Friday, May 8, 2020

Creative Resistance to Hard Times--Guest Blog by Author Ellen Prentiss Campbell

Ellen Prentiss Campbell's Known By Heart: Collected Stories, appeared May 1 (Apprentice House Press). In 2016 her debut novel The Bowl with Gold Seams(Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction) and her story collection Contents Under Pressure (National Book Award nominee) were published. Ellen's home in Washington D.C., hosting an online book group for children, writing essays, reading War and Peace and mysteries, and making soup. 

I've invited her to share her view on creativity and Covid times, as her new book launches.  

Looking back, we see the signs. It was coming for us, not reserved for others, not restricted to Over There. But denial is a powerful force. The pandemic arrived stealthily, catching most of us absorbed in routine. Startling us, kidnapping us, blowing away our routine, our assumptions, our plans. The lights went out on Broadway; the stay-at-home mandates swept across the land. Even if we were lucky and healthy, we were hostages, grieving lost expectations, fearful, and uncertain.

Personally, and professionally as a former psychotherapist (one of those occupations, like being a writer, that is part of you forever), I've often seen how new loss re-awakens past grief. And I know, especially as a writer, that when grief brings us to our knees, it cracks us open--and that can spark creative resistance. But now, even if we are lucky and only our psychic immune system is under chronic attack, it takes effort to push back, to live on, to write on.

The global scope and uncertain term of this pandemic crisis are new to most of us, but elements of the experience are familiar. We need to remember and reclaim our prior coping mechanisms as writers. If we are among the fortunate (and so many are not), if we have sufficient health, shelter, and resources, perhaps already an impulse to work, to write begins to rise up from the deep well of this dark time. But if sorrow, anxiety, and tedium are draining us, we can take some seemingly simple steps, to prime the pump.

I am re-discovering this, reminded of what compelled me to write after many years of reflective, responsive listening as a therapist: the twin towers fell on 9/11 and then my parents, coincidentally, died soon after. I have realized since that those conjoined events blasted routine and expectations, shocked me back to writing. I see now, looking back over almost twenty years, how those events and earlier ones are continuous threads woven into all my work: my first collection of stories, my debut novel, my novel in progress, my new collection of stories. Continuous, intertwined threads, themes of love and loss, life and death, resistance and resilience, run through my writing, as well as what I love to read.
So now again, as writers, we must prime the pump, start our creative resistance flowing. How? Here are a few recipe tips if you will, that have helped me.
First, reclaim routine writing time--structure and habit help. Morning or evening, whatever works for you.
At bedtime, before I could read or write, my parents prompted, What was the best thing that happened today; tell me the worst thing that happened today? They took down my dictation in what became a first journal, teaching me the power of putting experience into words. That's where it still begins. Journal. Do your daily pages, or one page if that's all you can manage--or one line. Start small, let this be the season for haiku not epic poetry, flash fiction not novel. First and foremost, just connect, connect with the page.
And if you are too worried and weary to even put pen to paper, to touch the keyboard? Ease yourself into writing with another creative act.
Make soup.
Years ago, I listened to Maya Angelou talk to a small group of us. She was a big voice, a warm presence in a cozy living room. What about writer's block? someone must have asked--I don't remember the question, but have never forgotten her answer.
"Make soup."

She explained that once it's cooking, once that aroma fills the rooms, it will remind you, prove to you, that you can nourish yourself, and be creative, even in a bad time.

I remembered her advice, last month--stuck, stymied--when a friend shared a poem by Elena Mikhalkova. She's a Russian writer, unfamiliar to me, apparently known more for mysteries than poetry until "The Room of Ancient Keys" began to circulate on social media. Here's a small taste, a sample of her grandmother's tips for getting through difficult times:         

Do what you have to do, but little by bit.
Don't think about the future, not even what might happen tomorrow. Wash the dishes.
Take off the dust.Write a letter. [...]
Make some soup. [...]
And time will come when you can think about the future without crying. Good morning.
                       --Elena Mikhalkova
Make soup. I tried it, Maya Angelou and Elena Mikhalkova's recipe. I prepared my favorite minestrone. Diced the carrots, potatoes, celery, green beans, cabbage. Added them to the pot, with the (canned) broth, tomatoes, beans. Let it bubble all day.

And while it percolated and perfumed the apartment, I wrote a letter to someone I care about. We speak rarely, email occasionally. There is something magic about putting pen to paper. I stamped and sealed the envelope. Next, I printed out an essay, promised months ago and never finished. I began again, from the beginning, from before all of this. Revising, which means of course Re-visioning.

It was a good morning.

You can read more about Ellen's new book and her writing on her website

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