Where are you right now? Describe it in detail. Think of both the small setting, like your house, and the bigger settings: your town, your state, your country, your world.
Think of the interplay between you and your setting. Settings often shape stories. How is your setting influencing your experience? What are the different factors at play? What are the connections between your experiences and your setting?
Imagine your setting is a character in the story of your experience of the current events. How do you interact with each other? How are you affecting your setting? How is your setting changing you? Is your setting your antagonist or your ally?
How would your experience be different if you were somewhere else?
For a fictional alternative, create a story that is heavily influenced by the setting. How does the setting create conflict and lead to crisis? Does the setting influence the resolution? Or does the resolution change the setting?
This post is part of a series I am doing that includes 30 prompts for 30 days of sheltering at home. You can read more about my reasoning and also find other prompts here. I would love to see what you come up with. Feel free to share here or to tag your work #shelterandwrite.
Create a Written Collage: Think of ten small, concrete things that are different in your life because of COVID-19. You want to choose some things that you can experience with your senses, and that you can describe in exquisite detail.
It could be empty hand-sanitizer bottles, a work project left unfinished, an unused plane ticket, the pile of books you now have time to read, etc.
Describe each one in as much detail as possible. How has this thing changed in recent weeks? What specifically has brought about these changes? How have you noticed this thing in a new or different way?
Arrange your descriptions to create a written “collage” of current life. Look closely at the small differences around you. Together, they tell a story. What’s yours?
This post is part of a series I am doing that includes 30 prompts for 30 days of sheltering at home. You can read more about my reasoning and also find other prompts here.
I don’t know what quarantine has been like for you, but I have spent the last several weeks huddled under the covers, unable to look away from the news, and sanitizing my child like crazy. There has been a great grief, a great helplessness, and the overwhelming feeling that I should be doing something — anything — other than just staying home. I understand that I’m doing my part by hiding under the covers. But it also seems like I should be doing a lot more.
There have been a lot of tears. I might have gotten in a non-verbal argument with my toddler. And the things I say to my plants these days makes me wonder if they think I am crazy. The anxiety is real. And I know it would make me feel so much better to do something for others, to connect with others.
Are you feeling this way, too? Both paralyzed by anxiety and seized with the need to do something useful, something helpful?
But still, I felt that nagging feeling deep in my chest that begged for me to write. Maybe you have been wanting to write, too. Maybe you have been feeling like writing is a luxury right now and something you shouldn’t be spending time on. But I want to push against that idea.
I personally could really only do the work that was absolutely necessary in the past few weeks, and that was teaching. So I started thinking about how I could be useful to the writers taking my course, which also led me to think about how we could be useful as writers.
As my students returned to our little online portal after an extended spring break, I asked them what would be useful for them as writers right now. Overwhelmingly, they wanted to journal about this time and overwhelmingly, they wanted prompts.
I wanted to make prompts that would really be helpful for my students. Prompts that encouraged them be present, to look at the little things, to imagine a better future. But also prompts that allowed them to voice their fears and stare down their anxieties. I wanted to make prompts that they could connect over, draw insight from, and use to document what they saw and experienced. Basically, I wanted to make prompts that were helpful in making my students helpful.
And I thought, maybe it will also be helpful for others, too. So I wanted to share it with you.
Here is the thing: you can help. You can help by writing. Think of all the ways that the writing is useful.
On the most basic level, it is important to have a historical record of this time, and multiple perspectives will be important to get the history right. We need to know what nurses were doing, what patients were doing, what it was like to go to work, and what it was like to stay home. The more information and perspectives that can be gathered will help those in the future see what worked and what didn’t, and how the world changed in response.
Also, taking care of your own mental health is helping. I can’t stress this enough. Look, no one is going to be served by letting anxiety, depression or any other mental health issue take over. Practicing isolation and social distancing are terrible for all kinds of mental health disorders, from anxiety to eating disorders. If writing is making you feel better, you should do it. If it helps you get through the day a little kinder or with a little more ease, it is important, and you are helping others by doing it. It’s also a great way to ease the sense of isolation (see below!).
Think about all the reading you are doing. We are all trying to make sense of what is going on right now. There are numerous conspiracy theories, constant live news updates, and people sure that this will change life as we know it forever. All of these things exist because people are trying to understand a situation so unlike what most of us have experienced. Writing about it is trying to make sense of it. Sure, you might not figure out the answer to the pandemic, but even coming to one little way of thinking about it that is helpful to you might be also helpful to others.
And if you aren’t writing about the pandemic, but are writing something totally unrelated, like ancient alien dinosaur erotica or whatever, you are helping too! People are looking to artists for distraction, for escape, because we can’t exist on high-alert all the time.
This brings me to a last way you can help: share your writing.
Share your thoughts and the ways in which you are dealing with it. There is a need for connection right now, and one of the ways we can connect and still be socially distant is to share our thoughts in writing. So share your writing. Even if it doesn’t have anything to do with COVID-19, it could help someone find a few moments of calm and connection. Maybe you send your mom a letter with one of your journal entries that you think she would like, maybe you share it on Facebook, maybe you share it completely anonymously on a forum. But let other people learn from your thoughts, and allow them to connect back with you. You will both be helped by it.
So this is my small way of sharing with you. You can use this with #NaPoWriMo or #CampNano or on your own, day by day, or when you feel moved. I hope you find this helpful and I hope you also know that you are helpful.
These are some of the prompts that I created for my students. I’ll post a prompt a day and you’ll find a little sneak peak below. I hope that you can use them to be helpful, to yourself and to others. I hope that you can use them to share your fears, your hopes, and your thoughts. And most of all, I hope you can use them to connect.
