How To Write-Or Just Get Through The Day-Under "Constant Anxiety"

May 1, 2020

By some accounts, Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was physical distancing during the plague. But that puts a lot of pressure on anyone trying to do creative work while life is in limbo. So how are Wyoming writers coping with quarantine in 2020? And what can we learn from them about creativity in times of stress?

Ironically, I'm having trouble focusing on writing this story. My anxiety about the pandemic makes it seems like there are a million other things to do: surf the internet, clean my kitchen. Go for a walk. Wallow in existential dread about the state of the world. But I have a deadline.

I called up Craig Johnson, author of the Longmire series, and asked him what his days looked like before the pandemic. He laughs. "Absolutely the way it looks now that we're in the pandemic," he said. "I'm slowly but surely coming to the conclusion that I've been living in quarantine for the last fifteen years of my writing career."

Johnson lives on a ranch near Buffalo. Every day, he wakes up early and feeds the horses. This time of year he's got irrigation projects to tend. Once all that's done, he comes back in and reads emails and social media. "And then generally what I do is go up the steps into my loft and start writing."

Somewhere between noon and 2, he comes downstairs to share lunch with his wife. Then, back to writing all afternoon. He said to cope right now he's reading a lot of humorous crime novels. And his newest humorous crime novel, a Longmire book called The Next Last Stand, comes out in September. Johnson doesn't know yet whether the tour will be impacted, but he seems to take it all in stride. I'm not surprised, because Johnson calls his approach a "blue collar ethic of writing." For him, the creative practice is about just putting in the time every day.

"It provides a focus, I think," he said. "Not only to your life but to your very existence."

I get that. The novel I'm writing has brought me a lot of solace lately too, a kind of focus that allows me to go someplace else in my head, away from what's going on here in this world. But getting to that focus can be tough sometimes. Jessica Brauer, a freelancer in Laramie, felt the same way.

"It's hard to feel creatively inspired and also work with the constant anxieties," Brauer said. "You know, I love reading, but I'm having a hard time reading. And I love writing, but I'm having a really hard time writing sometimes. So, when maybe before [the pandemic] I could write something that was more focused and polished, right now I feel almost like I'm that heartbroken teenager just trying to process what the heck is going on in my own head from day to day."

Credit Alyson Hagy

Brauer is solving that problem by sidestepping it. Instead of forcing herself to write, she's pouring her anxieties into a project that makes a space for other people to write. When many of us feel unanchored from our town, from our place, experiencing the world from our living rooms, she's trying to make place digitally. She teamed up with the Laramie Public Art Coalition to create Dear Laramie.

"The Dear Laramie project is a community call for written work under the prompt that you're writing to something outside of your home, from your home," Brauer said.

So maybe from your window you can see a tree, and you write a poem to it. Right now, she's posting submissions on the Dear Laramie Instagram page, and eventually there will be a digital publication.

Writer Alyson Hagy said, similarly, she's managing her own pandemic anxiety by trying to help other writers. She's a professor at the University of Wyoming.

"Many of my students have found it difficult to write," Hagy said. But she herself hasn't tested what it's like to write during the pandemic.

"This time of year I'm always reading a lot because we have graduate students and undergraduate students bringing a lot of work in. So I'm doing a lot of reading of student work. But I always have some of my own reading going," Hagy said.

Right now, she's turning to poetry. And the comfort of books she's already read. The Wind in the Willows, for example.

"It felt so good to be on that river, to be leaving Mole's underground home and going out and being excited about living on the river with Rat, "Hagy said. "Yes. It was like having sixteen servings of chicken and dumplings in a row."

So, for those of us who are trying our best to focus on our work and our creative practices right now, or just trying to get through the day, maybe the lessons we can take from the writers in our state are to have a solid routine, like Craig Johnson. To pour yourself into helping other people with the very thing you need help with, like Jessica Brauer. And, when all else fails, to read The Wind in the Willows.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Erin Jones at ejones29@uwyo.edu.