A friend sent me the title of a new book this past week: Write It Down: Coronavirus Writing Prompts.” Written by Mary Ladd, a San Francisco writer, it’s a compilation of activities meant to help writers, amateur and professional, during the weeks of social isolation that has been the product of the Corona Virus pandemic. Ladd is no stranger to understanding the benefits of writing during tough times. Diagnosed in 2013, with breast cancer, she wrote about her experience on a blog, and since, has contributed to two other books of writing prompts and starts for those who need a little inspiration to write.
Ever on the lookout for new ideas and inspiration for my writing groups, I did a quick search on writing during the Covid pandemic, finding dozens of prompts, and articles on COVID-19 writing in newspapers, magazines and on radio shows. Not surprisingly, they all echo a common theme: writing helps us navigate difficult times, something articulated for many years by writers and researchers alike, particularly since the ground-breaking research of James Pennebaker, PhD, first gaining recognition in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, has been replicated dozens of times across many difficult populations and in many different situations. The bottom line? Writing about difficult situations and emotions can not only relieve stress and anxiety, but also has many health benefits. Pennebaker’s research, coupled with my love of writing and personal experience of an early stage cancer diagnosis in 2000, was the impetus for me to initiate my very first writing group nearly 20 years ago. I’ve never looked back. Since then, expressive writing groups and therapeutic journaling methods have multiplied dramatically. It’s no surprise then to see another “explosion” in the popularity of journaling or diary-keeping in this time of a world pandemic.
Yet, keeping a diary or journal can have much more impact than being therapeutic. As Amelia Nierenberg reminds us in a recent article appearing in the New York Times, we’re reminded that “the history of our present moment is taking shape in journal entries and drawings.” (“The Quarantine Diaries,” New York Times, March 30, 2020.)
As the coronavirus continues to spread and confine people largely to their homes, many are filling pages with their experiences of living through a pandemic. Their diaries are told in words and pictures: pantry inventories, window views, questions about the future, concerns about the present. Taken together, the pages tell the story of an anxious, claustrophobic world on pause.
“The time we’re living through will one day become history,” Morgan Ome writes in a recent issue of The Atlantic. And it’s compelled many people to begin writing to capture their quarantine experiences for posterity. One researcher at Cornell University in New York gave her students a journaling assignment as stay-at-home orders became widespread and Cornell University closed. “This is a pivotal moment in history, Janis Whitlock said. “We’re in it right now. We have an opportunity to chronicle it.” She expanded her virtual classroom assignment into a global project, “Telling Our Stories in the Age of COVID-10,” which she launched in March, and together with her team, have received responses to email journal prompts from over 500 people around the globe. Whitlock is planning to compile these into a “snapshot” of pandemic life from around the world. But she’s not the only one gathering physical and digital journal entries written during the pandemic. Universities, historical societies, and local publications are also capturing these personal accounts, acknowledging them as a rich source for historical records and offering insight into the minds and experiences of ordinary people like you and me (The Atlantic, August 6, 2020)
CBC Radio, in a recent broadcast of “The Current,” also reported on the growing efforts of historians around the world who are requesting diary entries, photos, videos and more from those cooped up during the pandemic. Catherine O’Donnell, a co-founder of A Journal of the Plague Year: A COVID-19 Archive, underlines the importance of gathering experiences of the pandemic, no matter how unimportant or mundane they might seem. In a time defined by isolation and fear, she says, these memories help people feel connected—and the offer a reprieve from the stress and anxiety that comes with living in a period of uncertainty (‘We want it all’: Keeping a COVID-19 diary? April 23, 2020 broadcast).
Our stories matter. Not only is writing beneficial for us but so is finding a way to capture and preserve our experiences and memories, whether of cancer or other serious illness, of love, life, sorrows, people, places… Writers have always known this. I remember Joan Didion’s words about why she writes: “To remember what it was to be me…” And to remember the times, and experiences that defined our lives. “Death steals everything but our stories,” Jim Harrison wrote in his poem, Larson’s Holstein Bull. Our knowledge of history is grounded in the stories and experiences of those who lived before us—and that includes our personal history. Again and again, I find I wish that I had documented the oral stories of my father, his childhood and my homesteading grandparents—only fragments remain—or that I’d asked more questions of my more secretive mother, whose childhood remains, in large part, unknown, and yet, with the hint of shadows. No one else can tell our stories, as Dorothy Allison famously wrote in her memoir, Two or Thing Things I Know for Sure: “I am the only one who can tell my story and say what it means.”
Writing, whether about the experience of cancer or COVID, can help us not only document, but help improve our emotional well-being, even aspects of our physical health. The task is to write honestly, translating your feelings into words and writing as descriptively as you can, making connections between what you feel and what you’ve experienced. You can add to your writing with art, photographs, sketches, cartoons—all ways to express and understand your experience. I don’t keep every journal or notebook that I use for my daily writing practice, but I do re-read them and, often, I clip out sections that seem more important or meaningful to me than other pages. In this protracted period of “sheltered-in-place,” my notebooks contain boredom, anxiety, worry, irritability and not infrequently, humor. Sometimes I work on a story idea; sometimes I write poetry. Sometimes I fill the pages with old memories. Sometimes I complain. It hardly matters. What matters is simply that I write—COVID or not. Maybe that’s why you write too.
- Write about living with cancer—and being treated in the midst of the COVID lockdowns. Did the pandemic increase your anxiety or fear?
- Has writing helped you deal with the uncertainty of living in a time of a world pandemic? How?
- Prompts for writing about life during COVID? A sample of Suggestions for writing from: familysearch.org/blog
- Did you learn anything about yourself from this experience?
- What is one aspect of your life that was harder during the pandemic?
- What is one aspect of your life that was easier during the pandemic?
- How has this experience changed you or those around you?
- In what ways, if at all, do you think the world will be changed because of COVID-19?
- And here’s a link to the New York Times with twelve ideas for writing—and more—during COVID.l You might find a little inspiration from one of them.