woods, on the beach, through town, wherever--being outside really helps me broaden my perspective beyond whatever is worrying me, while at the same time it helps me focus on the here-and-now.

  7. This is so perfect. Timing, and topic. I've been struggling to get words on the paper but because I finally felt like I'd done everything I could to cope with the rest of the world, I managed 10,000 words the weekend. Of course, I huddled in my house instead of bringing light to anyone else, so now I feel a bit guilty about that. I work on number 3 this week. Thank you.

  8. I feel this post so much. My coping mechanism these past couple of weeks has been getting outside and taking more walks. I'm not a very outdoors-y kind of person, and this is a particularly social coping mechanism, but I've been taking photos of wildlife and the landscape, learning the names of plants I've never thought much about before. It's helped, both with focus and with refreshing my connection to the world.

  9. Great advice and much needed. It is too easy to close up, shut down, bury my head. Standing tall with a smile may not make the world right, but at least I can face it that way--and it confuses, then buoys, those who see me. And we all need a way to stay afloat right now. Thanks!

  10. Excellent advice. I know I have pretty much done all that was on your list. I really like that idea of channeling the negativity into a scene. Writing like that goes a long way. It's important to know that whatever happens the sun rises the next day and we have to move on. You just have to know that curling up in the corner won't do. Getting out there and being kind to one another helps to heal - and it stokes the fires under your Muse too!.

  11. As I met with members of my church's prayer team, I discovered (not by surprise) we voted for different candidates. We all had the same goal, praying for the healing of our nation. We took time after our meeting to listen to one another. I mean really listen and come to an understanding of one another's hearts. While one of us cautiously rejoiced, the other two had legitimate concerns. We agreed we would pray for OUR president-elect and trust the all-wise, all-knowing God to make something beautiful out of the frayed pieces resulting from the hopes and fears of broken, imperfect people, myself included. Perhaps we can take a moment during Thanksgiving dinner to truly give thanks, even when we don't see the finished work. What a great teaching opportunity this might be for our children as well as ourselves!
    Today I write.

  12. Empathize completely. I no longer understand what goes on in the hearts and minds of people--and that's what scares me. There is no justification for anger, hatred, bigotry, or racism. At first, I was floundering, but I've since regained my balance. I will do what I've always done: Defend my fellow human beings against inequality, injustice, and intolerance. All of my books carry this message in one form or another. It's at the heart of my stories.

    Thanks for your post, Kate. Pinned & shared.

    1. Yes, it's all we can do is defend each other against hatred. Hatred doesn't have a "side", you either hate or you don't. Full stop. I chose not to, and defend against those who do. Thanks, Linda Lee!

  13. Great post, Kate.You've confirmed what I've been thinking -- I've tried some of the same acts of light this past week (your No. 3). I've been blocked in my writing because I'm overwhelmed by the news in the midst of juggling my writing courses at the local university. Little by little, the words return and I know there's light ahead. And we'll always have "Hallelujah," even though its creator has left us.

  14. Thanks for the great post, Kate! My coping mechanism is to either binge read a favorite series - it takes at least three books to get me over a serious funk - or to do a girl's night. As an extrovert, I need some beloved people SOMEWHERE.

    The political landscape has been horrid because my friend group is all in differing funks for differing reasons, all from the election results. Oy. I wish it wasn't all so polarizing.

    It's funny that you mentioned meditating because I downloaded the Calm app and have been trying to learn to regularly meditate. The problem is, it always puts me to sleep. But I'll keep trying. 🙂

  15. Love this, and nice to have a safe place talk about it. What helps me the most is #3...I'm going out of my way to be kind - online and in person. It gets me out of my own head, and narrows my focus from global (which I can do nothing about) to personal, which I can do everything about.

    Thanks for this.

  16. Yes, this. I think it affected us in my other job even more, at a community college. So many of the faculty and the students felt shaken, as if our legs were kicked out from under us. There's shock and anger and for me there was an embarrassing surge of selfishness: a need to turn inward and make plans for literally surviving this strange and potentially hostile new world as a woman of a certain age in a part-time job that doesn't provide benefits. Your strategies for coping are all excellent. I would just add that sometimes you just have to give yourself time to heal from a loss before you can move ahead in more positive ways. It's okay to be patient with your grief.

