What role can creative writing play during a pandemic lockdown, and how can it be a tool to better cope in the post-pandemic era? This is perhaps a question of using language to bring form to matter, to make order from chaos, and to find little paths in a dark forest. It is also a question of how the creative mind interacts with threat, and what arises when we allow the creative imagination to be the primary responder. In this article, I query the activity of creative writing during this time as well as consider how to do it.
Creative writing: Making a fold
During these days of global pandemic, the attempt to respond with creative writing has been mixed. For some writers I know, the seeming unprecedented amount of free time looked like the ideal opportunity to tackle long-awaited novels or screenplays. For others, the therapeutic space of crafting words together offered relief and respite. But for many, no matter the self-talk about taking advantage of this time for new work, creative writing has been difficult. So, how can creative writing play a role for us during this time?
I begin answering this question with someone else’s words, a title of a poem: “The Orphan Beauty of Fold Not Made Blindfold,” by Jane Hirshfield (1). Hirshfield, a long-time beloved poet with award-winning collections, released her most recent collection Ledger (1) in March 2020. What a time to release poetry into the world: it was like a package from a pre-COVID-19 land, sent to us during the month when the waves of our first pandemic in a century were hitting, or were beginning to hit, very hard.
The title of the poem gives the image of the fold that is not made into a blindfold.
Let’s explore this. To make a fold is to bring some kind of order. Like with a wool blanket or cotton gauze, you need to straighten edges and bring sides together. At first inspection, this metaphor is a good fit for creative writing. For example, ordering a messy bulk is what narrative forms can do, an interpretation for ordering events that helps us create patterns of meaning. The nineteenth-century author Fanny Fern offers a beautiful wish in the preface of her book Ruth Hall (2) that speaks to the way narrative can be a companion for humans: “Still, I cherish the hope that, somewhere in the length and breadth of the land, [my book] may fan into a flame, in some tried heart, the fading embers of hope, well-nigh extinguished by wintry fortune and summer friends” (2). The meaning we find in creative writing supplies vitally human things for us: entertainment, escape, help, insight, courage, and outlets for fantasy, anger, and sorrow.
This is also what poetic forms can do too, piecing words together, making shorelines on the blank page for us to dock our minds upon in order to think, feel, figure, configure. In thinking about the “hiddenness” of poetry, Jane Hirshfield writes of it as a “sheltering enclosure” (3); this shelter provides a spot of humane warmth in what can be a very inhumane world. This is one of the great gifts of creative writing, patterning things into something just legible enough for another to receive.
The moment we can pick up a pen or type in some words, we start to bring intangible amorphous-ness into tangible somethings that we can wrestle with, cry over, speak into. This is a major, unique feat that words offer us, and writing creatively – wily poems, dark eulogies, fantastical exploits – gives us the reigns to hold onto a fast horse, or find footholds in a rock face, or make little trails through shadowy woods. As the writer Annie Dillard writes in her book The Writing Life, “The sensation of writing . . . is the sensation of rearing and peering from the bent tip of a grassblade, looking for a route” (4). This route-finding power is what the third stanza of this poem “The Orphan Beauty of Fold Not Made Blindfold” perhaps speaks to, where Hirshfield quotes the words of the cante jondo, the “deep song” of Andalusia folk music:
‘I sing not for the music,
I sing to keep the bitterness from the sorrow,’
hum the words of a cante jondo, far from their home. (lines 4-6)
“To keep the bitterness from the sorrow” – this is certainly what the fold of creative writing can help us with. Words are like a net, arranged ever so carefully and creatively to catch the fish of sorrow but let the grit of bitterness keep going. Words are like tiny pouches strong enough to hold the salt water of tears but porous enough so that the water doesn’t become stagnant and putrid. And this seems like such important work during our pandemic. Creative writing gives us the chance to articulate, process, order, reflect. It allows sorrow to rise and flow, which perhaps may keep it from hardening into bitterness.
But where does the material that gets folded come from?
The question must arise though, where does this material come from? And here is when we consider the generative work of creative writing. This is the process when a human takes the cloudy, zinging synapses in the brain and spins the thread that will later be woven into fabric, hemmed, and folded. This is the generative space of the blank page, and at the best of times, this generative work brings us to uncanny brinks and deep-felt sorrows. It requires bravery and commitment – and a weird kind of letting go. For creative writers enter the blank space of the page, not to conquer it, but to fall down into it, to see what might happen.
And during a pandemic? No wonder many of us writers haven’t been writing. We’ve been falling down into reality these past few months; we hardly need to step out into this blankness with its disappearing horizon line. Stepping out like this may well bring a writer into an amazing creative space, but between reading the news and managing lockdown, this is no beguiling invitation.
