The Captive Writing Life: Four Tools for Survival

I have always seen writing as a certain kind of captivity narrative. To paraphrase William Burroughs from the documentary The Source, if you cannot handle hours alone in a room, then you should take up a different profession. Writing is solitary. Confining. Depressing. Even when the idea of being “alone in a room” is treated as a good thing, as something necessary to the craft itself, as Virginia Woolf does with her famous essay, it is still a type of captivity. We lock ourselves up. We stay still for a long time. We sometimes even dream of throwing away the key to our locked room–either so we will never leave, and therefore finish that big project, or so we never have to be inside that lonely room ever again.

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William Burroughs. Image source: Wikicommons.

This captivity is good and bad. It’s voluntary and it’s forced. It can be very productive, or it can stifle any sort of creative impulse. I’ve seen both sides of this captivity narrative. Let me explain further: At fifteen, I was hospitalized with anorexia nervosa, given a room, and told I couldn’t leave the bed. The “or else” hung over the speech of all doctors and nurses I came across. Stay in the bed, or else you could faint. You might die. Or, your health will be compromised, and you’ll need to stay in this room even longer. I listened to them. I got good at staying still.

But the only way I was ever able to do that was through the act of writing. Alone in my bed, with no one to talk to, and certainly no one to tell me everything would be okay, I began writing. I had already enjoyed the activity, and written a handful of “novels” in my coil bound notebooks between history notes, but this was my first true test of my abilities. I was writing while in captivity. I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to. So, I truly understood that the act of creation was an act of survival. I needed to be alone in order to write, but if I was also alone, I absolutely needed to keep writing, keep creating, if I wanted to stay whole.

There was no other way.

I dealt with my own issues over half my lifetime ago. I’ve gotten good at being alone, at being forced alone, and surviving no matter what. I’ve published my writing and I’ve fought to take down my own writing, too. I’ve taught myself new writing genres while alone, and I’ve also taught these genres to rooms full of students. I think I’m too young to say that I’m “good” at the writing life, but I’m okay at it. I’ve made most of my academic and publishing career on being pretty okay at it.

What I’m really good at, though, is the captivity life.

That facet is something I’m less proud about, less forthcoming with, and it is something I often try to hide. Obviously, I was released from hospital, declared cured, and went on with my life. My mental health has never been perfect, and while I do not believe I ever truly suffered from anorexia nervosa, I was sick enough to be locked in a room. I was also healthy enough to get out of it, too, and while I know creation and writing was part of my healing path, I have other skills that people–especially now–should also be made aware of.

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We are all enduring a captivity narrative right now. While not as extreme as the one I went through at fifteen, and for completely different reasons, we are still enduring a time period of great uncertainty and turmoil. We feel trapped in our circumstances. We feel trapped by illness. We feel trapped by almost everything–but it does not have to feel this way. It is this way, I am not in denial of our current political, social, and historical circumstances–but a fact is different from a feeling. And we do not need to feel trapped.

In short, I believe that writing–or any kind of creating–during this time period will help us remain connected to who we are as people. We need some type of activity to relieve the burden of confinement, and so, why not embrace what William Burroughs and Virginia Woolf have told us? Why not, in some of the quiet moments we can steal away from the chaos, take up writing?

Writing helps us see a way out of whatever we are going through. Even if all we write down is a shopping list; a list of complaints; or nonsense words that float to the top of our minds, it might just be enough. E.L. Doctorow said that writing was like driving at night, often during a fog, and with only one headlight illuminating what was in front of you. It helps us to get through the night, but sometimes, we weren’t even aware of how much it helped until the aftermath.

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If we want to see beyond those first five minutes of nonsense writing, I have some tools that I think might be useful. If writing is a form of captivity, like I think it is, then we need these four tools in order to fully create—then escape—from those rooms: rope, hammers, ladders, and windows.

 

 

  1. The rope in my tool kit is a thread to the past.

Sit down at your computer, or with a notebook, and extend a line into the past. What was happening before this moment? What about the week leading up to COVID-19 shutting down your work, your school, your life? There is a saying in trauma studies that to understand what truly happened to us, we must remember who we were before the trauma. So tell me, now: who were you before all this? What was your first memory? What was your favorite colour at age six, and what is your favourite colour now? Throw that rope, the one that you will use to escape, back into the past. You will defy the present moment this way, especially if you throw back to the best moments, the moments that made you who you are, and that will allow you to endure beyond this.