  17. While I am only an observer at the sideline as a European citizen, this one does resonate... The world is an uncertain place, and we've been struggling with the rapidly changing reality for a decade now. Parties/candidates rise and fall again, people get to power and disappear, this too will pass and perhaps there will come some good out of it. At least the debates are now about the content, rather than the image of the candidates (something we did not see before, perhaps the fault of subjective media here in Europe, they had a very pro-democratic way of talking about the elections, so I'm not sure) and perhaps by trying to express the real issues/points of views, people will understand each other better in the end.
    As for the turmoil, "there was lightning all around me and I couldn’t catch any of it."
    I know that feeling all too well. I guess every introverted person has this moment where he or she threatens to be overwhelmed by the world in general. The feeling that there is an infinite amount of inspiration around you, but you just lack the inner calm to put things down on paper. My own coping strategies match yours, music, doing things that make you feel as if you do make a difference in the world, reading blogs like this one (would that count as 'training' in the corporate life?). I would add sports as well, a good run or an aerobics class can do wonders to calm me down, and listening to the right music tends to help too... great to read this, and perhaps I need to go and apply your plan again, to make sure I get out of my own personal Faraday cage!

  18. thank you this was so helpful, your post, Kate, every bit of it, and everyone else's comments. I have done various things, read a lot about the incoming Administration, prayed for them and for the outgoing one (which I always do) and for all of us, continued my daily spiritual and physical practices such as centering prayer and the wonderful Calm app, and talking with friends. One night waking up and feeling awful about things I sat in my study and wrote and wrote lots and had some very helpful insights. It's day by day for me, and letting myself feel the feelings, and then letting them go as they are ready, also helps. In addition, I post a gratitude list on my Facebook page pretty much every night and this has done much to keep my sanity and resilience and even joyfulness alive.

  19. Well, Kate, it was hard to read this while listening to Bon Jovi sing Hallelujah! while I combating the flu. I have been trying to tell myself I haven't been writing because I've been sick for two weeks now. Funny, I used to play the piano in competitions and in concert. Gave that up a long time ago, too, but I play like a maniac twice a year. Did that off and on last week. I've looked to add a new volunteer activity to my week. And, over the week-end, I started writing again. It felt good. Right. And it was easier than I thought it would be. Thanks for helping me put order to my brain.

  20. I've been feeling off kilter because of election results, too. I was shaken. My spirit guides said the person needed for the country right now won. Which I found really scary! I've been writing, it's the background static that is wearing at me. I needed this post. I've been meditating, but that isn't doing the job as it usually does. Thanks for the reminder / other suggestions.
    To all writers: My your Muse bring you tons of fantastic words and ideas that magically fit together and let you remember you can fly...

  21. Kate - I think that only your side of the aisle doesn't actually understand the minds of the other side. To be frank, I don't think those on your side of the aisle really ever cared or tried to understand what others thought. Progressives assume only they are correct. That is why they are now so confused.

    Those on the right side of the aisle have pretty much known what the left believes. Basic conservatives have just never understood why the left feels it has the right to force its policies on all Americans. The "religious right" conservatives, on the other hand, are every bit as abusive as progressives when it comes to the violation of individual rights - they both seek to abrogate the principle of liberty, freedom of choice. If the progressives and the "religious right" ever agree to just let people live their lives unmolested, America will be a much better place.

    You five ideas on how to deal with being distraught are certainly constructive, but more constructive would be if people on both sides of the aisle completely ignored the party lines and calculated-to-deceive invectives, and started actually talking about core principles instead of social goals. There can't be advances in social goals, if the underlying principles that protect such advances – protect us – are abrogated.

    I apologize if these remarks seem too political, but it is insulting to hear progressives profess shock at how other people think. All it would have taken was a good ear and an open mind to understand how the other half of the country felt.