But let’s say that a writer did accept the invitation. Among other things, creative writing is the mind’s ability to allow the imagination to operate. Though certainly intermingled and meshed, for now let us tease out the emotional (like anger and sadness), the cognitive (figuring out and researching), and even the somatic (fatigue or hunger) from the imaginative. The imaginative capacity functions differently than these other capacities: it comes to the edges of what we know and feel and goes deeper and further. Imagination is the deeper waters in us, where strange aquatic creatures swim, the edge of the mind where wild animals stalk in the thicket, the cliff face where the atmosphere is thinnest – the place that generates what was not imagined before into what can be imagined now. Things generated here can be items (a fiery sword that speaks), or characters (a mouse that rhymes), or contexts and settings and ecologies (a dystopia with limited gravity and no death). The imagination responds with a kind of blue alchemy, turning the staid into processual, the flat into round, the monstrous into monsters. The scholar Hanna Meretoja writes in her book The Ethics of Storytelling (5): “Through the exploration of human possibilities, narrative fiction opens up new perspectives on history, the everyday, and the yet-to-be. We engage with fictional narratives as whole, embodied human beings with our own desires and anxieties, values and beliefs, memories and fantasies. What is at stake is not just an escape to the realm of the unreal but an exploration of the possible” (5). So, what if we allowed the imagination to respond to what is happening?
Fold not blindfold
I think at first it would be very scary, because what the blue alchemy does with the sorrow of death, as many of us have never known it, may well be terrifying. The human possibilities of grief could arise like an awning mouth, jaws dislodged for opening so wide. Would we not then be tempted to lift that folded material to our eyes and let it serve, indeed, as a blindfold? Would we not be tempted to use it as a way to “abandon ship,” or make it the sand to stick our heads in?
Here also is where Hirshfield’s poem again guides us. Hirshfield’s title gives the image of a fold that is not a blindfold: it is a created thing that does not help us retract from reality. Furthermore, Hirshfield ascribes to this thing an “orphan beauty,” a kind of beauty that arrives to us from lineages we do not know and have not controlled, that questions our patterns of well-hewn, familiar meaning. Indeed, the first line of the poem pushes into this uncertainty: “A house seems solid, and yet, in the living, any footstep shakes it” (line 1). Solid things, we have learned more than ever, are shakeable. And it is this space that creative writing can offer, the space to let the shaking happen. As we are trying to make sense of the pandemic, as we are trying to adapt and learn and continue, creative writing offers us a way to face the pandemic and the great shaking it has brought. I am reminded of J.R.R Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-Stories (6). In response to the criticism that fantasy stories are just for escape from what’s going on around us in real time, Tolkien distinguishes between escape and desertion (6). We enter into the land of creating not to abandon what’s going on around us, but to become all the more equipped to open to it.
I don’t know if it is too much to say that the imagination is where fear gets worked out, the way the liver works out toxins. But I do think we can trust the imagination to be more “face-toward” than perhaps we ourselves can be without it. By “face-toward,” I mean the capacity to not look away (not blindfold): to see what is horrifying, and what is good, and what is brief, and what is excruciatingly precious. The imagination, unconcerned with defense and control, has the capacity to articulate what might be hard to cognate. As these lines from Shakespeare’s King Lear (7) posit, there is a special register for human language during hardship, if we can find it: “The weight of this sad time we must obey, / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” (7). Commenting on this ability to “[s]peak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” the writer Frederick Buechner says “we may possibly learn something about how to bear the weight of our own sadness” (8). Our imagination is well able to take and make, to take into and to make unto.
So as we make our folds, let us at least be aware of the temptation to turn these folds into blindfolds, the temptation to use the capacity of order to order away. For if we are not careful, the very special thing that creative writing offers might be missed, and that is: letting the horse take us into the desert, letting ourselves jump from the rock face, and seeing what happens if we step off the path into the dark woods. In real life, we might well die of thirst, break limbs from falling, or find ourselves lost without recourse. But this, of course, is the imagination, and the imagination thrives on threat. The imagination, perhaps more than other capacities, can face this current time of the pandemic – the fear, the unknown, the heartache. For the imagination eats poisonous berries just to see what will happen, pits heroes against villains, paints good people into bad corners, asks the hardest, most bitter questions – and thrives.
Here is where Hirshfield’s poem circles to in the fourth stanza:
A thought comes to your bed in the night.
