AWP 2020: Lessons for Three Weeks After

April 1, 2020 § 6 Comments

kim macqueenBy Kim MacQueen

I’m home because we’re all home. I’m sitting on my couch, looking out the window, because we’re all sitting on our couches, looking out our windows. We’re all watching our neighbors walk their dogs, or take out their trash, then go back inside and shut the door. It feels like we’ve been here forever.

But it was only two weeks ago that I was lugging two heavy bags 2,000 miles through five different airports to the writer’s conference, trying not to freak out. When I made my rushed and distracted travel arrangements, I’d bought two different flights at two different times from two different airlines. I sort of decided, in this annoying way I sometimes have, that both flights would connect at JFK. They did not.

There was nothing to do but admit my mistake and fork over another $300 for a new trip involving three trains and five airports, that would start 18 hours earlier than planned and end 7 hours later. My trip lasted 16 hours and felt like it had been planned by a monkey.

At first I wasn’t even going to tell my husband about the travel snafu. Then I gave in because I needed to let him know that, even as he planned to drop me off at the airport at 8 am, I wasn’t going to be able to send him a “Landed safely!” text until after midnight, as my trip to Texas was now set to last longer than a recent trip that took him from New York to South Korea. He just shook his head as I fled the bedroom with my head down so I wouldn’t have to continue the conversation. If I was my own personal assistant, I would totally fire me.

So I set off on this ridiculous trip. I brought a magazine and two audiobooks and six hours of editing work and one online mindfulness course I signed up for on a whim. I didn’t do any of those things. Instead I jumped full-on into pretending this had been my idea the whole time. If you’d stopped me in any of the above-mentioned airports and asked me why I looked so tired, which luckily nobody did, I would have told you I’d actually wanted to fly this circuitous route from Vermont to New York to Chicago to San Antonio in the same day. I would have claimed I was excited to see whether I could get from JFK to Newark Airport (route: Airtrain to Long Island Railroad to Penn Station to New Jersey Transit) before passing out for lack of food.

And it kind of worked. After a couple of hours of pretending I was enjoying running through five different airports, I found I did kind of dig it. I started talking to myself in that way you do when you’re traveling alone. I watched a show on the plane where a young blonde woman who really needed a haircut, or a blowout, or something, talked about all the different wines you can pair with tater tots.

I should write something clever about this given the amount of time I’ve spent consuming tater tots and the money I’ve spent learning about wine, I told myself. You’re the one who needs a haircut, my self said back.

I did not pass out from lack of food. I had an egg salad sandwich in Newark that was more than serviceable after I pulled off the disgusting wilted lettuce, and a martini and sushi in Chicago that was perfectly fine if I ignored the glare of the awful Gate C lighting and the fact there were a few specks of somebody else’s food on my menu. The more I pretended to be interested in experiencing the people and food of five different airports, the more fun it was.

And I learned some things. I learned that most of the transit apps on my phone don’t work to actually get me anywhere. “Those apps are a pain in my you-know-what,” said a friendly Long Island Railroad guy, who then told me the train I’d been trying to get on for the last 20 minutes would take me not to Penn Station but to the site of the movie The Amityville Horror on the other end of Long Island.

I eventually got to Texas, where I did what I’m doing now in Vermont: sit on the couch and look out the window. Then my friend Anne got there from Massachusetts. She sat in the chair, because I had commandeered the couch. The next day we went to Association of Writing and Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference for the few sessions we were interested in that hadn’t been cancelled by COVID19. Most of the programming we’d traveled 2,000 miles for was moved online. So.

So we had nachos and margaritas by the river at a restaurant that had been there since 1946 that is — unthinkably, horribly — closed now. We had cocktails at the longest wooden bar in Texas, watched over by a bison head the size of a Volkswagen, and the egg-and-potato tacos we had for breakfast the next morning at Patti’s Taco House II helped me deal with my hangover. We sat under a tree with fragrant purple-pink flowers in the front yard of our Airbnb and ate grocery store pizza I’d thought would be good (it wasn’t). But Anne was nice about it.

