A few years ago, I was invited to give a journaling workshop at the Women’s Congress, a gathering of high-powered political leaders, activists, and others working at the front lines of social change. Because the theme of the conference was “Guardianship,” each of us was asked to write what we were the guardians of on our name tags. Standing at the registration table, Sharpie in hand, I surreptitiously looked around for inspiration. Others had written “democracy,” “human rights,” “the water,” “the poor,” “Native sovereignty.” Embarrassed not to have any noble cause, I left mine blank.
Only when I stood to lead my presentation did it occur to me that I was a guardian of the reflective pause. Stop, I told that crowd of movers-and-shakers. Turn to the page. Listen. Attend not just to the noise and needs around you but also to silence, to what’s stirring inside. I quoted Anne Frank: “I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart.” I quoted James Baldwin: “Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world.” When we write, we enter solitude, heed our hearts, and respond by creating. Writing regularly, we protect this contemplative process and bear witness to its immeasurable worth.
How, then, should we write in the midst of a pandemic? Around the globe, people are sick, caring for others, cooped up with kids, losing their jobs, going hungry; human needs, always overwhelming, are now magnified to such a degree that even us most determined writers sometimes wonder, What the heck am I doing? My sister is the president of a midwifery college; she’s supporting midwives as they venture into Covid-affected homes to deliver babies, and I’m…writing an essay? Except that this is what I’m meant to do—my role, my joy, my gift, even, and perhaps especially, during a world-wide crisis. As I see it, the coronavirus offers a single invitation to every human being: Will you allow this hardship to change you—and us—for the better? How we each respond bears the stamp of our circumstances, personalities, and roles, but the invitation is universal.
My sister is supporting midwives as they venture into Covid-affected homes to deliver babies, and I’m…writing an essay?
Given this, what should writers do? What we’ve always done, but with clearer intention, deeper integrity, and immense faith in our work’s value. Here’s the list I generated to steady myself during these difficult days:
Be present. Turn off the internet and cell phone. Allow yourself spaciousness. Others have lost their work; you can lose your distractions. We’re all being radically changed by this pandemic. What’s being created in you now is worthy of your attention.
Pay attention. Bear witness to your experience and that of others. Observe carefully. Record accurately.
Slow down. Write by hand if possible. Be aware of your body as you write. Writers offer others language for thoughts and emotions they are not yet aware of. For us to do this, we ourselves must become more conscious. Take time to think and feel deeply.
Don’t just react. Listen. Be in prolonged dialogue with your subject. Make creative choices that originate from within rather than simply responding to external stimuli. Be a considered, deliberate voice.
Wait. Give your project time. Develop it fully. When you finish, let it rest for a period (days for a blog post, months for a book) before sending it out. Unhurried, intentional action has the most potential to do good.
Others have lost their work; you can lose your distractions.
Write for real people. You are one of them; write for yourself alone. Write letters to loved ones. Carefully and lovingly conjure in your mind’s eye the individuals who comprise your audience. We desperately need real human connection now; you can provide this with your written words.
Be discerning. What in your project is life-giving? How is the Spirit moving during this crisis? What is coming alive—within your writing, within you, within humanity, and through the evolution of the planet? How might you set aside your self-serving agendas to best serve this movement?
Practice the Buddhist precept of Right Speech. With all that you write, ask yourself, “Is it true? Will it cause no harm? Is it necessary?”
Connect your small story to the big Story. Your current writing, whether it addresses the pandemic or not, whether it’s for an audience or not, is one part of humanity’s sacred work to grow into our fullness—into Christ. Serve this bigger purpose through your effort.
Let yourself be changed by your writing. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” Robert Frost wrote. Allow your heart to be written upon.
Counterintuitive as it seems, the greatest gift we writers can offer the planet now is our contemplative practice. We take time to observe, listen, reflect, generate, and craft. We receive what experience makes of us, and we make something of what we’ve experienced. Let’s allow ourselves to be initiated by this virus, marked by it in ways that unite us in hardship and bind us to our Source. Our capacity to be deeply moved is what moves others. The pen is our sword but the strength to wield it comes from our willingness to listen, be changed, and bear witness. Writers, it’s time to strengthen our sword arms.