on balancing

At the writer’s workshop several weeks ago, I asked a panel of authors how they balanced paying attention to real world events — the incessant bad news, for example — with being a creative person. I wasn’t looking for any tried and true method so much as I wanted to hear from writers who had already actually published things, because each of them has struck that balance in their own ways.

One of the reasons I stepped down from working full-time with the human rights organization is because when I’d try to make a moment of quiet for myself, and reach to draw on my creative pool, I’d realize it had shrunk down to a sticky mud puddle. (To be honest I don’t know that I have a ~creative pool~ but the mud puddle part of the analogy feels really, really accurate.) At times it would be so bad that I had to struggle just to think of something for dinner — cooking being a rotating role on my teams and occasionally a source of great anxiety for me. So I would use my quiet time to veg, instead. (Which is not bad, not at all, but as someone who earnestly wants to write fiction, it’s also not a good long-term strategy.)

Being an all-or-nothing sort of person means I’m not very good at striking a balance. After the most recent US presidential election, I stopped writing for two months. I’d reach, and there’d be nothing but mud. So I’d compensate by scrolling through Twitter and Facebook, fueled by this weird urgency that if I wasn’t reading and sharing the most up-to-date analyses and on-point Tweets, I would somehow be letting the fascists win. There are a lot of good ways out there to fight fascism, but I’m pretty sure exhausting myself to the point where I can’t write is not one of them. (I can say that now, with the benefit of hindsight. That doesn’t mean I’ll remember it in the future.)

On the panel at the writer’s workshop, Justina Ireland replied to my question by reminding me, and all of us assembled, that this is not the worst it’s ever been. It’s definitely bad now, but we can look at history (and not even very distant history) to know how much worse it was. Dhonielle Clayton offered a kind of permission I hadn’t realized I was looking for, by saying that she just steps back from social media entirely when she knows she has to write. Leigh Bardugo said she didn’t have any techniques for striking a balance, but when she encounters someone online who really ticks her off, she goes over to DonorsChoose.org and supports students and teachers until she feels better.

I think I will always be someone who can easily get wrapped up in the latest news, whatever that may be, and I will always be someone who needs to deliberately choose to focus on creating, instead. The tendency to let my creativity shrink, unchecked, may be something I always struggle against. Somewhere along the line I decided that a creative person is able to create stuff at any time, and it’s taking me some effort to unlearn that. Figuring out what affects it, what makes it shrink (and grow), and figuring out good ways to step back from the constant stream of (bad) news without becoming ignorant, is something I am working on.

I’m glad I piped up at the workshop, because it’s one thing to suspect that real live authors also struggle with this, and another thing to hear their own ideas about how they strike that balance.