How to Write Fiction When the Planet Is Falling Apart

I’m writing this because I recently signed up for the New York Times in an effort to… I don’t actually know. I think I just wanted to read an article and ran into a paywall, but I did have this brief moment of Maybe I Should Be the Type of Person Who Reads the New York Times. But that felt too much like being the kind of person who thought I was only allowed to read Hemingway and never fic as a newly-formed adult, so nevermind that.

But in my brief foray into the NYT, I did stumble across an article called “How to Write Fiction When the Planet is Falling Apart.” I clicked it making a face like that one Twitter emoji with the pleading eyes because yes, the world is falling apart! Yes, I want to know how to write fiction in the face of all the ways that feels terrible.

The article was nice, but it was… not that. It was an interesting biography about an author, and it reminded me of a lot of ways the world is falling apart that I had forgotten (climate change! we’re still all going to die!) but it did not tell me how to write fiction anyway.

So in the spirit of fanfiction: fuck it, I’m going to do it myself.

1. Don’t ask the bad question.

You know what the bad question is. We all know. The bad question is “Does it matter?” and that way lies paralysis and creative death. Does fiction writing matter in the grand scheme of things? I have no fucking clue. I think you could make a compelling argument for either side, yes and no.

I want to believe that writing fiction matters, but I’m not sure that it does. I do know that if I dig myself down into the trenches of does it matter, I’ll end up lying on the couch for three hours contemplating the futility of life. The dishes will pile up, the mail will go unopened, and the fic still won’t be done.

Let other people worry about whether or not your writing matters. If you feel a bone-deep compulsion to worry about it, worry once the story is finished.

Does it matter? I don’t know. Write anyway. Write because fish swim, birds fly, and writers write. Write because it’s all you know how to do—all you want to do. Write because the world will still be on fire if you don’t. Your fic might not save the world, but it certainly won’t make things any worse. Maybe it will even make you and some other people happy.

2. Limit how much of the badness you ingest.

Welcome to the age of the internet where constant connectivity is pretty much a given. I don’t think I know anyone without a smartphone at this point. You probably don’t either. Fandom thrives in this era (limitless knowledge! the ability to google specific streets in the south of France for that fic you’re writing! internet friends in your pocket!)

Unfortunately, so does anxiety.

It’s almost impossible to go a day without being inundated with bad news. Thanks to this global, constant connectivity, you can wake up and find out all about how the U.S. is still fucking up, how Australia is still on fire, and how a sacred site just got blown up to make way for a racist fucking wall before you even get out of bed. Good morning to us.

Social media sites thrive on outrage. It’s in companies’ best interests to put upsetting things directly into your face. Outrage = engagement = ad revenue. I’m not going to say it’s bad to stay informed, but I will say that ingesting too much bad news will give you emotional indigestion.

If you take one thing away from this essay, I hope it’s this: Your suffering is not a virtue. It is not a cosmic force of good in the world. Looking at bad news until you get a stomachache helps no one, and it will keep you from writing.

I’m not going to tell you not to look at all, but get to know your own personal threshold. Feelings of helplessness are normal in the face of such an unending tidal wave of tragedy, but try to avoid living in that helpless place if you can.

Figure out what level of engagement with the news makes you feel angry, depressed, fragile, unstable and avoid stepping up to that line. Take whatever steps you need to. I mute words liberally, and I unfollow people who I otherwise like, if they spend a lot of time engaging with content that I find upsetting. This isn’t a value judgment on them or the content they enjoy. It’s a way to protect myself.

Get comfortable with the block and mute features of social media sites. Try to get out of the mindset that unfollowing, muting, or blocking a person is a form of punishment. Blocking a person doesn’t mean that they’re bad; it doesn’t mean their views or interests are wrong. It just means that their interests might not be healthy for you to ingest right now, and that’s okay.

Curate your social media experience in a way that feels safe and comfortable to you.

3. Write what matters to you.

A funny thing happens when you decide to make Art With a Purpose—suddenly you start hitting all the wrong notes. It comes out maudlin or preachy. There’s a certain wooden quality to the thing.

Art can have a purpose and a message, but it usually happens organically. Accidentally. Meaning tends to find you. It creeps up when you’re not paying attention, in flashes of color and light at the corner of your eye.

If you write from the heart, if you tell the story that lurks in the deepest reaches of your soul, if you chase the little tendrils of interest that crop up and follow them to their natural conclusion—you’ll probably find that your writing surprises you. You might find that you’ve accidentally written about the feeling of poking at your gender identity and puzzling out what it means, or what it feels like to be afraid and alone as a small thing in a big world.

Let it happen. Chase down your interests, all your interests, every interest. Grab at joy and cram it in your mouth, as much of it as you can hold. Let your own words prick you with pain, follow your id down every rabbithole. Let your stories surprise and delight you.

I know you worry about what other people will think of your stories because I do too. Despite my own best intentions, I worry all the time. But the only way to make anything at all is to close the door and shut those voices out for a little while. You can worry if you have to. You can hope that people like it, but tell the stories first. Write now; worry later.

At the risk of sounding cliche, tell the stories that only you can tell. The world probably needs hope in the key of your voice.