At the time I thought, this trip is totally worthwhile, just for this. Maybe not the pizza, but all the good things around the pizza. A chance to connect with people I love and admire, some for the first time in person. Time with Anne to sit in the sun; time to hang out if just for a minute with all the people who served me at those airports and restaurants. I got to see them and talk with them and eat their food. I so hope they’re okay.

Now I’m back on the couch in Vermont. Enough time has passed that I now feel lucky I didn’t become infected or infect anyone else. A trip like the one I just took is unthinkable now. And good, because the way I set it up was super dumb. And not good at all, because without that trip I would have missed all that life-sustaining connection through writing and food and just knocking around Texas together, buying bad pizza and trying to figure out where to park the rental car. In the end, I still have my window and my couch. And I can talk to my friends online. I’m grateful for them.

Kim MacQueen teaches writing and publishing at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Bay Path University and has published two impossible-to-find novels. Come and visit on



Kim MacQueen teaches writing and publishing at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She has published two impossible-to-find novels. Come and visit on


Again. Still.

March 31, 2020 § 35 Comments

We woke up and everything had been different for some time now. Maybe we finally slept through the night. Or embraced waking up early, wired without caffeine. Maybe the bleak haze had become familiar, waiting for something to feel like feeling again. Maybe a call came—your friend is dying. Or, I think we should take a break. Or a text, WE WOULD LIKE TO INFORM YOU THAT PUBLIC MOVEMENT RESTRICTION HAS BEEN IMPOSED.

Maybe we woke to the memory of weeks ago, some faraway country tracking their citizens, an alarmist friend stockpiling taco mix, our partner still warm-eyed and cuddly. All we want is to go back to sleep, back in time, to the moment before the pandemic, the break-up, that moment of sweet unknowing, when everything was still OK.

How can we write? How can we read?

How can we possibly address the page with our life, or our characters’ lives, so petty and small in the face of tragedy? How can what we do matter in the midst of the unchangeable?

We search online—everyone else feels this way. The internet is a giant support group. We are still falling. We are all caged with the family we want to love, or alone in a room we used to love. We click angry-sad-angry-sad, wondering why gallows humor isn’t funny anymore. Fear comes in waves—numbers on a graph, an admired person now sick, now dead, the disgust and despair of watching our leaders flail.

We go through the motions. My students need an anchor. My child must be fed. If I meet this deadline I might get paid.

Neighbors whose politics disheartened us now make us rage. We try to forgive, to trust in karma, that something bigger than ourselves is in charge, that there is still a plan…isn’t there?

My best friend dies suddenly, a year ago today, the last day of AWP. The doctor tells me over the phone she is not comfortable, she is in pain. He takes my word that I have power of attorney, that she is a DNR, and I sing poorly through the phone held at her ear, hoping somewhere inside she hears me say goodbye. I fly across the country to clean out her house, reconcile with her estranged sister, hug distant friends in person for the first time. We gather around a garbage can, throw away a thousand photographs, making fun of old hairstyles and appreciating my friend’s artistic eye. We resurrect her hard drive and read her work; re-home her elderly cats. I take home her phone and try to crack it. I write about her. The bottom of the world has still dropped out, but words are a bucket in which I can carry water. Words are an axe with which I can chop wood. Each time I touch a page she edited, I touch my old world, the world in which she is also alive and reading my words. The words are a lifeline from a better past. The words are the seed of a pearl.

We guard our families, while others endanger us. Our ex-lover shows up to get the jacket we hoped he’d forgotten. We wash our hands a hundred times. After a few weeks, the essay or the book or the poem we’ve put aside goes from horrifyingly irrelevant to merely unappetizing. Our calendar clears, disappointment somehow better than hope. We sit down again. Five minutes, can you do five minutes? We tinker. We find the rhythm and lose it. We struggle to say something, anything, on the page. We are not just artists but craftsmen, and craftsmen go to work. We spend our lives sharpening our tools, and they are not just for fine days. Our tools—our words—matter not just for how we use them when all is well, but how we use them to shore up the levee when the waters rise. The people whose stories need sharing, who are not craftsmen enough to write their own, who need to hear our story to know theirs is not singular, still need us. Our words connect them from a better past to a seed of hope, string them a lifeline to the future. Our words say, one day there will be a world again, a world in which stories matter. Our words say, our stories matter still.

