Header image - Deb Brandon: Living in Radiant Color

Writing in the Time of COVID

Retirement was so freeing—my schedule was my own. No more deadlines hanging over my head and no work obligations overshadowing my choices. My pace no longer dictated by the demands of my job. No more stress.

Photo credit: Deb Brandon

Pre-retirement, my life revolved around balancing the demands of my job and the restrictions imposed by the bloody brain—the job required maintaining a fast pace, whereas the bloody brain was adamant that I slow down.

Unable to rest as much as the bloody brain required of me, neuro-fatigue accumulated and intensified in time, sabotaging the quality of my two passions, teaching and writing. During my last couple of years at Carnegie Mellon University, my ability to focus on my writing diminished. I lost the joy in it—I lost an integral part of who I was.

As much as I loved teaching, I counted the years until retirement, when I’d be able to focus on writing, when I’d be able to write fulltime.

The onset of COVID-19 made matters worse—adapting to online teaching increased the fatigue and trying to engage the students was frustrating. Where teaching kept me going through my daily difficulties pre-COVID, it now became yet another chore. My depression resurfaced, Subsequently, depression slowed my writing down to a mere trickle.

Was this it? Was my writing doomed to seep out of my life altogether? I hoped not. I hoped that having more time to myself after I retired would bring back the passionate writer in me.

As my last academic year drew to a close and retirement approached, I wondered about my shift from part-time writer. How crucial was the structure imposed by my job to my writing? Would I have to impose an artificial structure on myself? I worried—my dream of writing was precious to me.

It didn’t occur to me that COVID-19 would come to the rescue.

The notion of connecting through technology spread, among family and friends, teachers and scientists. My siblings and I organized a virtual family reunion—my older brother and his family from Massachusetts, my younger siblings from Israel, and my niece form England. Zoom facilitated a meeting between my friends from school who now resided all over the globe. I attended several conferences and gave talks online. All of these events wouldn’t have been feasible to me in person, even in pre-COVID days—coordination was travelers was next to impossible, at best.

Writers also rose to the challenge. Online writers’ groups emerged, helping create structure and accountability. Freelance writers, in an attempt to boost paying online gigs offered introductory or beginner workshops and webinars at reduced prices. Some were actually free. The world opened up to me and with it my life as a writer.

At first, the thought of participating in a workshop was overwhelming. I had to sneak up on it. My first step was to sign up for a free series of videos where Laurie Wagner suggested writing prompts inspired by poems she read. She then gave her viewers the task of spending fifteen minutes of nonstop writing, based on the prompt of our choice—she referred to it as wild writing.

Still in the process of reclaiming my joy in writing, still having trouble settling down to work on “real” projects, fifteen minutes seemed manageable. Laurie’s videos formed that first push I needed into writing fulltime.  Her soothing voice also helped.

A couple of fifteen writing sessions later, I was ready for the next step—I wanted to start expanding into bigger projects, but felt the need to impose some accountability on myself—making a pact with another writer seemed like a good approach. But that didn’t quite work—it was too easy to cancel writing dates.

After a few unsuccessful experiments, I joined a writing group that met most mornings—while on zoom, we worked for an hour on our projects. We started with a brief statement of purpose and ended with a brief report on what we accomplished. The accountability really got me on track. And when the hour was over, I continued writing for another hour or so.

My joy in writing was back!

More confident in my commitment to writing, I registered for Natalie Goldberg’s online “Writing Down the Bones” workshop. By the end of the first lesson, I was on a roll.

Since then, hoping to spread the bug, my passion, I formed my own zoom writing group with five other close friends. We meet every other week for an hour plus. In addition, my writing coach started holding writing parties once a month for her clients.

Knowing from past experience that it was possible to fall of the writing wagon and wanting to prevent it from happening, I added focusmate.com to my repertoire. Focusmate.com is an international group that was set up to help people who’ve had to adjust to working from home. It’s not just for writers—it includes artists, musicians, teachers, students, and anyone who wants that accountability. We sign up for fifty-minute sessions where we are paired with a work buddy. It gives that one extra nudge I needed to counteract my inner critic’s attempts to sabotage my productivity. “You’re too tired—you need a nap,” “The dog needs to go for a walk,” and “You know you’d prefer to write about ___ .”

All in all, COVID has set me up for my post-retirement life—I am now a full-time writer, with several more books in the works.