The time we’re in can aptly be described as a crisis. There’s a very real life or death risk of unknowingly infecting someone or contracting this virus that could put someone high risk on a ventilator. We can’t see each other in person. We’re isolated in our homes, physically detached from our communities. So we meet and look at each other on screen and try to connect. We talk about what we’re feeling and how we’re coping.
How do we cope? Do we push away the unease with Netflix? Do we numb ourselves by starting drinking earlier in the day? Do we do mindfulness exercises and focus on a gratitude practice to get our minds off the the very unsettling other feelings that rise up, that flare up like flame too close to the skin?
I want to suggest that one of the best ways to care for ourselves in those feelings is not to walk away from them to but let ourselves dive in. Writing is one way to take a deep dive into the uneasy. Candyce Counseling, a grief counselor at Deep Center for Growth, notes that much online advice about coping with the daily experience of grief in this unsettled present urges us to activities “that kinda sorta help—mindfulness, exercise, staying connected, controlling what you can, gratitude practice.
Yet, she continues,
“none of these articles address the bedrock, existential emotions that generate the anxiety and/or sluggishness. They offer advice for distracting from or allowing feelings, but not understanding, expressing, and soothing the feelings. And they only address the top layer of (very important) things we’re grieving. In my personal and professional experience, if you don’t name and soothe what you’re really feeling, all the tools are simply band-aids. Don’t get me wrong, we all need band-aids when we’re bleeding. But we also need help to see the wounds clearly, so we can accurately tend to them and help them heal.”
Paradoxically, moving into, opening to, the woundedness we are experiencing and have experienced is a crucial step on a path to healing. Feeling the stress, the anxiety, the grief of this moment is part of self care. Writing about it can be a way to access it.
Maybe this capacity to access existential realities through writing is connected to Virginia Woolf’s startling claim at the onset of WWII: “I feel that by writing I am doing what is far more necessary than anything else.” (Sketch 73).
How can writing the self be a necessity in time of war—or pandemic? Writing seems to many, even to writers themselves at times, to be gratuitous, a form of escape even. Nowhere near the necessity, for instance, of working in the ICU or even just keeping a social distance from those you love for the sake of community health.
An entry from Woolf’s diaries around the same time gives some insight into how she sees the work of writing functioning in wartime:
“And for the 100th time I repeat—any idea is more real than any amount of war misery. And what one’s made for. And the only contribution one can make. This little pitter patter of ideas is my whiff and shot in the cause of freedom—so I tell myself, thus bolstering up a fragment—a phantom: recovering that sense of something pressing from outside which consolidates the mist, the non-existent (Diaries 235).
The whiff and shot of war—the act of discharging a weapon—has the effect—like illness, or like social distancing—of fragmenting, of turning people into phantoms, or into images on a screen or in memory. The work of writing has an opposing effect. Woolf asserts that, in writing, she gathers together the phantoms of the nonexistent. War, like a deadly virus, turns physical presences into phantoms, while writing gathers phantoms into lived experience. Or rather, to take a closer read of her very precise language, she becomes aware of “something pressing from the outside,” gathering together, “consolidat[ing] the mist.”
Here, the work of writing itself does not do the work of gathering. Rather, the writing brings to the surface an awareness of this gathering force. It’s the gathering force that “is more real than any amount of war misery,” more real, perhaps, than any amount of pandemic misery.
Is this “what one’s made for”? Perhaps so, if one feels a compulsion to write. Certainly Woolf is not arguing that writing is the most necessary thing for anyone to do in war. But for a writer, attending to her deepest calling is most necessary, regardless of the state of the world. Woolf writes that her sense of self as writer is related to her capacity to receive shock:
“I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words.”
The sense of shock, for a writer, leads directly to a “desire to explain it.” And the shock does not only refer to a trauma, a sense of grief violently impacting the self. The writer can be shocked by a sense of joy, by hope, by the light coming through the leaves of trees, illuminating the chlorophyll life force pulsing in the veins. The blow comes from an awareness of “some real thing behind appearances,” an awareness so sharp that she can only liken it to receiving a blow, like a sensation of desire can strike the body like a wave, can wash over the body with an undeniable physicality.
Yet, in spite of the undeniable reality of this gathering force, Woolf oddly continues: “I make it real by putting it into words.” This paradox sums up the tension of the life of the writer. A writer may sense something so strongly that they experience it as a physical blow. And yet, it has no presence in the life of the world. Perhaps in accessing it in writing she brings it into the world. Perhaps writing helps to retain that sense so that it exists beyond the immediate moment of the impact. Perhaps writing gives that gathering force a space to exist in the present and the future.
She continues this line of thought:
“It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together.”
In putting the blow into words, in gathering together the severed fragments of existence, she brings it into a whole, takes away its power over her, and gathers a power from it.
To me this means that, as writers, we don’t have to do the work of making the shocks mean something. The meaning is there. The pattern is there. The work of writing calls the pattern, the gathering force, to our awareness, accessing it, letting it form our awareness of our present.
But its not easy to access the pattern. Sometimes you can’t access it directly. You can’t start by looking at or for the meaning. A good way to start is by finding an image, a picture of a moment, and trying to accurately describe it as you experienced it. In trying to find the words to write our experience, we find the meaning, the pattern, the gathering force. The sensory details of life contain all the meaning.
Writing in this way is a way of life, a habit of being that trains us to inhabit our moments of being as we are living them. It’s a a way to bring the gathering force to awareness and to be gathered in that force.