When my friend was alive, she told me a parable.

The novice asks the master, “What does one do before enlightenment?”

The master replies, “Chop wood. Carry water.”

The novice asks, “What, then, does one do after enlightenment?”

“Chop wood. Carry water.”

We are awake in a new world, after the thing has come to pass. It is our quiet salvation, to show up to the page and insist our words still matter. To weave a slender thread of understanding and possibility, not only in reaction to tragedy, but in recognition of the stories still to tell and be told. To salve the need for human connection, more dangerous and more precious than we have ever known. Stories are our valuable labor, reminding us that we exist independent of our grief and fear. Reminding us the world matters. Reminding our readers they matter. Saying, I too chop wood. I too carry water.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

This is an update of a November 2016 post.

Love in the Time of Ourselves: Reflections From a Memoir Teacher

March 30, 2020 § 10 Comments

joelleBy Joelle Fraser

The other morning, like tens of thousands of parents, I woke to a message: our children would not be returning to school after spring break. It almost felt like old news. The threat of change had been in the air itself, as real and invisible as the virus that caused it.

I’d taken stock of my situation, the way one does from shore as a storm approaches: single working mother—wildly fortunate to already be an online teacher—of an 8th grade boy with two anxiety disorders and a speech impediment. I imagined the two of us together, sheltered in place, for weeks, maybe months, as the world shuts down around us.


Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a memoir about my childhood in the late 60s and 70s, those freewheeling days in San Francisco and across the bay. I had several stepdads and father figures along the way, and I wrote about the bone-deep ways their lives had marked mine.

But one day, while working on the last chapter, I realized it was my mother and her choices that the book was ultimately about. I had written it because of her.

I’m now a mother myself and a memoir teacher and editor. For five years, every spring, fall and winter, about 20 people take my course, the “Thirty-Minute Memoir,” which I teach through an online school.

What strikes me is even when the memoir is about a year in Andorra, or retiring on a farm, or a life as a jazz musician, the writer’s mother will still be there, her presence moon-like, a faraway pull on her child’s life even when that child is 70 years old and her parents had died decades before.

Sometimes I can see the mother’s presence even if the writer doesn’t, and I might suggest in my comments, Can you go deeper here?

And when they do, I read of mothers who soothe and hover, cook and clean, lie and drink, work and cry; who lament their appearance but are beautiful to the child. They write of women who told stories and sang songs, who protected or looked the other way.

The memories are bright and swift as falling stars on the body. They describe the smell of a wrist, the sound of a car door and whether it signals calm or chaos, the taste of powdered sugar laced over Swedish pancakes. They write of morning rituals, of hummed melodies—and some create the image of arms forever, it seems, folded in anger.

For others, like me, the mother becomes the focus of their book. Many times these mothers will have secrets and mysteries, and some will write their entire memoir about that secret

These writers become detectives writing letters to distant relatives and co-workers, searching ancestry and DNA trails and making pilgrimages to childhood towns and homes. Always searching for more connection, more clues.

And of course fathers will matter, too, profoundly, and many of the writers are writing about them in similar ways. But their imprint is of a different hue.

More and more, I wonder what my son would write about me. From the participants in my course I have found some answers, but only some. He may remember that my patience had its brittle moments, and that I loved to bake but the muffins and breads came from a box. Would he write about the Beatles song I sang to him before bed until he was 13, and how when he hears it as a man he thinks of me and the blackbird singing in the dead of night? Will he remember my love of candles, my curses for tailgaters—the dazzling, summer night skies I woke him to see as we peeked from our warm tent?

Now, home with my son during the reign of the virus, as both teacher and parent, I feel the pressure of my influence even more. But I also sense the wondrous opportunity.

As a reader of others’ memories, I have little advice for mothers, for parents, just this: you will be remembered in ways you cannot imagine. Whole books could be written about how much you mattered, and how deeply you were loved.

Joelle Fraser has two published memoirs (The Territory of Men, 2002, Random House; and The Forest House, 2013, Counterpoint Press). Her essays have been published in several journals, including Crazyhorse, The Hawaii Review, The Iowa Review, Zyzzyva, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Fourth Genre. She lives with her son and five rescue pets in Reno, and is working on her third book. She teaches online at Creative Nonfiction.

