Quick Writing Dips to Ground Yourself While Quarantined
Updated: May 1
It can be easy to get so caught up in the barrage of coronavirus news hitting us on Twitter and other communication channels that you get paralyzed thinking about your struggles and everyone's fear. Besides providing a break from that chaotic onslaught, turning to the writing pad can provide a healthier way to process the upended world of the current moment than escaping by watching movies and such. Don’t get me wrong, I love the voyeuristic experience that books and other media such as animated movies provide to uplift your mood and so much more. But writing can be a healthy way to connect better with yourself as an alternative to connecting to the “the other” of other peoples’ crafted stories. And you can do so using small chunks of time rather than hour-long writing marathons.
Why listen to me? I’ve trained in a martial art for 25-plus years that’s all about going with the flow of an attack. Ultimately, a big focus of Aikido is learning how to develop a mind that flows with each moment, moment by moment. As Buddhists say, that’s really all we have control over: how we respond to the moment we are in.
When I taught Aikido classes to college students for over a decade, an early exercise I would have them do goes as follows: while looking in a mirror, balance on one foot as you rest the bottom of the upraised leg on the other leg. Sounds simple, right? Well, they were on a semi-cushy mat that meant having to adjust their balance from time to time. I purposely hadn’t told them where to focus while seeking to stay balanced (you could try this exercise yourself first, before reading on to find out the point of it). When I asked afterward where students had placed their attention, many had used what they saw in the mirror as their balancing point, only shifting back to what their physical body was telling them meant “upright” when their mirror-based balance had been lost. In other words, they were letting the external world dictate to them what being balanced meant.
Writing your way back into connection with your true realities can be a way of rebalancing so that you are present to and can make wise decisions with what is actually happening to you, instead of what the world tells you life should focus on. And as you write, it will help you develop a personal writing style.
Brief Writing Exercises
If you’re feeling stuck and unable to write, a simple way to pop the creative cork is timed writing. This involves setting a timer and letting yourself write without stopping during a given time period. You can do this without having a topic in mind and it basically becomes a diary of where you are in the moment. That’s not a bad way to start the day to address what’s top-of-mind or to get into the flow of writing. But if you are experiencing overwhelm and anger/fear, completely open-ended writing can take you down some less-than-helpful rabbit holes.
Another approach that writing gurus such as Saundra Goldman recommend is what I use more often. Decide on a topic and make that the focus of your timed writing. How do you know what topics to use? The sky’s the limit, but you will also figure out what gets your juices flowing better over time. Among the topics that have worked well for me are:
What does home/my brother/etc. mean to me?
Pieces of anatomy – seriously, you’d be amazed how absorbing it can be to think about your hands and all they do for you, or your ears, or feet.
Pets and the weather. Newspapers have long known that stories about these topics get lots of attention because we can all relate to them. Consider, for instance, writing about the clouds, sunshine, rain, you name it.
What's the first thing you'll do/wear/visit/eat when the quarantine is over?
If you have an essay you’ve written or another work-in-progress you’re struggling with, maybe apply timed writing to that. For instance, you could focus a timed write on a scene that needs more details to enliven it, or use the time to write out the back story of a minor character
You can also find ideas for writing prompts all over the web, such as those from Writer’s Digest.
Timed Writing Logistics
How long should you write? Ten or fifteen minutes is not uncommon to use, as it gives you time to “get in the groove.” But, just as some people do one-minute meditations throughout the day, you could set aside five minutes and see how that feels, or try a 30-minute or longer stint for something that you think might take more to get into because you’re particularly distracted, because you know there’s a lot to write about, or just because.
Regardless of the time length, don’t be surprised if your writing focus changes course in the midst of a timed write. That happened often to participants when I included timed writes in a creative non-fiction group I ran for a few years. In most cases, it’s best to let the writing take you where it wants to go. Many seasoned authors, for instance, swear by the rule of not trying to stick to the original outline once they start actually developing the first draft of a book because unconscious elements will come into play that can make the final product much richer. In some cases, authors have gone back and totally rewritten a book well into the process because of this as well.
Keeping the Writing Flow Going
One of the biggest things Aikido students have to learn is how to keep going when they "make a mistake" and get a technique "wrong." There are no wrong techniques if you allow a movement that didn't work to flow into something new; stopping to criticize how you just moved poorly only takes you further out of flow with the situation.
Letting the writing just happen with timed writes is also part of giving space for the flow to continue without worrying about outcomes. That is, it’s important to turn off your internal editor (aka critic) and let words go misspelled, ideas to sputter out and more. You are just playing with words, in one sense, while in the larger sense, you are letting words teach you what really matters to you as part of regrounding in yourself. Yes, grammar and all matter eventually. But getting in touch with your now matters more in the moment that you are putting words to the page.
Crafting Your Own Mirror
There’s a great concept that Zen master and writer Thich Nhat Han shares in a movie I watched recently in which he talks about the flow of life. In particular, he talks in “Mindfulness: Be Happy Now” about heat and other elements that make up a cloud. Those elements can transform into rain that becomes part of a river, sunlight, growing plants and more, ever evolving into something new. I think he’d likely add that that the river could become a flood at one point, and that cloud, part of a raging storm. That is, when you choose to set down words in timed writes, you are giving space to your full range of thoughts and emotions.
When you do that, you’re helping build a sense of all of who you are, of internal balance. Once you establish that, then when the world puts distorted views in front of you, you will have an “internal mirror” to still balance in front of while riding the uplifting — or the churning — waves of events that are currently part of life.