    1. Jerry, my husband is a conservative, and I've voted for both Republicans and Democrats in presidential races. I'm well aware of what those on "the other side of the aisle" think. I agree with SOME of it, but not all. I don't think progressives assume they are always correct at all.
      I think what has been shocking, to BOTH "sides" is the hate being spewed. Yes there are rallies and protests -- these are American. But as a progressive, I truly lament when they turn violent. Fortunately, they have mostly been peaceful and when they are not, they are publicly condemned (ex, Rape Milania was shot down by EVERYONE as being truly awful and NOT what we stand for in any way).
      I have friends who have voted for Trump and feel turmoil as well. They feel saddened by the people who have taken their ideals too far and spew hate in their party's name. I feel saddened because the racist campaign rhetoric wasn't a deal breaker for them. We are at an impasse with our friendship. It may heal, but it is surely unsettling for both of us.
      I watch Fox news. I read the Drudge report. I've even read Breitbart (before Trump chose Bannon). I'm fully informed. I'm still shocked by the racism, sexism and homophobia. I don't agree that we can't advance social goals without advancing underlying principles first (I assume you mean economic disparity here). I think both can advance simultaneously.

      My post was how to deal with turmoil and still maintain creativity. I won't engage in a political argument here. We've both said our piece.

      1. Actually, Kate, the underlying principle is liberty (freedom of choice). Eliminating economic disparity is not a principle; it is a social goal. And for all practical purposes, economic equality cannot be achieved without violating the principle of individual liberty.In a free world there will always be inequality. Nothing can change that. Not wishes. Not legislation.

  22. Thank you for such a writing such a wonderful and timely post! You are so right about the angry feelings being spewed and then lingering. It all made me want to make a blanket fort and avoid the world around me until people regained their composure and compassion for one another.

    Some of the other things I've done: write a scene from another character's point of view, write a flash fiction piece to get some of the garbage out, research on a topic for a book that I'm not writing at the moment, play with and hug my terrier, Sparky Lionel Urban, bake a batch of brownies because chocolate helps with so many things.

    Thank you, again for stating this so eloquently and from the heart.

  23. Yes, thanks for your post. My sleep suffered terribly--I would wake wondering how this is all going to end. Then I started searching the Internet before I went to bed for music I like---hymns, country music, movie themes. This has helped me relax and sleep better. I continue writing whether I feel good or not.

  24. […] I, for one, am re-evaluating my women’s fiction-in-progress. It no longer feels important enough. How can I sink the stakes for this family’s survival deeper into the community? How can I make the story feel more relevant? More necessary? You can bet that the agents and publishers who will ultimately decide our work’s salability will be asking these things. If you need ideas about how to start, check out Kate Moretti’s recent WITS post on that topic. […]

  25. What a helpful topic. Coincidentally, I just finished The Vanishing Year (which was a great read!) a couple of days before the election, so seeing this post is like a bookending experience 🙂 The Trump win rocked my world for many reasons, one of which was being blindsided. How had I so misunderstood where people were at in my own country? Pondering this actually took me back to one of my core beliefs as a writer, which is to seek direct experience whenever possible and not rely on third hand information or the speculation inside my own head. I see that I have been isolated from the other side, spending time only with people like me, and reinforced by my one-sided news feed. How can I go among the other side to understand? Because I really don't think the (horrifying) apparent bigotry and hatred is at the heart of this. And what can I do to make it a little better for everyone right now? That is your #3: Bring light, which is so needed and instantly rewarding for everyone. Thank you, Kate!

  26. Pia - Frankly, I am appalled whenever I hear another liberal or progressive say they were so blindsided by "where (other) people were at in (OUR) country". For over eight years polls have shown more than half the country vehemently opposed Obama's socialistic policies - particularly Obamacare. While progressives may have lamented about Republicans blocking most Obama initiatives, the rest of us were very grateful that Republicans in congress managed to slow the bleeding. Perhaps if progressives and liberals actually listened to the concerns of the core conservatives (not the religious nut-job conservatives) they'd realize conservatives are not even remotely racist or bigoted; they are serious about the protection of individual rights and the Constitution. Without strongly protecting individual rights, even the most desirable social goal is worthless. Stopping Hillary, to those others whose views you haven't paid any attention to, was necessary to stop the bleeding. and save the country - even if it meant electing Trump.

    1. Jerry, This is not the place for a political discussion, which is why my above response is more personal than political, and self-aware, an approach that bears the most promise for collective citizenship, versus finger pointing. However, please do note that being blindsided by the fact that one's fellow citizens are willing to support someone who blatantly disregards the shared Constitution of our shared nation should not be surprising. Nor that a sociopath won an election in which the polls you reference suggested otherwise.

  27. I've come to believe that writing might just be the only thing that keeps me sane in the next four years. It's the one thing I can get completely absorbed in and forget the rest of the world.

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