This Box Full of Darkness — (Not) Writing in the Pandemic

Someone I loved once gave me a box of full darkness.
It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.
~ Mary Oliver

A lot of things derail writers. Day to day life is probably first among them. Everyday tasks have a way of shaving off an hour here, a morning there, and vacation afternoons until *poof* back to work the novelist must go! And for female writers, the mental load can be an overwhelming reality. Or what if you’re an essayist with ADHD? A poet friend of mine admitted she has problems writing grocery lists during sex because she’s usually composing poems. (I wish I had that much brain capacity.) Now that we’re heading into—what pandemic year is it?—my creative processes, and those of many writers I know regionally and internationally, have become stalled and unpredictable.  

“I could hear the gears turning in my head until they jammed, whirred, and went clunk. I jokingly called it Covid Brain, but I was concerned because “clunk” doesn’t pay the bills. So, if I couldn’t write, did that mean I had to learn again—from scratch?”

So what happens when a shitty first draft can’t even make it to shitty—it’s just a flat jumble of words on a page that, dare I use a phrase that is already cliché, has become a writer’s “new norm”? Worse, how does a writer endure opening a box full of darkness and discovering they are unable to write at all?

Normally I would say, Relax, it’s OK, this thing will pass. And while I do believe these creative side effects of the pandemic will be far behind us someday, surviving like Monty Python’s Black Knight and offhandedly saying, “Tis but a scratch” ignores how distressing it can feel to lose an arm and another arm and a leg until you are just hopping along and then, oh dear, your writing is nothing more than a sassy exsanguinating torso.

For some writers, this box full of darkness is cognitive exhaustion brought on by Covid-19 stress. Or creative burnout, which affects artists at least once in their career. Regular rest for writers (even when you feel you must continue on) is necessary and can offer you a rebirth.

While the pandemic has seemingly shifted creative thinking, making writers of those who would never have called themselves writers if not for the empty hours to be filled during lockdown, the rest of us are doing our best to cope with our individual trials. And what do they look like for many writers? Not writing, and binge-watching everything from Tiger King to The Great.

My box full of darkness came to me in the uncanny daytime silence of lockdown when I realized I really couldn’t write. So stubborn as I am, I had my Cheshire Cat moment and hoped it was creative burnout—I hadn’t taken a vacation in three years. But my next poetry collection wasn’t going to write itself. So after weeks of trying everything—composing in the tub, singing along with Cecilia Bartoli or writing notes during yoga, trying to channel something with wine glass number three—I did what I often advise my clients to do when they’re going through a dry spell: watch well-written TV shows and take notes. Shtisel, Borgen, Disenchantment—but that quickly evolved into binge watching until I fell asleep on the couch and dreamed I was eating lamb chops with Hannibal Lecter. Hello, KaylaYou will tell me when the possum stops screaming, won’t you?

I could hear the gears turning in my head until they jammed, whirred, and went clunk. I jokingly called it Covid Brain, but I was concerned because “clunk” doesn’t pay the bills. So, if I couldn’t write, did that mean I had to learn again—from scratch?

Nope. I called my writer friends and admitted the worst of the worst had happened. “Oh,” they said, “me too. Have you watched Tiger King?” And they encouraged me when Jean-Philippe Raîche and I had to write original material for the 2019 Frye Festival, and I didn’t think I could do it. Jean-Philippe and I met on Zoom and suffered afternoons together until we finally produced Confinement.

Writing for Confinement, I realized I would have to evolve. What I knew about my process was over. I was writing completely blind and at times it was agonizing, but at least I had more than just a bloody torso. In the darkness was rebirth.

So, how can a box of darkness evolve into a gift, and what is our role in that?

We all receive individual boxes full of darkness, but how we live through a natural bequeathal of sorrow or perhaps how it lives through us in our writing, says much about who we strive to become as writers.

It’s hard to keep afloat when you’re throwing your hands up in the air, saying, “I can’t write! I can’t write!” When the big “I can’ts” surface, my thoughts drift to my paternal grandparents. My grandfather was a munitions expert by the end of WW2 and although my grandmother stayed home and taught school (read about her here), rural life and war times presented many challenges. Through inference they taught me we can’t resist our season—individuals (and writers) are swept along with world-changing events and attitude is everything. Be tough, they taught me. If one way doesn’t work, try another and another until you succeed. Determination leads to resourcefulness which, in time, grows into resilience.

I’ve talked about owning who you are as a writer, and in times of distress, I believe writers of all genres can find refuge in that. We are each blessed with unique inner domains and perspectives—our processes are born from this. That’s what I call “writing you”. This is what helps us parse the sorrows that come in those boxes full of darkness. Process, however, is as human as it is mystical. As we seek answers, so does it.

As process evolves, I believe it does what many of us have been doing throughout the pandemic: re-evaluating. It purges, keeping and then reaching only for what it is most important. Experienced writers often explain that every new project has some kind of creative tariff. Rumi said, “The wound is where is where the light enters.” That is the crucible of rebirth.

I struggle to write, for now. Yet I have the knowledge that with every inescapable box delivered into my hands, my grandmother will remind me, There is a way. Your own courage will reward you when you open your own box of darkness and dip in your pen. Grieve what you must but celebrate that the gift, in the box or not, is certainly flourishing in you, whenever you write you.

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KAYLA GEITZLER, MA, is from Moncton, within Siknikt of the Mi’kma’ki. “A Rad Woman of Canadian Poetry” & Attic Owl Reading Series host, she was Moncton’s first Anglophone Poet Laureate. Her first poetry collection was a finalist for two awards. Kayla is co-editor of the multilingual anthology Cadence Voix Feminines Female Voices. She was a technical editor on pipeline projects & designed ATC courseware. As an editor, writing consultant & instructor, Kayla's affordable expertise helps writers & organizations achieve success.