Covid-19 Diary: Open Your Notebook, Pick Up Your Pen

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

Those wise words were spoken, or more likely written, by the great Southern author Flannery O’Connor. It’s one of my favorite quotes because I know it to be true. Another great Southern writer, my dear friend and fellow Herald-Citizen columnist Susan Ray, wrote a column a couple of weeks ago about the importance of recording your experiences and emotions on paper, especially during these frightening times.

What I hope to do in this column is encourage you to try something a little unconventional when you sit down to write.

When I feel stuck or confused or frustrated with my writing, I walk away from my computer and pick up a pen and a notebook. Then I freewrite. What, you might ask, is freewriting? It’s an exercise that requires that you write, without stopping or censoring or self-editing, for a set amount of time. Fifteen minutes is a good goal, though ten will do if that’s all the time you have. Or, instead of a timed exercise, set a page goal. Write until you’ve filled up three pages. Or two, if that’s all the time you have.

Use a pen you really like. It should feel good in your hand and good as it moves across the paper. A pencil’s okay, too. In terms of paper, write on a steno pad. Or in a spiral notebook. A composition book with a marbled cardboard cover. A leather-bound journal. It doesn’t really matter. Again, use what you like.

Now for the writing itself. You can start with a one word prompt (SANITIZE, CLOSED, ZOOM, EMPTY, ISOLATE, ESSENTIAL, for example). Or a question. Should students get credit for a school year where they missed three months? Why do people hoard toilet paper? Is it easier or harder to work from home? How often do humans really need to bathe? What’s the first thing I want to do when life returns to “normal”? Or you can write about something that just happened or random thoughts you had or a vivid dream.

Start writing. Don’t worry about spelling. Don’t worry about punctuation or grammar or sentence structure or handwriting. If one train of thought morphs into another, that’s okay. Go with it. The only way to do this wrong is to not do it. Keep going. Power through. Write and write and write until you’ve met your quota.

To show how this works, here’s a small portion of some freewriting I recently did:

Oh no the powers out just as Im sitting down to start my column so I guess Ill go for a walk and shower as soon as I get home so Ill still have hot water but what if it doesn’t come back on and all that food I bought at sams last week during senior shopping spoils and then Ill have to eat peanut butter and beef jerky and drink coffee with no cream but Im so lucky to even have those things and how cold is it supposed to get tonight I wont have heat and just think the other day I was wondering how long I could go without turning on the a/c and my cell phones only half charged and I could crank the car and charge it that way but would the garage fill up with carbon monoxide because I cant open the door without electricity

That’s a big ole mess, isn’t it?  But it can be fixed. I can clean it up and print it off and sign and date it for my heirs. Or I can light a match to it and toss it in the burn barrel. But writing it helped me know what I think. That’s what matters.

(April 19, 2020)