An outdoor fire in winter and a marshmallow on a stick cooking over it.

21 Ways to Stoke Your Writing Practice During a Pandemic

At times, when it's dark outside and I'm chilled and starved for a spark of something to light me up, I feel like a vampire low on blood. Yet, of course, I'm not a vampire and think that would be a sorry way to live, scouring the dreary streets at night for my next victim. To have to rely on others for my lifeblood--literally--is no life for me.

In Ann Rice's Interview with the Vampire she writes, “The only power that exists is inside ourselves.”

I do believe that's true.

Although warm slippers and a hand-knit toque also help to keep our spirits alive over the cold winter months. Yet what about a pandemic AND winter? How do we get through that, our creative selves unflappable and still singing?

I don't need to tell you that this year isn't like other years. It's hard enough to stay indoors, and if you live in a small place, not to feel that your apartment is a human-sized litterbox and you are an outdoor cat stuck inside. Thanks, humans! Or if you have small children you may have run out of creative ideas during the first wave of the virus to keep them occupied. This pandemic is demanding everything from us, and still, it continues to make a home on planet Earth.

Last winter I moved to a village by a river and nestled in the mountains of the Canadian Shield, which is less like a shield and more like a series of Precambrian igneous metamorphic rocks. And yes, I looked this up! I'm not used to long winters and so I made sure to find activities that I could do so that the dark winter days didn't get me down. 

This year, anticipating the cold, long winter and the still-present pandemic with its rising death tolls and unpredictability, I made up a list of things to try in order to keep up our writing practice.

There's been a lot of talk about mental health since March 2020 when the WHO declared a global pandemic. Thankfully we keep talking about it because it's more important than I think many of us realized before this crisis took hold. I do believe that for creators, keeping up with a consistent practice is extremely important for our mental health, and so this is my contribution, however small, to your (and my) well being.

 

21 Ways to Stoke Your Writing Practice During a Pandemic

1) Wake up and do something right away that connects you to your creativity. This might be meditation, exercise, drinking a warm, invigorating tea or coffee, or it might be sitting down to write for 15 minutes. This one thing you do will kick off the day in a good way! 

2) Bring lights into your space that inspire you such as a cool lantern or a string of lights that you put in a vase to light up a room. This year I got serious about lighting and bought a S.A.D lamp which I use every morning for 30 minutes while writing. Although, thankfully I don't suffer from it, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real mood disorder that can make people feel depressed in the winter and is thought to relate to a lack of serotonin or melatonin.

3) Another option is to take advantage of the darkness by creating a nest for yourself with furry throws, candles, pens, and a new writing notebook that inspires you. Hunker down! Buy some new teas or make some nourishing soups so you have them when you get down to writing. Use this time to go inward and get in touch with what it is you actually want to write or create. 

4) Use the Five Minute Journal to pull you out of the doldrums and get you energized. I have friends who refer to this journal as a 'lifesaver.' Tim Ferris of the Four Hour Body says, “The Five Minute Journal is one of the simplest ways that I have found to consistently ensure improving my well being and happiness. Both in terms of achievement and actual measurable, quantifiable results.” The daily journal combines writing the following: Daily affirmations, something you're grateful for, and how to make the day great. Five minutes per day could be the push you need toward that writing project filed away in the drawer.

5) I’ve practiced different meditation techniques throughout the years and have settled (for now) on Vipassanā or Insight Meditation, which is based on the Theravāda Buddhist tradition. Not only is meditation good for self-reflectiveness and mental well-being, but it also helps to develop compassion for others. When we meditate we can begin to experience life more directly and to witness our own story unfolding. We become more forgiving and grateful of others, and of our own circumstances. When you meditate, even for 10 minutes, it helps to clear your head in preparation for writing. If you're interested in combining meditation with daily writing practice, then take a peek at my 21 Day Writing Meditation course on DailyOm. Their sliding scale payment system makes it reasonable to try out.

6) Start or end each day with envisioning exercises or mantras. Doing this can help you to create a space to envision what creative project you'd like to take on this winter. The dreams you're weaving in your head become more concrete as you experience aspects of them through visualization or through words from the mantra you create or select. This is a great way to get back on track, away from dark thoughts, and to bring those feelings of inadequacy to the surface to be dealt with once and for all. You can also do these on the full or new moons to connect to the cycles of nature and feel part of a larger whole.

7) Gather low-hanging fruit. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you look at a big creative task in front of you. Where do you start? How will you finish? Gathering low-hanging fruit simply means that you tackle smaller things that you’re able to complete first before moving to something bigger. Doing these smaller things first will give you the satisfaction of accomplishing something, and also give you more energy and confidence to tackle the bigger stuff. I try to have at least two small tasks on my list that I can check off right away before sinking my teeth into a longer project.

8) Exercise increases our energy and that stretches the time we have to write. Cool, eh?! It gives us more get up and go to fit in those creative to-dos that we’re always trying to find time for, but that constantly get pushed aside. Sometimes when I have writer’s block and I don’t know what to write about or how to move forward with my writing, I’ll bounce on a trampoline or go for a run around the block, skip for five minutes or do some yoga. Moving my body, getting out of my head, and releasing endorphins, really helps me to write. The body craves movement and wants to be part of the creative process. 

9) Take up a new creative hobby. I recently bought a ukulele and am excited to be learning some tunes. I find it helps me write better when I have another creative outlet that's not in the least like writing.