Reading for Brevity in Times of COVID-19

March 27, 2020 § 9 Comments

victoria bBy Victoria Buitron

In October 2019, I became one of the readers for Brevity’s special “Experiences of Disability” issue. I was excited to be a part of the team, and it drove me to write an essay about living with a chronic illness for my MFA thesis. It has been a privilege to read the assigned essays, and I am continuously in awe at the resilience and creativity fellow writers can find in the depths of pain. It somehow seems wholly apt and an act of masochism to be reading submissions now, when a form of collective pain has enveloped the world due to COVID-19. I’ve experienced two conflicting feelings while reading submissions the last few weeks. First, I’m proud to be a reader because I know how difficult it is for people to share their lived experiences with disabilities and illnesses, especially when my diagnosis didn’t arrive until I was nearly thirty. Second, at times there has been an unfettered desire to throw my laptop across the room because my pain, coupled with others’ pain, has become unbearable.

Since COVID-19 took over, its resulting grief hasn’t allowed me to concentrate or analyze submissions for the special issue. I have opened up Submittable, arrived at an essay, read the first paragraph, and then closed the tab. Waves of guilt have overcome me because writers are sharing the hardest moments of their lives and I can’t even will myself to read them. Snap out of it, I’ve told myself. I hadn’t realized that lack of concentration and ineptitude were some of the symptoms of a pandemic until I went on social media and saw writers who I admire confess they’ve felt the same way. A few days ago, I teetered on the idea of sending an email to the special issue’s managing editor explaining I wasn’t in the right mindset to continue reading.

Before I could send that email, I had a conversation with my brother, who at 24 was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent surgery this past January. He has been too chipper since then, and his anxiety seems nonexistent while my mental health has been imploding.

“Why are you being so positive throughout this whole thing?” I asked him.

“Well, I lost my job in December, I had surgery in January, they confirmed it was a malignant tumor in February, and now a worldwide pandemic in March. My reasoning is it can only get better from here,” he said. I shouldn’t have cackled when he said this, but I did.

As the days have passed since our conversation, the only reason I have been able to go back to reading essay submissions about disability and illness is because of him. If he can envision a future, why can’t I? If he can make Instagram challenges during the pandemic, why can’t I? If he can read the book Room to Dream by David Lynch, sitting in the front yard while the sun sparkles on his jet-black hair and I stare at him from the window—thankful that it’s only stage one cancer—why can’t I read too? If he can write a script while being forced to stay put because even venturing to the pharmacy is strictly prohibited for him, why can’t I sit down and read for Brevity?

So, on a gloomy March day, I once again started to write and read essays about pain, because I figure we don’t just overcome viruses, and cancer, and grief, and unemployment, we fight through them.

No one knows how the world will look or feel like in September 2020, the tentative month the Experiences of Disability issue will go live. COVID-19 has already altered our lives and converted our shelter-in-place realities into the Twilight Zone, but I am certain Brevity will be there for us, just like it has been for more than twenty years. What I do recommend, especially if you are overwhelmed with grief or uncertainty when this issue goes live, is to treat every essay like a daily snack. This is the reading tactic I’ve now been implementing for the March submissions. Some weeks I’ve been assigned twenty essays or more, and I limit the intake each day or else my mental health wanes. Some days I’ve stopped reading altogether, until I feel ready to dive back in.

The essays in this upcoming issue will be imperative, more so in the midst of an era when the world has partly been brought to a halt due to a virus. I hope to send my brother the link to the issue, and thank him for allowing some of his courage to rub off on me when I felt like giving up.

The issue will be there for you to read when you’re ready, whenever that may be.

Victoria Buitron
is a dual citizen of Ecuador and the United States. She is a translator and writer based in Connecticut and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy, The Bare Life Review, Brevity Blog and more. Find her on Twitter @kikitraveler30.

In Fact, You Don’t Have to Write Right Now

March 26, 2020 § 17 Comments

MatternBy Grace Mattern

Good news! My screen time is down to an average of 23 hours and 10 minutes per day, @NasimiShabnam, writer and activist, tweeted the other day, one of the first I see when I sneak over to Twitter from the essay I sat down to edit. Comedian @DoctorDoug replies, Good news guys, my screen time is down 8% to 27 hours a day.

