How to keep writing through a very hard time

I’m in the thick of a Major Life Event. I’m not going to say too much about it because I don’t know yet how much I want to share and, anyway, that event is not the point of this piece. I’ll just tell you that a) it’s medical, b) I’ll be fine, and c) right now it’s hard.

Major Life Events compel us to record their details; to bear witness to our own experience, whether or not we ever plan to share that record publicly. Maybe one day we’ll want to tell someone else what it was like for us, or maybe we just want to be able to look back later after the sharp edges of memory have blunted and say, holy shit, I went through that.

Big, hard experiences can yield some of our greatest spiritual and emotional growth, and the learning often happens in hindsight. They can also provide fertile ground for creativity. Many of the best poems, books, paintings, and pieces of music are the product of difficult times. And writing can be a profoundly useful tool for healing and integration. But “working on a piece” is often the last thing we want to do when we’re in the rock tumbler of life. Here are some helpful tips I’m offering myself to keep at it while going through it.

  • Short notes and bullet points are your friend.
  • Don’t worry about producing anything polished, just capture the essence of the experience. You can connect the dots and pull out insights later.
  • Try writing a poem instead of a narrative. You don’t have to tell the whole damn story to paint a vivid picture.
  • Write little and often, like a grazing diet. If it’s hard to find long stretches of uninterrupted time, write casually in short bursts. (This list was composed in a journal, while lying down with one eye open.)
  • Zoom out. This new landmark on the horizon changes the composition of the big picture. What is its place in the grand tableau of your life? How will you look back on it ten years from now? How will it alter your future trajectory, or your interpretation of the past? Meaning is made in the context around the facts. Zooming out can help you to find a toehold on the rock face of the Big Experience, to make your way across it safely and, yes, to write about it in a more impactful way.
  • Write honestly. Listen, love. When you’re deep in the shit it’s hard – and inauthentic – to keep things bright and breezy on the page, so maybe don’t try.
  • But be boundaried. You don’t have to share all the details – now or ever. You can write about feelings and leave out the facts, if you want to keep them private. Or you can pour your guts out onto the page and lock that piece away in a drawer. Some writing is just for you to map out your own heart and mind.
  • Be gentle and compassionate toward yourself. You might actually not even feel like writing. You might feel more like weeping, or watching the Great British Baking Show. You don’t need my – or anyone’s – permission to soothe and nurture yourself in the way that feels best. But in case it’s helpful, here it is: It’s ok to be unproductive right now. Please don’t turn writing into one more source of stress. This Major Life Event is happening for your growth and healing, and you get to define it and decide how you want to move through it and what you want to make of it.

Here’s something I made of mine.

For Granted

There’s space for this, all of it.

There’s space for special requests, and opt-outs, and unreciprocated gifts and favors.

To have things done for me that I could do for myself, but shouldn’t.

To not pull my weight.

To not do my bit.

To take much more than I am giving, for now.

To need, need, need. Lunch on a tray. A box of tissues. Medication reminders. A glass of water. Help with the drains. A steady arm. A blanket. A fan. Yet another thing.

Three times a day, we measure pink fluid into a vial and log it and dump it. Three times a day I take a nerve blocker. Twice a day, an antibiotic. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen as needed. Norco for breakthrough pain. And you note the times and doses in our Google sheet.

Twice a day I break down in fits. What have I let them do to my body? Will I ever feel ok again? My tears and words come hard and fast and you catch them in your soft gaze and outreached hands. You hold it all without straining or breaking, and this empties me.

The easy feeling of sinking back into my pillow, knowing you are listening for my sighs and groans, knowing I am not too much, and that it’s ok for me to need you as much as I do right now.

I eat too much vegan ice cream and let myself off the hook. You smoke weed and I don’t judge. We both get our period out of the blue, despite both having been done with all that business for some time.

You’re the only person I could imagine having with me through this. You’ve always been there for me. I’ll always be there for you. Thank god we turned out pretty happy. Remember when we weren’t?

Thank god for therapy. Thank god we both healed.

We tell each other again and again and again: I love you so much. I love you so much. I love you so much.

We laugh – maybe too much, too hard, at times – at our old dramas and schemes. Crazy stuff mom said. Classic inside jokes that still crack us up after thirty-odd years.

The times you moved in with me when shit was going down in your life.

The decent ex-boyfriends you weren’t ready for.

The shitty ex-husbands we were both right to leave.

The weight we gained and lost.

The harebrained ideas we chased around the world.

The family secrets, and the conflicted love we feel for our parents anyway.

The heaviness we still carry, and the ways we are finding to put it down.

We plan our meals: smoothies for breakfast, a salad for lunch. You invite my input on the dressing, which is just as well since you know I can’t help sticking my nose in. You don’t mind me hovering in the kitchen, and also don’t mind me flaking out on the couch. We both like the idea of a tofu buddha bowl for dinner, which we eat while watching a doc about psychedelics. I’d definitely do ayahuasca with you, we both agree. We share a blanket and there’s enough for both of us.

You stroke my hair and it feels like home. We look more alike as we age. We would do anything for each other. In fact we have, and we will again.

You’re so excited about your wedding, as you should be. Of course I’ll be there, no matter what. Look at you, my little sis. You landed on your feet, finally, and made a good and healthy life and love with a good man. I’m so proud of you. I’m so happy to be so happy for you. I’m so grateful for you.

And all of this is easy and no one’s keeping score.


This piece first appeared in September 2022 on The Underwire, my Substack publication. You can get all my content by email as soon as it’s published by subscribing to The Underwire here!