Writing Under Siege: Returning To Best Practices


Photo credit: Timmy Rose

Since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve had a very hard time writing. This has not been for lack of having things to say. Quite the opposite.

I’ve been overwhelmed by my own emotional responses to heightened violence, and uncertainty for the future of myself and nearly everyone I love. My feverish need to give voice to those emotions had me scrambling to respond to every headline, every fresh attack. As a result, it’s been nearly impossible for me to finish any pieces.

Each time I’d start, a new executive order dramatically shifted the focus of the conversation, or a new development rendered the essay I was working on obsolete. I’d try to tie everything I was observing, every current event into one thesis, resulting in pieces that were overwrought and too long. I found myself frustrated not only with the state of the political landscape, but with my total inability to address it meaningfully. And even when I could recognize this as the absolute goal of the Trump administration, it did nothing to impede its effectiveness.

What did finally help was stopping myself from falling for the bait. I’ve had to remind myself daily that I already know the agenda of this regime–white sovereignty and the amassing of personal wealth through ecological devastation, surveillance, censorship and state violence. While keeping abreast of new happenings is important, it doesn’t shift the foundation of the fascism we are facing. Whereas the task of writing was at one point overwhelming me, by returning to my own best practices as a writer, I have also been more able to find centeredness in the midst of the orchestrated fog of the present political climate.

These are the writing practices to which I’ve been working hard at recommitting. While most of them are practical under any circumstances, by revisiting them, I am resisting chaos, and better grounding myself as one in the number of those who are fighting back. I hope they can provide a similar grounding for other writers and strugglers:

Make writing a routine – Good writing has the ability to connect disparate ideas, give voice to the unspoken, provide clarity where there was confusion. At its best, it bestows these on the writer just as much as the reader. Make writing into a respite, a space of healing for yourself and, hopefully, others. If you’ve been in the street, take a night off to stay in and reflect on what you’ve seen. If you’re feeling enraged or overwhelmed, writing can allow you an outlet to express it, and identify where it’s coming from. Write alone if you’re needing quiet. Write with friends if you’re needing to overcome isolation. Create a routine for your writing, a ritual, and transform it into something you can rely on, that provides structure when the world around you is in turmoil. You have the power to make writing into a tool for healing instead of another source of stress.

Let that routine be flexible – Remember that a routine is not a regimen. You will get busy, and emergencies will arise that may throw you off your practice. Be forgiving with yourself when you get away from your routine, and use it as an opportunity not to chastise yourself, but to recalibrate. If you notice writing is again becoming a source of stress, or that you’re not carving out the intentional space for it that it needs, recognize that you might be overextending yourself, needing to get back to some of the structures and rituals that can provide more calm and stability. Take note, take inventory, and return to your routine when you’re ready.

Find your focus – Just as no single one of us can fight every battle we currently face, we cannot write about every topic as it mushrooms on the political horizon. Recognize your limitations. Acknowledge when you are not the most qualified to speak to an issue, and trust that more qualified voices will lead the charge. Take stock of the subjects you know best, and hold tight to their significance, even when they are (momentarily) not in the headlines. If you begin writing a piece you believe in, are passionate about, work hard on seeing it through, even if the moment of relevance seems to have passed. Another result of the current tumult is the tendency to get so caught up in the newest travesty, we instantly move on from the older, just as significant ones. Dig into the struggles you’re prepared to fight, and just as our communities must stay focused on their adversaries, stay focused on your subject.

Let some pieces go – While pushing through blocks is important, at the same time, accept that not every piece will make it to completion. Not every piece will be worth sharing. Some attempts at writing will leave you feeling more confused than when you started. That doesn’t mean you failed. That doesn’t mean you weren’t taught something. Confronting our own lack of clarity is precisely how we arrive at deeper and more nuanced understandings of the issues we try to address. This does not happen all at once. If a piece is confusing you, or not shaping up to be what you had hoped, take a step back from it. Maybe it will be more clear to you after taking a break. Maybe a part of it can be reused later on. Maybe it was misguided, and needs to be let go completely. None of these are negative outcomes. They’re part of the practice of critique, reflection and growth. And in each case, there are lessons–both political and personal–to be learned.

