Again. Still.

March 31, 2020 § 42 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.

Shelter In Place

March 24, 2020 § 28 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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