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Writing Through Chaos

I’m not the first writer to observe that these are chaotic times to write in. Sometimes the news is too dispiriting to ignore. Sometimes the news is too riveting to ignore. Sometimes the news is so absurd that it feels weird writing fiction. Sometimes there is just news.

Like many (but not all, I recognize) I was completely upended by the election results in 2016. I could not concentrate for several days and could barely get my day job done, let alone focus on my fiction. Luckily (or unluckily) I’d published Fractured in October, 2016 and had already moved on (mostly) from the promotion of that book. I’d also written a large chunk of my next novel (what became The Good Liar) and so could afford to take some time away. But as the days ground on and the news got worse and I consumed more and more of it, I began to worry. Was I ever going to be able to look away for long enough to write? And what was the point, anyway?

Then something good happened. My day job forced me to turn away from the news. I’m a trial lawyer, and I had a trial. Trials are arduous, but the great thing about them is that everything else falls away. There are only the facts and witnesses and arguments in front of you. It’s a weird kind of vacation from life.

When I emerged from the trial, the spell was broken. Oh, I could still easily spend hours reading the New York Times et al. and watching CNN. But when I had something to do, including writing, I was able to do it. I dipped my toes back into my novel, and by the end of the year I was able to block out the mad, mad world until I got my daily word count in. Not everyday, but most. And that feeling is something I turn to when, like these last few weeks, the events of right now block out everything that is in my head. I know that life will intervene and make me pay attention to it, and that in doing so, I’ll break the spell.

I also know that others have not been so lucky (okay, you’re also lucky you didn’t have to sit in a trial). I’ve spoken to a lot of writers who are finding it very hard to write in this political climate. It’s not just the news, but the message, the futility. In this time of national, and even global, ennui, what, precisely, is the point of fiction?

Some thoughts on that: People have different perspectives on this, but mostly, I write for myself. Yes, I love that people read my books and enjoy them. Of course I do. But fundamentally, if I didn’t enjoy the process, I wouldn’t do it. So that’s the feeling I reach for – that feeling I get when words are flowing onto the page and I can block out the world. That feeling isn’t something worth sacrificing for me personally, regardless of what’s going on in the world.

More fundamentally though, how do you reach for that feeling if you don’t have – say – the distraction of all-consuming trial?

Some tips:

  • Make small goals. I can watch one hour of this hearing if I write 500 words first. Or 100. Or 50. Make small goals and gradually up them.
  • Invest in some Internet blocking software. I’ve never used this, but there are several tools out there to help us keep off the Internet when we can’t help ourselves.
  • Put yourself in an environment where you can’t watch etc. Libraries are great places for this – silence is key and there are no televisions. If you don’t login to the WiFi, you’re golden.
  • Go back to old books. I have a few standards that I re-read when I’m too distracted to concentrate on something new, and found myself returning to them a lot in the last couple of years.
  • Visit an old friend, another time, another place. It helps.
  • Don’t look at writing as a choice – it’s your JOB, you still go to work if you have a day job, don’t you? Well, writing is work so…you know what’s coming…


About Catherine McKenzie

A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine McKenzie practices law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine’s novels, SPIN, ARRANGED, FORGOTTEN, HIDDEN, and FRACTURED, were all international bestsellers and have been translated into multiple languages. HIDDEN was a #1 Amazon bestseller, and a Digital World Bestseller for five weeks. Her fifth novel, SMOKE, was an Amazon bestseller, picked as a Best Book of October 2015 by Goodreads and one of the Top 100 Books of 2015 by Amazon.

Her latest release, THE GOOD LIAR, released on April 3rd.

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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.