Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Write in the Midst of Chaos

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 31•20

I was awakened early by thunder yesterday. We don’t get a lot of  thunderstorms in the Pacific Northwest  and so I stayed in bed just listening.  It’s been a nightmare week in the United States. Another black man murdered by police in Minneapolis. Righteous anger, outrage,  and protests over systemic police abuse  at some point shifted to riots, looting, fires, destruction, terror, and despair. Violent militia groups are taking advantage of the situation and wrecking havoc.

Monsters roam our streets. Troops in our streets another hellscape.

You don’t need me or newscasts  to tell you that we’re living in terrifying, uneasy, and unnerving times. As our cities burn all I can think is how I’ve lived through this before and how neighborhoods do not come back from this level of destruction. And now during a pandemic how will communities rebuild?

So many unknowns and terrors.  We’re floundering amid failed federal leadership, seemingly impossible odds, and an unnerving uncertainty. And besides our burning cities, invisible, minuscule DNA materials can slip into our cells with the power to kill us and people we love.

Uncertainty is painful and can be numbing. It creates anxiety and worry during the best of times. But these days it means we don’t know what the future will bring and if we can survive it. If our battered republic can hold.

We’re already grieving more than 100,000 deaths of our fellow US citizens. And now another black man choked to death after centuries of racism, injustice, and abuse of power.

All the grief these deaths have caused is unimaginable.

All the rage is justified.

Here’s my small suggestion: No matter your  situation or coping methods, take notes about your day-to-day experiences, coping methods, interactions or lack of interactions, and deeply felt emotional and physical reactions to the multiple crises we’re all living through. While the future is unknowable, what’s happening within you is discernible.  Do you feel trapped, paralyzed, stumbly? Are you leaving home and experiencing new freedoms as your state eases its restrictions?  Are you living in a city where you’re terrified as dark falls?

Julio Cortez, Associated Press

Julio Cortez, Associated Press

Do you have small kids at home so you have little time to tend to your own fears because you’re cooking, cleaning, and keeping cooped-up kids engaged?  Do you have no answers to your children’s questions about the lawlessness in our streets?

Then dial into the nitty-gritty of this shared nightmare and  your inner world and write it down.

Do not censor your thoughts or worries. This is the time to leave nothing unsaid. Write raw and scared and hopeful and worried and out of your depth.  Write about the powerful ache of loneliness and your fears of violence.  Write when you’re paranoid and lost and you need a vacation from your family or long to leave this battered country.

What does it feel like when your world looks like a battlefront, when rumors are ricocheting around you,  when even grocery shopping feels scary, when you feel choked by wearing a mask?

Are you noticing/feeling solidarity and hope amid the strangeness? Are you optimistic that there might finally be social justice and equality?

If you’ve read my words here or in my columns or books you know I preach the gospel of writers’ notebooks. Recording with your hand observations, inspirations, memories, and data. Writing by hand is good for the brain and your mood. Here’s more information on the topic.

Why write in the midst of chaos?

So you are never desensitized to horror.

Because story telling and truth telling needs to stir our  readers’ most primal emotions. Because the majority of people on this far-flung planet also experience your most primitive, unnerving emotions.

Because fiction and nonfiction often need an unsettling atmosphere to create needed tension.

Because you need to learn how write dread. misery, pain, fear, and grief effectively.

Because paying attention will help translate disgust, body language, and churning emotions onto the page.

Because even in the midst of savage truths stories teach us how to cope and hope.

With deepest sympathy for the family and friends of George Lloyd.

Keep writing, Keep paying attention, Keep safe.

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  1. Dan Newland says:

    I so share your thoughts and sentiments. And like you, I’ve lived through all of this before, and naïvely thought that, after the ’60s, after the Kennedys, after a reformed Lyndon Johnson, after the love and compassion of Martin Luther King, after it all rose to the surface, burst open like a boil and drained the awful puss inside, things would be better. We would foster a better world for our children and grandchildren, a world where all races would tolerate each other, then love each other, then cohabit with each other and become brothers and sisters in peace and equality. I was young. I was stupid. I was far too innocent. At 70, I grow more and more convinced that nothing ever seems to change. People just seem to grow more hateful and divided all the time and the leaders they choose proved the depth of their ignorance, their hatred and their indifference toward true democracy and humanity.

    • Jessica Morrell says:

      Like you, lived through these tumultuous times. I’m clinging to hope. Everything I see shows younger generations as more tolerant and accepting of all differences.

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