Survival Writing

  • May 8, 2024
  • 5 minute read

How do we create art when the world is falling apart?

This blog post accompanies our podcast episode, How to Create When Your World is Falling Apart.

Some of us might struggle with survivor guilt. What right to we have to enjoy the capstone activity of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when other people can’t access food, shelter, and safety? 

Others of us might be in our own ground zero, just trying to make it through a struggle. Survival is a time when we often have to surrender our ideals for something much messier. What does this mean for making art? 

In Deep Should

Do you, like me, have an image of what writing should look like? 

My idealized image that I’ve put together over the years has looked like someone who has a solid daily routine that includes eating well, exercising, taking care of my loved ones, and meeting work deadlines. 

This ideal led me to some shameful shoulds: 

  • I should be writing every day. 
  • I should do more–at least 1000 words! 
  • I should be fine. Why am I still struggling? 

My lived experience has taught me that this ideal is nice only if I’m willing to let it change to fit my circumstances or let it go entirely. Sometimes life is anything but ideal, and if I wait to create until I know I can do it well, then I would never make anything.

This would be a shame, because some of the truest stories are told from a place of everything falling apart. I know that when my life is hard, I take refuge in stories that let me know I’m not alone. I don’t want to hear from someone who doesn’t know what it’s like to lose. I want to spend time with storytellers who have been there.

So when we’re in the middle of our own Being There, maybe it’s time to surrender the shoulds that hurt. 

Getting Unstuck

A lot of us get into creating because we’re chasing that amazing high that happens when we can respond to the inner spark and make something new. But what happens when we’re stuck and feeling like our brain can’t seem to boot up, and we still want to move forward in learning or practicing writing? 

This could be a good time to try using writing prompts to write one-off stories, or to try the tracing idea Erin shared in this podcast (hyperlink). When I stalled out on writing while I was taking care of a medically fragile child, I grabbed a notebook and a pen, and started copying by hand a paperback by one of my favorite authors. This taught me a lot about writing and pacing, and helped soothe my anxiety about productivity and success. It was the practical option that helped me let go of the shoulds that kept taking up too much mental bandwidth during a difficult time in my life. 

Try Being An Escape Artist, Maybe? 

So, how can we make art when the world’s falling apart? 

I suggest we do it in whichever way brings us a sense of joy and refuge. 

  • Therapeutic journaling
  • Throwing axes
  • Playing Tetris
  • Coloring in books or apps

I love listening to Pema Chodron about what to do with our own minds and bodies when things fall apart around us. Of course escape can become its own long-term problem, but in the short term, it’s good to consciously claim breaks for our brain. Chodron recommends saying out loud “I am taking refuge in ___” when we do it, so that we can own our escapes. “I am taking refuge in this Netflix binge.”

After all, you don’t owe anyone a performance of constant suffering or panic. We are built to need breaks. Remove the shame from them and take those breaks like you pay their rent! 

When Freelancing Isn’t Free

What about when we’re depending on creativity to pay the bills? I’ve been there, and it’s a miserable kind of burnt out pressure. I think a lot of writing ends up getting done half-dead, under a deadline. 

If that’s you, then do what you need to to get through. But please rest after, and if possible, maybe take a look at your processes (contracts, client expectations) and reset them so that it’s a level you can meet more easily. Maybe an extension will help. If not, please know that even if life is hard, you still deserve joy and rest. 

What is Creativity, Anyway? 

Creativity is more than writing or creating visual art. It’s more than just a deliverable on a deadline. It’s our human birthright, and it’s essential to survival. 

When I was a single mom of 7 kids trying to freelance while my house was flooding and I recovered from a TBI, I had to get creative about regular everyday things. I wasn’t working on novels, but I was definitely troubleshooting where to find grocery money, how to get basic cleaning done, and how to schedule needed medical care for my children and me.

When I was in the middle of that, sometimes I would see friends who were at a different place on fortune’s wheel, using their creativity to create novels, art, and wonderful vacations. It hurt to feel not only left out but like my life was keeping me from my own dreams. 

You Are the Art 

What’s helped me during my hard times is recognizing that survival is the original human art form. If you can outlast whatever’s chasing you, then your survival is a meaningful masterpiece. 

It takes creativity and resourcefulness to support loved ones or work with our community to create safety.  We tell stories to ourselves to make sense of what we’re living in right now, and tell our stories to others to comfort them, share our feelings, or maybe to ask for help. 

Creativity is how we thrive. 

Not only because using creativity in any way can help us access our own inner wisdom and regain agency in circumstances that can make us feel out of control–but also because it really is our superpower as a species. 

Join the conversation over on our youtube channel or on your favorite podcast platform.

by Sachiko Suzuki