4. Don’t define yourself by your writing.

If you’re compelled to write fiction, especially if you’re convinced that it matters in some way, it’s easy to load your writing up with meaning and importance. At a loss for some other way to give gifts to a screaming world, writing can easily become your primary means of self-definition, your raison d’etre.

I fall into this particular trap a lot. As someone who’s been there, who often lives there, I would like to strongly encourage you to not do this. If your writing becomes Important with a capital I, it becomes almost impossible to create. There’s a lot of pressure there, under the weight of justifying your entire existence, and one little story can hardly support it all alone.

If you define yourself by your writing, there becomes an issue of finding enough. If you take your pleasure in writing itself, you’ll realize there are never enough stories to fill that particular hole in the center of your heart.

If you rely on others to let you know when you’ve hit your mark, you hop onto a treadmill of constantly needing feedback to feed your sense of self-worth. There’s no enough in that direction either.

For a while there, I was publishing new fic every single day, for months and months. Comments piled up by the hundreds—beautiful comments written by lovely people who had honestly been touched by my work, who had found value in it. Who had shared it with friends and lovers and thanked me so sincerely. It felt good; of course it felt good.

I don’t say this to brag, and I never mean to be ungrateful. Every one of those comments has been a gift.

But it’s not enough. It’s not enough to justify my existence or yours. That isn’t the direction in which any of us are going to find our meaning.

It’s fine to love writing, to love it more than anything else. It’s beautiful, and I applaud you. We’re members of the same pack. But don’t pin every single one of your hopes, the weight of all that you are, onto it. We are more than this. We have to be.

5. Cut yourself some slack.

If you’re a person who loves storytelling and feels compelled to do it, you probably spend a lot of time writing or thinking about writing or talking about writing. When you’re not writing, you probably think that you should be.

Cut yourself some slack.

You don’t need to be Doing 100% of the time. Your productivity does not justify your existence. You are just as worthy at rest as you are in motion. The world is exhausting right now. It’s fucking hard to make a living. It’s hard to get the healthcare you need. It’s hard to cope with life and relationships and mental illness and still find the will to open the laptop at the end of yet another day.

It’s okay if you’re tired.

It’s okay if you need to stop.


You are not a failure. You’re still a writer when you’re not writing. You’ll be a writer if you stop for a day. You’ll be a writer if you stop for a week. Fuck, you’ll still be a writer if you stop for as long as you damn well need to, because it’s in your blood.

It’s like riding a bicycle. You never really fall off.

Take the breaks you need to take. Acknowledge that some days you just aren’t feeling well. Some days are just too raw and hard and sticky, and the words flow like mud, and nothing works. It’s okay.

Rest. Nap. Eat some delicious food and move your body in gentle ways that feel good to you. Not because someone thinks you should but because you deserve to feel pleasure and rest. Did that one sink in? You deserve it. Maybe no one has told you this today or for a long time, but you are worthy and good, even if you never write another word.

The creative life is one of ebb and flow. The well needs to be refilled, and you can’t pour from an empty cup. Watch the movies, the tv shows, the Youtube videos. Read the books. Read other people’s fics. Love the hell out of all of it and never feel guilty.

You don’t need anyone’s permission, least of all mine, but sometimes hearing the words can work magic: You are allowed to rest. You have permission. It’s okay to take a break, and I’m proud of you.

6. Set tangible, measurable goals for yourself.

Rest is important. Sometimes the healthiest thing you can do for yourself as a writer in the age of Everything Is on Fucking Fire is to give it a rest for a little while. But sometimes idleness can begin to chafe, to pinch at your toes like shoes that are too tight. Sometimes forcing yourself into action is the only way to get yourself unstuck.

I’ve found that a daily word count is the best way for me to do this, but maybe you need something different. Whatever your goal is, make sure it’s measurable. “Write more” doesn’t count because “write more” gives you too much wiggle room to beat yourself up when you can’t hit a moving target.

Pick a goal and stick to it. Stick to it even when you don’t want to. Sometimes the days when you don’t want to write are the days you need to write most. Stick to it unless doing so is going to hurt you—if it’s going to hurt you, then set it aside and rest.

I know I’ve just said two contradictory things—“rest” and “create as an act of will”. They’re both true. I wish I could tell you when to rest and when to push through your own reluctance to write. I wish it for my sake too, that there was an easy litmus test so you could just know when it’s just laziness and when it’s a legitimate need for rest.

But as far as I know, there isn’t. You know yourself best. Only you know. Listen to your body. Do what seems right. I believe in you.

7. Sleep.

Seriously, just… as much as you can, as often as you can. It will help, I promise.

8. Make friends with the ache.

The hardest thing about living in a world with so much pain is the ache. The bleeding hearts we hold in our hands, the soft-mouthed, fragile need to do something about it. To help, to heal, to cure. To keep all of it safe and hold it in our chests.

I don’t know if we can do it, friend. I don’t know if we have the cure, but we can bear witness. We can tell the stories that reflect this world back to itself, in all its beauty and ugliness. Through tears, through pain, through late nights and fragile fingers and all the hope perched in our throats.

The pain isn’t going anywhere, but neither are we.

Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
-Sharon Olds

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