You accept, take it blindly, by darkness . . . (lines 7-8)
Creative writing affords this kind of radical zone, where we process via generating, usually in darkness and not fully comprehending. If we can enter into this affordance, the folds we are making will ask back to us difficult questions, but the whole point is that we don’t answer them as much as shoulder our way through – blundering, as Hirshfield calls it, in the last line, “Blundering and blundering toward it” (line 14). It is this “blundering” where creative writing comes into its own: the blank white page is both a framed and open surface for telling, testing, playing, pulling, pushing, wrestling, wondering, and weeping. The philosopher Richard Kearney asks a question in his book The Wake of the Imagination (9) that could very well apply to this current time of disorientation: “Disinherited of our certainties, deprived of any fixed point of view, are we not being challenged […] to open ourselves to other ways of imagining?” (9). Finding “other ways of imagining” could be a promissory note of creative writing, or at least the chance to try for it, a way to assuage pain with new words, to reach out across our distanced spaces with sly characters and upside-down plots, to send out carrier pigeons, as it were, with verbal maps to speculative lands where lonely hearts find home.
Fold as manifold?
And so, how do we go about creative writing? If creative writing has a role in lockdown, if it is to be a tool in the post-pandemic era, it is probably best done with others. I have been writing, rather relentlessly, during this time of lockdown, but there is absolutely no way I could imagine carrying out this task without the presence of others. As imaged above, to my mind, the blank page – if we let ourselves fall into it – is a great awning mouth that would swallow one whole, unless there is someone on the other side. With someone on the other side, the blank page can become a tunnel, a ride, even an arrival. Practically, this means finding a reader, a writing partner, setting up reading exchanges or virtual writing groups. Someone real on the other end to hand our folds to: this is vital.
Here is where I take the small liberty in offering an idea inspired by Hirshfield’s title: what happens to a fold that becomes manifold? I think we find not only company, life-giving in itself, but a distinct generative energy, networked and polytonal, for going forward. Kearney puts it well: “In telling its story to the other the imaginative self comes to recognize more clearly its unlimited responsibility to others” (9).
A recently launched online project entitled No Place Like the Future commissioned collaborative work between Austrian and American artists. Their brief is as described: “Art excels in times of crisis. Deep societal changes propel the greatest generational minds to envision a utopia, a ‘no-place’ beyond the realities they are facing. Artists in their capacity as futurists are now needed more than ever. But they need us too […] They need to be connected to other human beings, to their fellow artists, and to the world as a whole in order to be themselves” (9). This innovative project understands both how creative work and the imagination are not only crucial, but apt, for dire times – and how necessary it is to do it alongside others.
For another example, here in Ireland, a virtual poetry reading and open mic began as a response to the lockdown, called Now Is Not the Time to Be Silent. Every Thursday evening, friends and strangers met to hear each other’s words and see each other’s faces. It was a space where incredible words of beauty and heartache were shared. As I know with my own writers group, many of us only write because we know that the last week of every month, a group of fellow humans are going to be there listening, as we are going to be listening to them. Furthermore, as manifold – with the potentially transformative processes of sharing, reading, feedback, and listening – creative writing can become a kind of multi-voiced register of meta-thanks: thankfulness to be writing, to be reading, to be sharing words; thankfulness to be alive in order to write, read and share; and even, thankfulness to be alive now, during a pandemic, writing, reading and sharing.
Our imaginations – the part of us porous to the yet unknown – are uniquely fitted to the task of responding to global distress and uncertainty in strange and brave ways. Creative writing can thus be understood as that work which weaves the raw and gleaming secretions of the imagination into fabric – which, folded carefully with crafted words and steadfast plots, has the power to provide needed experiences of meaning. But, this provision works because it is a fold that refuses to become blindfold: one of creative writing’s gifts is its ability to face, to see, to look and not look away. As such, creative writing means both homing solace and sojourners’ courage, both of which are certainly needed at this time.
- Hirshfield, J., Bloodaxe Books, 2020.
- Fern, F. “Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time“, Penguin, 1997.
- Hirshfield, J., “Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry”, Bloodaxe Books, 2020.
- Dillard, A. “The Writing Life“, HarperPerennial, 1989.
- Meretoja, H., “The Ethics of Storytelling: Narrative Hermeneutics, History, and the Possible“, Oxford UP, 2018.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. “Tree and Leaf“, HarperCollins, 2001.
- Shakespeare, W., “King Lear”, edited by R.A. Foakes, “The Arden Shakespeare”, 1997.
- Buechner, F., “Speak What We Feel“, HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
- Kearney, R., “The Wake of Imagination“, Routledge, 1988.