In our new world ruled by the novel coronavirus pandemic, I have no social life, my volunteer and personal commitments are cancelled, and consulting gigs are on hold. Unexpectedly, the open time I crave as an over-committed writer is here.

But right behind the word document on my screen is my Google browser. What’s happened since the last time I checked the The New York Times (five minutes ago)? Is there an update on the number of cases and deaths on the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 dashboard (checked six minutes ago)? But first, Twitter.

I don’t have a program that blocks internet access for a set period of time. Time to write. Time to focus. Usually I’m able to ignore the addictive suck of the internet for an hour or two, closing my ears to the attention whining that seeps out of my computer. My guess is that even writers who have internet-blocking programs aren’t using them right now. Or if they are they’re setting them for 15 minute intervals.

Pandemic life has created an unprecedented level of distraction. The established structure of our lives unraveled so rapidly I wouldn’t have believed it a week ago. Extreme social distancing, isolation, lockdowns, restaurant closures and empty schools — I would have tossed that all off as a particularly paranoid version of an imagined future.

Yet, here we are. Here I am, looking at my screen, then looking out the windows of my study. There is the same physical world out there, the farmyard minus the farm house and milking barns that burned down in a blaze so fierce I felt the heat standing at the end of my driveway, a hundred yards away. Only the concrete silo still stands, topped with a silver metal dome backed by a line of tall spruce. This rural landscape is lovely but right now it can’t compete with the invisible virus, a blaze I can’t see.

Back to Twitter for distraction. Thankfully I also find validation.

Writer @susanorlean tweets, I’m amazed by everyone who says they will get tons of work done during this lockdown. I can’t begin to focus! Am just obsessively reading the news, listening to the news, watching the news, spreading the news. No work.

With such compelling news why wouldn’t we be obsessive? We’ve been fed distracting online content for years, our brains trained to go back and go back and go back to whatever our screens feed us. And we’ve never needed the latest feed more than now.

Orlean replies to a tweet by musician Rosanne Cash who reminds us all that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during his plague quarantine – I, on the other hand, will be playing Words with Friends. Researcher of extremist groups @egavactip isn’t even planning to play games: 500 years from now, students of history will be saying, “Just a reminder that when Mark Pitcavage was quarantined because of the plague, he made like a billion mediocre tweets.”

Poet @chenchenwrites posts, honestly i can neither read nor write poetry right now. which i’ve been feeling down about. but like, that’s ok! poetry doesn’t have to be the answer all the time! poetry doesn’t have to save us or even sustain us every crisis.

To which queer romance author @FozzyGlamKitty replies, that’s why i been annoyed how in the beginning with the Shakespeare/King Lear posts, like dammit us writers/creatives are people too. Creating/writing can wait, we’re allowed to be distracted, worried, and tired.

@HomoSherlock (neurodivergent jew-ish gayzn) had perhaps the best answer: nope sometimes what sustains us is stale pantry popcorn & ten hours of Love is Blind

Back to my windows. It helps to see that the sun is still traveling north, lengthening and warming the days. The red buds of the old maple in the yard are beginning to bulge and this morning there was a rush of bird song as dawn spread around the rim of sky. Here I am. Here we are, part of a web of life that grows and diminishes in endless cycles.

The novel coronavirus isn’t evil. It’s not a “foreign disease” that arose through intent. It’s how the world works. Viruses change their cellular structure over and over to find new ways to bind to animal cells and reproduce. We’re all here to reproduce and right now the coronavirus is having tremendous success.

Given the intelligence and creativity of humans the virus won’t always have the upper hand. But for now it has fundamentally altered how we all live and work and focus. It’s okay to give ourselves a break if we can’t create.

As artist and author @adamjk says, sorry i can’t write “king lear” right now

Grace Mattern is a writer, artist and activist. She has published two books of poetry and her work has appeared in The Sun, Prairie Schooner, Calyx, Appalachia and other publications. Her writing and visual art can be found at

On Being an MFA Student Writing from Home During the Coronavirus

March 25, 2020 § 1 Comment

dalliBy Kristen Dalli

As an MFA student in the midst of writing a thesis, I’m always looking for more time to write. When classes, meetings, and assignments all migrated online in the last week, I thought having more time at home would mean more time to write. This was the perfect excuse for me to finish my thesis.