Thank you for connecting with me by reading this <3
Do you have stories that have been hibernating over winter in the caves of your computer files? Poems that have sleepily spent the dark months hiding from the cold snuggled between the pages of your notebook? Blog posts or essays that are destined to fly in the summer breeze and see a new audience?
Here in Alaska, the new, green life is taking shape. The air feels fertile and full of possibilities. Birds are sending their songs out into the world and all this makes me feel like I should follow suit. With the start of summer, there’s the reminder of the possibilities that exist and the importance of our art seeing the light of day, stretching in the sunshine and basking in the warmth of the outdoors.
Two years ago at this time, I began a Submission Bonanza. It was an attempt to start getting my work out in the world, which I had been terrible about doing. It had been a long time since I had submitted anything anywhere, thinking of myself as not-a-real-writer, as someone who just wrote to make myself happy. At some point, I realized that writing, for me, is actually about connection and the real reason I was not submitting my work anywhere wasn’t because it was “just for me” but because I was afraid of the rejection. I mean, this poem is my soul; how could I stomach someone saying it wasn’t good enough?
Two years and hundreds of rejections later, I am stronger. I know now how to take the rejection letters. Being an editor of a magazine myself, I see how subjective the process can be and I know that it’s not a reflection of the worth of my soul.
I also have quite a few publications under my belt, because as subjective and harrowing as the process can be, there will also be moments when your work falls into the lap of someone who gets you, someone who connects with what you are trying to say. And they’ll want to share that with other people. Which, honestly, is kind of magical.
I have to say, I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit, been remiss in keeping my work flying out into the world and, thankfully, nature has reminded me that it’s time again.
So, I’ll be doing another Submission Bonanza this year, 30 submissions in 30 days. For the whole month of June, I’ll be keeping a running list of literary journals that I submit to, and I’ll highlight some of the best ones so that you can submit to them, too.
Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade is an examination of death and life through Lynch’s experiences as a funeral director. The book is structured as a collection of essays which range from a meditation on toilets to embalming his father to an essay against assisted suicide to instructions for Lynch’s own funeral. Throughout the book, Lynch asserts that funerals and all the things that people do surrounding death are really for the living.
The book is strongest when Lynch goes deeply into his own personal experiences. The experience of actually embalming his father and sorting out his own father’s funeral is a poignant one, which resonates deeply with the reader. Likewise, Lynch’s instructions for his own funeral, in which Lynch tells us “It’s yours to do – my funeral – not mine” (199), acts as a parting gift from Lynch, a reminder to be good to each other and that the details of the funeral – in February on a cold day, with no party – are really not the dead’s concern. It is also strong when it is being most straightforward – describing the processes surrounding death or the details that the living don’t think about. The route to the cemetery and why this matters, for instance, gives the reader a lot to think about in terms of how we think about death and its relationship to life and ourselves as individuals.
The Undertaking strives to look at the acts and ideas surrounding death in order to come to greater insights about life. This is a very ambitious goal and, unfortunately, many of the essays in this book fall short of that. The topic of death is so deep and meaningful and is ripe for insight and universal truths, especially considering the level of knowledge that Lynch has on the subject. I was so ready to love this book. However, instead of sticking to personal experiences and embracing the questions surrounding life and death, Lynch nudges his essays toward the pulpit. Some of the best books leave their readers with questions to ponder and things to ruminate on. Lynch is not shy about answering the questions he brings up.
Lynch takes the tone of a curmudgeonly old man as he bemoans kids these days and their technology and the way that they think about death. Instead of allowing the reader to come to the insight about how and why old ways were important, Lynch jumps straight to insulting possibly young readers by attacking the way things are done nowadays. He uses an incredible amount of “we” and “you” phrases assuming that his reader is on the same page with him. This reader certainly wasn’t and so these turns of phrase became incredibly alienating.
It was difficult not to question Lynch’s uses of other people’s names and stories in the book. The death of a loved one is an incredibly sensitive and intimate thing. Throughout the essays, Lynch tells the frightful details of the deaths that he’s undertaken, sometimes naming names and often giving enough detail to know who he must be writing about. I found myself wondering time and again if he had permission to write about people in this way.
It was especially egregious in his essay Uncle Eddie, Inc. in which he uses the gory details of a grizzly suicide to begin a rant against assisted suicide and abortion. This is, for me, was the point at which Lynch really lost me as a reader. He gives the details of the widow, who was suspected of having an affair, waking up to the spray of her husband’s blood covering her. He gives plenty of detail for the townspeople to know who he is writing about, but seems unsympathetic toward the widow, who he seems to think must have had it coming anyway. He uses this messiness to assert that assisted suicides should not be legal, because they, like abortions, are humans trying to play god. Lynch seems to think that it is fine for humans to play god by extending life, for he’s not against medication, but not shortening it. It’s hard for me not to commiserate with the widow in this story, to think of the way it would feel reading the details of her husband’s death for all the world to know, these details being used for a political essay, and then to even possibly wish that assisted suicide had been an option for the husband, instead of the terrible way that things had gone. Whether or not you agree with Lynch’s stance, the way it is written about feels off. It is hard to imagine that Lynch had permission to talk about this death in that way and for those purposes. It made him a questionable narrator, for sure.
There are moments in the book where Lynch certainly hits his mark, where the details and meaning that he makes about death and funerals give the reader new insights about life. However, these moments are so overshadowed with Lynch’s politics, his arguments and over-explaining, and the way that it feels like he’s using people that they lose their poignancy. The Undertaking is definitely a lesson in thinking about the assumptions that we make about our readers and as well as a lesson in the ways that we treat people as subjects.
*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers. This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.