Most writers I know keep to themselves. Writing is, after all, a largely solitary activity.
In more boring times, I longed for prolonged periods of isolation so that I could finally dedicate myself to the craft. So, being furloughed and quarantined should have been the ideal situation for me. I settled down to write thinking that this would be the most productive period of the year for me.
I was sorely mistaken. I struggled to focus and the words just didn’t come. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get into the flow.
Finally, after months had passed and I had made some tweaks to my practice, I’ve noticed that I’m more productive than I was before the pandemic. I think it’s because I’ve learned from my quarantine how to break out of the slump.
Here’s what worked for me to overcome COVID-19 writer’s block. I hope it will work for you too.
Stick to a routine
Establish writing as part of your daily schedule, but also note what part of your non-writing routine motivates you. What sparks your creativity and what suffocates it?
During quarantine, I was able to write during times of the day I’d never attempted before. I noticed that mid-afternoon was my most productive time period. Now, instead of playing tetris on my phone while chewing a sandwich, I use my lunch break to crank out a couple pages.
In terms of my non-writing routine, I used to think my boring data-entry job was counterproductive to my writing. But having been deprived of that boring desk job, I notice that there is something about the daily grind that is essential for writing. For me, it’s the mundane blankness of work and subway commuting that allows me to meditate on my writing, that makes me so eager to write when I can.
Be mindful about what parts of your routine spark creativity, and be sure to honor them daily. Even if you aren’t able to get back to your pre-COVID routine, try to replicate it. For example, in lieu of the subway, I take about twenty minutes every morning to sit by an open window, just daydreaming about what I want to write.
Read your own work
The benefit of reading your old work is twofold: re-reading will help you get a fresh start for a new era of productivity, and it’s also good for your self-esteem. Even if you’re not super productive now, it will remind you that you are capable of writing. Old writing is proof that you have written before and will again. Besides, half of writing is editing, so this is technically writing and thus you cannot feel guilty for being unproductive. Revisiting your work is a great way to overcome COVID-19 writer’s block.
Make small goals
When I was furloughed, I felt like I needed to take advantage of the spare time to accomplish a staggering laundry list—finish the novel, apply for jobs in my field, get together a collection of short stories, learn to write a sonnet, publish something, anything!—but these giant goals overwhelmed me and made it difficult to start any work at all.
It’s better to set small goals at different levels, and work on several projects simultaneously—perhaps a mix of shorter and longer term goals. For instance, I have a set time for working on the novel, but I have a daily goal of submitting something once per day. That’s why you’re reading this now.
Reevaluate your space
I’ll confess: during the quarantine, I wrote on the couch. With someone sitting right next to me. In front of the television.
Suffice to say, it didn’t work at all. Personally, I find it difficult to get into the creative flow when someone is sitting next to me or even in the same room. I eventually made a space in my tiny apartment where I more or less could feel alone. I committed myself to a stool in our kitchen, my laptop balanced on the stove top. My workspace didn’t have to be Pinterest perfect—it just needed to be a place where I could write alone.
Get space… mentally
It’s useful to reevaluate both the space where you write and the creative distance you take from the quarantine itself. We are all experiencing some trauma from the pandemic. As a writer, you might feel pressured to immediately capture the struggles you and others have experienced, but I would advise taking some space from the subject.
When you are in the midst of the flood, it is difficult to describe the color of the water. Only once you’ve gotten some distance and had time to process the event can you write honestly and to your fullest potential. This may mean processing the pandemic without writing about it for a few days or even a few years. Please take the time and space you need.
Or dive in
Alternatively, you might feel like writing about what you’re experiencing is the best way to process it. Perhaps you’re bursting with thoughts and ideas and need to let them all out. I’ve been asked before why I write about dark subject matter, and my response is always the same: I am carrying something heavy and would like to set it down.
So maybe you need to set it down.
As you write, try not to view your prose with a critical eye. Being too hard on yourself won’t help you overcome COVID-19 writer’s block. Consider yourself a documentarian collecting raw footage. You can edit later; right now just focus on writing truth as you’re experiencing it.
Comfort others by making gifts for them
Nothing comforts humans like art, so make art for those you love. In the midst of an international pandemic, writing about the weather might not feel vital, but it is. Make gifts for people you love and trust with your writing. Compose a poem that shows your appreciation for your mother. Shoot off an email to an old friend you’ve lost touch with.
Personally, I wasn’t able to write much until I started writing for the people I was fretting over. It began as a fan letter to an author whose next book release party was delayed due to the outbreak. Then I composed a sappy limerick for my writing circle’s amusement (in the midst of stupid COVID / we’ve been quarantined alone but / it’s made me see clearly. / I love you all dearly. / Just wanted you to know that). Clearly, I’m not trying to win any prizes here, but the best art is the art we make for others. You don’t have to write for everyone—you just have to write for someone.
Be gentle with yourself
Don’t feel pressure to keep up the productivity you might have maintained during calmer times. Don’t feel discouraged by a lack of productivity during self-isolation. Quarantine isn’t a vacation. You’re going through something tough and you shouldn’t punish yourself with writing.
Even if you don’t overcome COVID-19 writer’s block every day, maybe you will on a few lucky days. Write to soothe yourself and others. Write to save yourself. Write because it’s fun, because you want to, because it keeps you sane.
Be safe, be well, be kind.
Submittable has published oodles of guest blogs on craft and creativity that can help you overcome COVID-19 writer’s block. Check them out here. Or send us your own short essay for potential publication.