I should’ve known it wouldn’t be as easy as that. Writing is hard enough without the general anxiety about the state of the world interrupting motivation that is already hard to come by. Regardless, I spent the better part of the last week beating myself up over not getting enough work done, not making enough progress, and feeling the looming panic of how quickly my next deadline is approaching.

Sleep, too, has been hard to come by. As I was lying awake in bed recently, tossing and turning and talking myself out of panic, I thought back to the conversations I’ve had with friends in my MFA program. I certainly wasn’t alone in my feeling; we all were struggling to sit down, focus, and write.

The longer I lay there not sleeping, the more I thought about the things that have helped me – and the things that have definitely not helped me try to get words on the page. And how in these times of uncertainty, it’s important to find comfort in the things we hold dear. So, my fellow MFAers, here are some “do’s and don’ts” that could help make writing from home during these uncertain times even a little bit easier.

Do: Anticipate that writing will be hard. And that it’s hard for everyone.

As an MFA student, there is always a deadline – or three – looming. Despite everything going on in the world, I was treating my writing the same as it’s always been. I was mentally calculating how many days I had left until I had to submit more work, and weighing the pros and cons of skipping a day or two of writing. I also assumed I was the only one feeling the weight of these uncertain times in my writing practice.

As my friends made clear, I am not alone in my struggles. We all were having a hard time. In a low-residency program, self-motivation and focus are crucial, and both have been incredibly hard to come by recently. This is normal. Expect some bumps in the road.

Don’t: Deprive yourself of breaks.

I’m always worried that I’m not doing enough for my thesis. I’m not writing enough, editing enough, reading enough. It’s hard giving myself space and distance, and it’s even harder when self-quarantining has given me a seemingly endless amount of time. Last week, I wrote three pages. Every day that I couldn’t do more than edit a few paragraphs, I grew increasingly more frustrated with myself. I should be doing more, I kept thinking.

That line of thinking wasn’t helping. It was making me more anxious. After I gave myself a few days of absolutely no thesis-related work, I was able to reopen the document and actually do work I felt good about. I’m still not firing off pages, but I feel better equipped to make incremental progress day after day. Give yourself some space to breathe. To bake. To read something that inspires you. To watch a new show on Netflix. To take a walk. To color. And then come back to writing.

Do: Reach out to your friends and faculty members.

We’re all in this together. We’re all trying to figure out how to incorporate writing into the rest of our new indoor routines. No one knows what it’s like to doubt your work, your routine – all of it – better than other writers. My group chat of MFA friends has been an endless stream of support, shared worries, and distracting memes to get us all through the day.

While we’re all social distancing, it can be hard to feel connected to people – especially those we’re used to seeing and talking with on a regular basis. Writing is a solitary activity, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one. Stay in touch. Check in regularly. It makes all the difference.

Don’t: Give up.

Writing is always hard. Being an MFA student is always hard. There have been several times over the last week where I’ve thought about how inconsequential it all feels in the face of a global pandemic. I couldn’t see the point in sitting in front my laptop and watching my cursor blink back and forth, taunting me for an hour, while the whole time I’m so anxious about everything else going on in the world.

I couldn’t stop thinking about how silly it felt to even be writing what I’m writing, or writing at all, for that matter. Given the state of the world, everything has felt so trivial and unimportant.

I don’t think it is, though. Celebrate every new word, sentence, paragraph, and page. Big or small, what you’re doing counts. We always need stories. We always need art. Hang in there. Don’t give up.

Kristen Dalli is an emerging writer from New York. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor’s degree in English, and is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University, where she serves as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of CausewayLit, and as an Assistant Editor for Brevity. Her work has either appeared or is forthcoming in Stone Canoe and For Women Who Roar. 

