How I’m Writing During the Pandemic

by | Jul 1, 2020

My already limited capacity for writing has fluctuated a lot since March 2020. When COVID-19 closures began, I put writing projects on hold to better support myself and others with the direct consequences of a global pandemic that has rapidly compounded pre-existing inequalities. Flexible planning was key.

Soon after transitioning my courses online I succumbed to a turbulent cycle of writing blocks and bursts with no end in sight. However, the recognition that writing can happen anywhere and takes a variety of forms has allowed me to continue “creating dangerously,” as author Edwidge Danticat puts it, with greater self-compassion and intentionality. Below are some ways I’ve learned to approach writing in a pandemic.

Expanding my definition of writing

The literature on writing for academics is helpful in that much of it encourages us to think about writing as a multi-step process. We can count reading, editing, and even brainstorming toward our writing time, not just the final words on a page.

Yet most of this literature focuses on academic writing that has two specific goals: getting a tenure-track job or getting tenure at said job. Advice about putting together a book proposal, teaching portfolio, and the like are certainly helpful, but academics write all kinds of prose.

If I think about my writing solely in terms of scholarly articles, it’s easier for my perfectionism to pop up and with that, feelings of scarcity. In contrast, a more expansive definition of writing honors the myriad work that I do in and outside academia and helps me resist defining my labor by capitalist and ableist standards.

In the last few weeks, I’ve written creative nonfiction, love letters, fundraising emails, Black Lives Matter solidarity meeting agendas, protest signs, an article on mutual aid, and many unformed thoughts in my journal. That’s valuable writing, even though it might not end up in my tenure file.

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Expanding my writing spaces

I write everywhere. This habit is both a vestige of my childhood, when personal space was nonexistent, and how I navigate being neurodivergent. Sitting at a desk isn’t the most accessible option for me; I usually need to move, draw, and tinker with tactile objects for my ideas to take shape.

I often return to Chicana lesbian feminist Gloria Anzaldúa’s “Letter to Third World Women Writers” because her advice resonates with my past and present reality as a queer femme of color raised by a working mom. “Forget the room of one’s own,” she says. “Write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom. Write on the bus or the welfare line, on the job or during meals, between sleeping or waking. I write while sitting on the john. No long stretches at the typewriter unless you’re wealthy or have a patron—you may not even own a typewriter.”

Having a designated writing space isn’t a prerequisite to writing nor is it always possible, especially in the midst of a global pandemic that has radically changed people’s working conditions. My ancestors wrote away from home in places like the ones Anzaldúa names and also in hospitals, prisons, and exile. An expansive definition of writing spaces uplifts these geographies as sites of knowledge production—and political struggle.

Grounding in purpose

Lastly, I am in a constant practice of grounding in purpose, aka why I write. Anzaldúa’s guidance on listening to the words that arise from within is key. “While you wash the floor or clothes listen to the words chanting in your body,” she advises. “When you’re depressed, angry, hurt, when compassion and love possess you. When you cannot help but write.”

Some of my own reasons for writing include the necessity of articulating unspeakable pain and imagining just futures in line with how author Walidah Imarisha describes the revolutionary function of “visionary fiction.”

I also believe that writing, and cultural production more broadly, is essential to movement building. As Critical Resistance co-founder Rachel Herzing recently wrote, “Political education isn’t just education about politics. It’s education for the specific purpose of making our politics more powerful. It is front line work. It is core to advancing our struggles, not the ‘extra’ activity we take up after the struggle is over or for recreation.” A purposeful approach to the writing process aligns study with social change because it requires that we stay connected to our commitments and communities.

Remembering the why, particularly in moments of deep sorrow, can sometimes open up a pathway for the words. I have learned to cultivate greater self-compassion and intentionality through the above-mentioned strategies and allowed myself the spaciousness to let go of a fixed agenda right now.

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Tala Khanmalek is a contributing writer at Ideas on Fire as well as an assistant professor of women and gender studies at California State University, Fullerton.

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