10) Eat chocolate. The good stuff. When working on a longer writing project, I give myself a few pieces as a reward. It also perks me up enough to push through and get my work done.

11) Carve out movie nights. You could watch an old black and white movie like Philadelphia Story or old slapstick films with physical comics like Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd. Or, a vampire comedy that's the epitome of silliness (that I've watched on my worst days). Laughter is the best medicine during cold, blustery evenings, and could give you some ideas for your writing. 

12) Poetry is often seen as a highbrow art, which is a shame because it's one of the best written forms for self-reflection and idea-making. It can equip you with an emotional map for how to piece together life's disjointedness. I often turn to American poet Mary Oliver when I'm having trouble navigating the road in front of me. To make accessing poetry even easier, the Poetry Foundation has a free app that allows you to search poetry by emotion (i.e., lovesick, jubilance, fear), which is pretty cool. And uber-talented spoken word poet Sarah Kay is definitely worth checking out, especially her If I should have a daughter that's received almost five million views on YouTube.

13) I get irritable when several days go by and I haven't given myself even a few minutes to write. And if you can relate to this in any way, then I suggest carving out a time each week (preferably at the same time) to write--your memoir, novel, blog or web copy. Set it as an alert on your phone so you make it a priority. You wouldn’t forget to pick your kids up for school or take that chocolate cake out of the oven.... Treat this date with yourself as important as other commitments in your life. At first, it may seem strange that you’re setting aside this time because in actual fact you may have no idea what you’re even going to write about because it's been so long since you've given yourself that time. Try 15 minutes to start, either early in the morning before others wake up, or late at night when your home is quiet. 

14) Do some volunteer work. Giving to others in this way can release feel-good hormones like serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine. Also, the people you meet may just give you some ideas for characters or stories.

15) I talked in #13 about carving out a set time to write. Well, one step closer to your goal of finishing a creative project and feeling better about life in general would be to create a work plan that maps out when you'll work on your project and when you plan to finish. Obviously, these are working plans that you’ll need to update, but actually having one and putting it on your wall or in your day timer for you to be reminded of is key. Break down your goals into bite-size pieces (or action items) so that you can see the progress you’re making and not feel so overwhelmed.

16) Take random strolls in the woods or city streets. When I'm in the thick of my work and am hunched over my keyboard for what seems like an eternity, that's when I force myself to get outside. Movement is vital to keeping the flow of creativity, yet it's also good for grounding yourself. When you do this you'll come back to your work with more vigour and intention.

17) Be inspired by the work of other creative people, whether it’s going to an art gallery (or visiting one online) or reading an amazing book or seeing a great movie. This will help to keep your eye on the creative ball—stay, stay, stay(ing) alive like that 80s disco song. 

18) Own your talents. When you want to share your passion with the world it’s important to be aware of your gifts and to accept them as yours. I’ve spent a long time undermining my gifts. Imposter syndrome is a name for a person who doesn’t believe that they in fact possess the accomplishments they possess and are afraid of being exposed as a "fraud.” Even very successful people can experience Imposter Syndrome. Actress Meryl Streep, for example, says that each time she goes to do a new film she gets cold feet and wonders why she’s acting because she doesn’t know how to do it. Other women suffer from this syndrome such as Sheryl Sandberg and Tina Fey. Even when you’re a professional and are clearly an expert in your field, you don’t always feel like you are. I think it’s important to remind ourselves that we are experts in what we do, that we have these beautiful gifts, and we’d like to share them with the world.

19) Practice gratitude in small or large doses as it helps to refocus on what you have rather than what’s missing. Even in the dead of winter, try to find something to appreciate every day to make space for creative thoughts and actions. 

20) Sit down and write. I initially came across the expression “first thoughts” in Nathalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within. In her book, she counsels to keep writing even when you feel like stopping to read what you’ve written. Allow the pen to continue across the page and don’t cross out anything. Goldberg’s “first thoughts” or what other writers might refer to as “free writing,” helps you trust yourself and open to the creative process. It allows you free reign to write and not worry about what you are writing.

Exercise: Pick up your pen and begin to write down the first thought that comes to you. Keep writing, staying with that first thought, and not looking back to judge whether what you wrote was good or bad. Enjoy the flow of the thoughts that are coming to you and just write them down. Try to stay with this burst of thought for as long as it carries you. It might last five minutes or it might only last 60 seconds. Once you feel that the first thought is complete, put the pen down.

21) Be radical and celebrate Thursday, December 21 (in the Northern Hemisphere), the first day of winter, and the darkest day of the year. You can go here to look up where it is in your area. Mother Earth Living suggests using this time to feed our spirits: "For people throughout the ages—from the ancient Egyptians and Celts to the Hopi—midwinter has been a significant time of ritual, reflection, and renewal. Creating a meaningful celebration of the winter solstice, either in place of or in addition to other holiday activities, can help us cultivate a deeper connection to nature and family and all the things that matter most to us."

Take time out on this day to write down your thoughts about the year that's almost past. What was it like for you? What were some wins? What was challenging for you? A ritual that I've done for years is to write down some ideas, emotions or stories that I want to let go of, and then I burn them in the fire. This is a nice way to clear the path for new stories in the year ahead.

I hope you'll test out some of these small steps to fire up your writing or creative practice, and to see each dreary, cold day as an opportunity to dip into your creative well and be astonished at what gems you uncover. 

Bonus! Download for free my How to Write Like Your Pants are on Fire for still more tips and tools to keep writing and doing what you love.

photo credit: Graham Padmore