Make connections without overwhelming the reader – It is crucial we understand that the many communities under attack–Muslim, immigrant, Black, Brown, Native, poor, working, women, disabled, refugee, undocumented, trans, queer–and their unique struggles are inexorably linked. It is crucial that we re-articulate those links again and again, countering the narratives attempting to divide us. But it’s okay if we cannot actively make all of these connections in every piece we write. Center the voices and perspectives of those most impacted by state violence, especially those belonging to multiple oppressed communities. But take the pressure off of individual pieces to do all the political heavy lifting, and practice faith in your readership that they will be able to make connections between the struggles you describe and their own.

Don’t get overcome by urgency – When writing with heightened emotions, or with an impending sense of urgency, it is easy to lose sight of some of our best practices. Some of my own writing that I have been least proud of are pieces I shared quickly, without first conducting thorough research, asking for edits from those whom I was addressing, or clearly understanding the goal of my own writing. We are under attack, but responding with unpreparedness is exactly what those attacks are intended to make us do. As with organizing your community, give each new piece of writing the time it needs to fully realize itself. Edit as much as you need to. Get as many pairs of eyes on it as you can before publishing it. Remind yourself regularly that this struggle began before this presidency, and will need to sustain itself long afterward. Your voice is urgently needed, so care for it by providing it the time and space it requires to grow.

Get creative – Since the election, I’ve written much more creative than analytical writing. I don’t think this is coincidence. I myself have needed healing and inspiration in the face of uncertainty and renewed trauma. For me that has been poetry, novels, and other forms of writing that help me see what isn’t there, envision the kind of world I want to live in before it has arrived. Writing is still one of the unique spheres which can stir the imagination, and by so doing, create hope. Don’t let this sacred part of your practice slip. Cross-pollinate your writing by feeding yourself inspiration from multiple sources–beyond analytical essays and think pieces–and maintain your writing as a space where old worlds aren’t just criticized, but whole new ones are imagined.

Up your cyber security – On a practical note, be smart about where you are storing and sharing your writing. Back up your work in multiple places in case of websites getting blocked or shutdown. Wherever your writing is archived, and whenever it is being shared, keep it encrypted so it’s harder to hack. Remember: Email, google docs, clouds, and other common outlets of document sharing are easy targets for surveillance and tampering. Be strategic about the means through which you share your writing, and change your passwords regularly!

Use writing to reinforce action – If our writing does not work in tandem with concrete action, we do it no justice. If it critiques without working towards clear solutions, it falls short. Help a community organization craft a list of demands, or an anti-policing mission statement. Document a successful protest, or tell a story that counters a poisonous mainstream narrative. Speak from experience on how to build more effective strategies, shaped with the input of others in resistance. Get serious in imagining how writing can spur and support direct action in real time. Write with the goal of action, with words as one medium for manifesting it.

The most crucial role of writing, in my opinion, is providing vision. It can illuminate the long fight when we are overcome by our immediate obstacles. It can give us direction when our philosophies have become muddled. It is capable of complicating what has been misleadingly simplified, and of simplifying what has been over complicated. And when we are committed to it, its disciplined practice doesn’t just develop us as writers, but as organizers, community members, and humans.

Don’t let anyone convince you that writing is not useful. But don’t convince yourself that writing alone will halt fascism, heal the climate, empty prisons. Our words are always pregnant with the potential to spark action. But the best way to ensure that they do is to take action ourselves.

Let writing be a part of your practice, one instrument in your arsenal to combat violence in every manifestation, to bring nuance and expose the hypocrisy of the powerful. Ask how you can help, and offer your skills wherever they are needed. Expand your toolkit so writing is not your only means of intervention and interruption. Every power we have, every asset we can muster, will be needed in this battle.

Good luck, and good writing.

Special thanks to Francisco Caballero

3 responses to “Writing Under Siege: Returning To Best Practices

  1. omg I love this can I include some in my newsletter? with credit of course would also love to repost that graphic, could you put me in touch with him to use? Love your work so much xx

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s