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  1. A hammer as a tool is one with two main purposes: it can destroy, or it can fix.

We can use a hammer to hang a painting, or we can crack its frame. A hammer is a tool that is neutral, completely and utterly so, but it changes its focus and meaning when we pick it up. I see hammers as the power our words can have. We get upset over bad words, and we marvel at the good. We recoil at hate speech, and we memorize our favourite song lyrics. The words we use matter, and to deny that means that we deny our own feelings. What the ‘correct’ words really are might change over all of history—look no further than the debates about the word ‘ain’t,’—but the words, like the hammer, are neutral. It is our intention, our own meaning, that give the words their potency.

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So what words are you using during this time period? Are you echoing the news? Are you scared, and using scary language? Or are you using your words to focus on the things you can control, what is good around you, and what good might come from this? I have a friend who is reciting how horrible the world is because she sees caution tape over every last park in her neighbourhood. I see another friend reciting how lovely it is that she sees signs in people’s windows, chalk on the sidewalks, and evidence of children playing in other ways during this crisis. Are we going to talk about caution tape, or talk about sidewalk chalk? The words are neutral, but our intent with one can build, or it can destroy.

 

  1. Ladders are our aspirations, and they remind us we have somewhere to go.

We use ladders to reach something higher than ourselves, something better and beyond us–even if it’s as simple as using a ladder to reach a top shelf, and we already know what is there, we are using technology and tools to see beyond our limited scope of what is right in front of us.

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As a writer, you need to have a ladder in order to strive beyond your current words on the page. You might have a bad page–but that is okay, because you can edit a bad page. You might have an average novel. But that’s okay, too, because the next one will be a little bit better, and you’ll reach a little bit farther on the next rung of the ladder. Now, too, we are living in a limited scope. Many of us can’t see beyond it. So we must have a ladder to project into the future–and a good future, at that. The ladder might shake and quake, but the ladder goes up. So what is beyond this moment right now? Even if you cannot see beyond the next week, not with the way the news has been changing, that is okay. What is only a rung above you? Even if it’s only that you have your favourite drink or fruit in the fridge, and you’re going to have that later, that might be enough. Even if it’s only that your kid is going to show you his drawing—that is enough. You must see beyond the moment, and you do that always by looking up, and climbing higher and higher.

 

  1. The window is a look at the outside world.

Audience, friend, or eventual escape—the window is there to remind us of the future. Even when I was in the hospital, and told I could not move, I had a window. Even if my walls were concrete, like my office on my university campus, there were still windows all around. I had my student papers; my books; the people in the hallway. The window is not necessarily a place to project yourself, a way to see your future–that was what the ladder was for. The window is a way for you to look out and beyond yourself: towards the world at large, or even towards your localized population.

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I have seen so many people using their windows for good during this trying time: they tape up signs, they ask neighbours about their health, status, or cat’s names. They use windows–or balconies in Spain–as a reminder that there are others around us right now. They are suffering too, but together, when we look out the window together, we can transcend that suffering. We can form communities. Even if your window leads to a dumpster, or some other not-so-nice view, the window of your computer screen is your access point to a world beyond yourself. Yes, Netflix is part of that window, too, and so is the abundance of screen time you’re racking up, but also remember that the window on your computer can lead you towards others. You can connect with people through this portal. You are not as alone as you thought you were, and there are many other people waiting for you to say hello. A socially distant hello, one from confinement, but it need not feel like isolation.

All of this can instead feel like creation.

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These tools are metaphorical. They are allegorical. If writing is being trapped in a room, and we are also currently trapped in rooms, then we can find solace in the act of creation. To do so means we must rally our past lives, our intentions, our aspirations, and our hopeful futures.

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We will get out of the room. But until we do, I hope you are writing.

There is simply no other way.

 

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Please note that these steps/tools are from a writing book I’m working on, and hope to make available by the end of 2020/early 2021.

 

 

 

Bio

Eve Morton is a writer living in Ontario, Canada. She teaches university and college classes on media studies, academic writing, and genre literature, among other topics. Her collection of poetry called Karma Machine will be released in the summer of 2020. Find more blogs, books, and various esoterica on authormorton.wordpress.com.

 

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