My province is on fire.
That’s not a metaphor. British Columbia is literally on fire, with blazes that experts from various countries have described as “apocalyptic” and “like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Our neighbourhood was evacuated. Two houses on our street burned down. Our oldest daughter’s mental health has been . . . not great. Chaos and turmoil. Stress and uncertainty. And now that we’re home again with out of control fires less than an hour away in three different directions, our new status quo has fear and flinching stitched into it.
Which begs the question, how do you keep writing when your world is literally—or metaphorically—on fire? How do you keep hold of your creativity in the face of mental trauma, when all your brain wants to do is sleep and binge watch your favorite shows on Netflix?
Step 1: Forgive yourself if you stop.
Stopping is normal. Shutting down is normal. Not being able to find words is normal. When you’re experiencing trauma, your brain looks for ways to protect itself, to protect you. Let it do its job without guilt. This is a natural process, and you can not override it with shame.
Shame is the enemy.
Shame prolongs the shut down process and eats through your words like the mental acid that it is. You will recover faster if you don’t pile shame on top of your hurt. Shame makes you heavier. Giving yourself permission to be a human being having a hard time makes you lighter. Treat yourself with the same level of compassion and care that you would give to a dear friend in similar circumstances.
Step 2: Fight panic with an awareness of the temporary.
Mental trauma lies to us. It tells us that the level of stability and sporadic joy we once experienced is gone, forever out of reach, and that the current struggle is our new normal.
Sometimes it is. Maybe your house did burn down. Maybe you were handed a life-altering medical diagnosis. Maybe you’ve lost a loved one. Surely, these aren’t temporary traumas.
But what is temporary, is the intensity of our initial grief. The raw vulnerability of a freshly dealt blow. You’ve been sucker punched in the gut. You’re bent over from the pain. It hurts and it hurts and it hurts. But eventually you’re going to straighten up. Eventually, the pain is going to diminish to a dull throb. However long-lasting the cause of your trauma is, it will never hurt as much as it did in that first moment, and there’s a strange comfort to be found in that.
Trauma is temporary and limited in its scope, but our ability to adapt and recover is not.
Step 3: Experiment.
If the worst has passed and the words still aren’t coming, try different creativity-stirring methods like these to get your brain zinging and zapping again:
- Take pictures.
- Find some fun writing prompts.
- Create inspiration boards and/or story boards.
- Brainstorm with a friend.
- Use different writing methods like pen/pencil, voice recorder, or different devices.
- Watch imagination-inspiring movies and T.V. shows.
- Explore new environments and take note of what you notice and why.
If you usually write fiction, try your hand at poetry. If you’re normally a poet, try a personal essay, perhaps. Different mediums can help you escape shut down mode. They can be loopholes in your brain’s self-defense program.
Step 4: Avoid writing advice.
You’re probably laughing at this one, or maybe rolling your eyes. Perhaps I should qualify that statement and say “Avoid harmful writing advice.”
The harmful kind abounds. I’ve seen famous authors say things like “If you don’t write every day, you’ll never make it.” “If you don’t carry pen and paper with you everywhere, you’re not a real writer.” “You know you’re supposed to be an author if you wake up every morning needing to write.”
Statements like these are inherently dangerous. They’re fabulous sound bytes. They’re powerful. Quotable. And they put forward strong opinions that make a certain amount of sense. Writing every day is a good idea, isn’t it? Pen and paper in this electronic age of ours . . . there’s something poetic about that. And needing to write, that’s how you know it’s destiny. That’s how you know it’s what you’re meant to do.
Yeah. No. That’s how you know that overly generalized statements based on one dimensional ideas are stupid.
You do not have to write every day, or even every week to “make it.” Plenty of successful authors have stopped just like you have, shut down just like you have, felt the weight of grief and pressure and chaos just like you have. Plenty of successful authors haven’t touched pen and paper in years. And plenty of successful authors wake up groaning because ugh, they don’t want to write today, never mind need to.
Do what works for you, and don’t put too much stock in the opinions of people who think what applies to them applies to everyone. That includes me. Your brain doesn’t work the exact same way my brain works, and that’s okay. That’s normal. That’s good.
Step 5: You don’t have to hurt to write good words.
Our stories are tapestries into which we weave elements of our life experiences: the light and the dark, the joyful and the sorrowful, the painful and the transcendent. When the worst of your trauma has passed, and your brain comes out of lockdown mode and the words start flowing again, you might notice that they are deeper than they were before. This is one of the most incredible things about being a human being, that we can take the fabric of the worst events in our lives, and create wonders out of it.
You don’t have to live in that place, in that dark well you drew those powerful words from. You can find words in bright places too. Through empathy, through newness, through love. Through unique viewpoints that take you and your stories to places you couldn’t reach otherwise.
Yes, hurting can make you a better writer. But so can loving. And only one of those experiences is worth chasing.
Suffering = Beautiful Art. Joy = Beautiful Art. Curiosity = Beautiful Art. Love = Beautiful Art.
Trauma is temporary, and while it has the power to hurt you and steal your words for a time, your creativity is stronger. You can and will triumph. Give yourself time. Forgive yourself for being human. And chase joy.
Both you and your stories are worth it.
Kimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.