Writing through the pandemic with Ursula K. Le Guin

I spent the early reaches of the spring semester thinking a lot about academic writing. About pursuing an academic career out of a love of writing, and about how joyless academic writing can be. About academic writing reduced to a series of CV-enhancing products, and not as a valuable process in and of itself. Then a pandemic happened.

As cities locked down and universities transitioned effortlessly to virtual instruction/interaction, the online debates about productivity started. Isolation means productivity, Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined. Short-term productivity is a delusion, worry about securing your home. I sat at home, watching the debate unfurl. I stared at screens and Word docs about as I often as I normally would, but I got less writing done.

I can cope without a pandemic-induced productivity bump. I don’t expect to do my best work at the moment. I might not even advance my dissertation very much. But I would still like to write quite often. I like writing, and I find it grounding. Writing through a pandemic sounds to me less like something you do if you are coping well, and more like a way of coping well.

For writing guidance, I come back time and again to Ursula Le Guin. Perhaps this is because Le Guin can think like a social scientist, but she doesn’t write like one. I want inspiration from someone who takes a blank page and constructs an entire world out of it. Someone who approaches the blank page with a compulsion to create and imagine, instead of imposing the same one template on the page over and again.

In a 1988 interview, reprinted by Melville House, Le Guin sketched out her ideal writing schedule. In trying to write through this pandemic, I am taking cues from this schedule. It probably doesn’t hurt that Le Guin was a colossal introvert, so aside from Zoom meetings her ideal schedule looks quite workable during pandemic-induced isolation. Le Guin’s schedule is not my own ideal schedule, but has got me reflecting on how to build a writing habit that I might just be able to stick to. I have even annotated the original, with five reflections for writing through a pandemic…

One. Writing does not have to take up all your time. Le Guin scheduled as much time for preparing and eating food as for writing. More time for writing is not necessarily better time for writing.

Two. Five hours of writing is a long time. I am not sure that I can do anything very well for this long (I have been working on this section of this post for the past 1.25 hours, and I am flagging fast). I can, however, sometimes trick my brain by writing different things in different ways. Often that means switching from a screen to a pen and a page. Sometimes – not nearly often enough – it means switching from dissertation to reflection, or to fiction.

Three. Reading is not writing, but it helps. Reading widely is pretty essential for all good writers. It is also a great way for a self-doubting academic to pretend that they are writing, or preparing to write, without every committing words to a page. Good reading deserves time of its own, instead of being a prelude to something else. Set aside separate time for reading.

Four. Errands need time, and that time needs to be limited. Le Guin set aside two hours each days for correspondence and household stuff. Two whole hours, and only those two hours. If she’d had an email address in 1988, that probably would have meant two hours in which emails could be sent, and 22 whole hours in which they could not be.

Five. Know when you are stupid and enjoy it. I struggle with this part, and tend to tell myself that any hour of the day could be a good hour for writing. But not all hours are equal, as anyone who has seen me try to sit quietly but wakefully through a meeting or lecture right after lunch will probably know.

If you are one of the lucky ones that hasn’t seen your income decimated by the pandemic, don’t forget to support independent bookstores and publishers.