Shelter In Place

March 24, 2020 § 27 Comments

Color photo of a black woman with close-cut black and grey hair, black-framed glasses and gold hoop earrings. She wears a grey top with maroon piping and is smiling broadlyBy Michelle Boyd

Last week I surrendered to the it-burns-it-burns-but-I-cannot-look-away impulse that marks the moment we’re in. That meant, among other things:

  1. Sleeping with my phone by the bed.
  2. Checking the phone first thing in the morning for virus news.
  3. Checking email right afterward (on the phone) to manage a volley of messages about how cancellations and closings would affect upcoming retreats.
  4. Texting my septuagenarian parents to make sure they had everything they needed and were staying in the house.
  5. Trying to remember what I needed to do besides email and pouncing on whatever task appeared first in my frazzled mind.
  6. Cursing floridly every time I remembered something else I needed to do.
  7. Returning to #2, #3, and #4 for distraction whenever I hit a snag with #5.
  8. Showering, dressing, cooking, eating, cleaning, shopping, and driving while listening to NPR.
  9. Collapsing in bed to binge watch mediocre TV.
  10. Nodding off late, which led back to #1.

​In short, exactly the opposite of what I teach, what I typically do, what I find most comforting.


​Of course, my response was partly due to the extraordinary circumstances created by the Coronavirus. But I’m also navigating these circumstances outside of my usual place. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for more than 2 weeks: First, to facilitate a writing retreat; then to visit my parents; and then—unexpectedly—to hunker down in my brother’s nearby home, so I could help my parents without exposing them to anything I may have picked up while traveling.

Many of you have lost your usual place as well. Campus is empty and class is online. Those of you still exercising have to brave the cold. The café you love to write in is shuttered. The space you’re in now is sloppy with distraction. Your home office is strewn with tax forms; the front page of The New York Times has become your browser’s homepage.

Your children are with you All. Damn. Day.

The problem we’re facing is bigger than our individual will. When we’re not in our usual place, it’s harder to maintain our normal routines—writing or otherwise. Context contains cues that, over time, train us to associate a particular behavior with a particular place. Think about how we feel and behave in a 10-person seminar room vs. a 250-person lecture hall with stadium seating. Without our usual contextual guidance, the habits we rely on to stay focused and steady are more likely to fall apart.

We need social distancing to stay safe. Unfortunately, what we need to stay safe can make it hard to stay serene.

​If you find yourself flailing, the first thing you need to do is find some emotional ballast. Ballast is not an anchor that keeps us tied to one place. Instead, ballast is weight—strategically placed to keep us balanced as we move forward. Think sandbags tied to hot air balloons. Right now, we’re shooting into the atmosphere with no sense of control. Emotional ballast will slow you down. Even you out. Give you the mental space you need to determine the best next step.

Everyone’s emotional ballast is different, so the trick is to make sure you’re using yours and not someone else’s. An easy way to do that is to create your version of the list above. Write down the first 5 things you did this morning after opening your eyes. If your mornings are fine, but your afternoons get off track, write down the first five things you do after lunch. Your aim is to specify what you do when you go whizzing off into panic, distraction, or inertia.

Now, go back to the first item on your list, and right next to it, write what you’d normally do in pre-pandemic times. Or, if writing from home has amplified behaviors you knew were a problem, write down what would feel better.

This first item on your list is your ballast. One simple thing you can do to find some stability and keep yourself from careening wildly through the day. Bird watching. Baking. Child’s pose. Sex. It doesn’t have to be serious or sacred. It just has to be what works for you.

My ballast is to sleep without my phone; then brush my teeth immediately upon getting out of bed. Removing the phone eliminates my ability to check in with the world. Brushing my teeth makes me check in with myself. When I’m amped up and desperate to Get Stuff Done, forcing myself to brush my teeth brings me back to my body. It’s the enactment of what I know to be true, but have a hard time accepting—I must first attend to myself if I want to be any good to anyone else.

If you’re totally overwhelmed, just use your ballast. If you’re up for it, use the rest of the list as a set of instructions. Do as many items as you can without getting overwhelmed. Keep your list with you and consult as needed.

Maybe you’ll write. Maybe you won’t. What’s most important is finding pockets of calm from which to rebuild your routines in your new environment. This is what it really means to Shelter in Place. To find safety where we already are, instead of searching for it outside ourselves.


Michelle Boyd is the founder of InkWell Academic Writing Retreats, where she teaches scholars how to look forward to writing instead of dreading it.

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