Photo by Riz Mooney on Unsplash

What the Pandemic Taught Me About Writing

A funny thing happened on the way to Phase 4 of reopening: I stopped stressing about my writing.

This isn’t to say I stopped caring about my writing. But I stopped having the “wake up in the middle of the night terrified I’d made a colossal life mistake” panic attacks that I’d had pre-pandemic.

See, I’ve only been freelancing for two years. I left my nonprofit career in my early 40s to write for newspapers and magazines. The first thing I did when I made the change was to read all the writing books, subscribe to all the writing magazines, highlight all the writing articles, and take all the writing courses. And from them, I learned one thing: “If you want to be successful, you MUST write every day. You MUST read every day. You MUST pitch ideas or submit stories to editors every day. Anything short of that, and you’re not really a writer.”*

(*This isn’t verbatim, of course. It’s just what my inner voice told me as I read/subscribed/highlighted, and it’s the message that stuck with me long after I finished the books/magazines/articles/courses.**)

(**Come to think of it, Stephen King did say in On Writing that, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” So, you can see how this “You MUST…” idea first got stuck in my head.)

Anyway, the message didn’t do anything to inspire me, it just made me feel bad. If I didn’t write for a day or two, I’d feel guilty. If I couldn’t come up with an idea to pitch to an editor, I’d convince myself I’d never make it. I literally bullied myself into believing that I was no good.

I would even come up with long lists of topics I didn’t really want to write about so I could pitch them to publications I didn’t really want to write for, just because I thought having the byline would be impressive. Or sometimes I’d write blog posts about not being able to write, just to force myself to write something. But even then, I’d end the day feeling like a capital-F Failure.

Then, COVID-19 hit. My son’s school closed. Publications shut down and editors lost their jobs.

For a while, I tried to plug away as if nothing had changed. I continued to brainstorm ideas and pitch to the few editors who still wanted to hear from freelancers. And I continued to feel guilty and berate myself when I went too long without writing. All this while homeschooling my second-grade son, worrying about the health of my loved ones, and wondering if and when I would catch the dreaded disease.

Finally, after a few months, I snapped.

I couldn’t do it anymore. I stopped working altogether. No more writing. Very little reading. Instead, I poured my energy into keeping my son’s spirits up. Whatever life I had left in me after that was spent putting together jigsaw puzzles and playing Animal Crossing.

I had no idea whether my career would suffer as a result of this hiatus, but I knew I needed to cut myself some slack. I finally gave up the notion that I am only as good as my bylines. I stopped worrying about daily writing habits and reading goals. Quite frankly, I didn’t have the energy to care about any of that; I had bigger priorities.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Slowly, after a few months, I began to pitch again. This time, though, I was thoughtful about it. Thanks to the novel coronavirus, I didn’t have the mental capacity or the time in my day to feel guilty about not writing, or to pitch a bunch of publications half-assed topics that I didn’t care about.

And that brings me to the funny thing that happened: For the first time, instead of thinking, “I MUST write,” I approached my work from a place of, “What do I WANT to write?” Instead of jotting down a bunch of ideas that I thought publications might like, I wrote up a list of topics I’m interested in and want to learn more about. Instead of following asinine rules like, “I MUST write every day,” I realized that as a freelancer, I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. That’s the upside to being my own boss.

So, to anyone reading this, you have my permission to not write. To not read. To not pitch. To not submit. To not do anything you don’t feel like doing today.

And I promise you, you’re not a failure because of it. At some point, you will do all those things and they will feel right. But until then, give yourself a break. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that life is too short to bully yourself into writing.

Writer, reader, mommy. Just trying to figure out this thing called life. Pub. in Boston Globe, Washington Post, Greatist / / Twitter: @sebejer

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