For those of us who feel compelled to express ourselves through the written word, the process of writing was hard enough, and then the pandemic struck. In the last six months, many of us have been in touch with existential anxiety in a way we have never been before.
Will I survive? Will I survive the loss of my loved ones? Did I love well enough? Was I present to the little things? Did I allow others to really see me? Do I see myself for who I am? Will I be able to leave behind some sort of tangible proof of my existence, or will my memory fade away? In short, the eternal question of “How do I live, knowing that I will die?” has taken on a more sombre resonance than ever before.
It was out of this heightened awareness of the unpredictable timelines of our lives, this feeling that we no longer knew (had we ever known though) exactly how much time we had to tell our stories and create a legacy -– or a memento, if you will, to remember us by – that Maps for Lost Writers was born.
The vision for this work was crystallised one afternoon in mid-June this year, deep in the heart of the Covid-19 crisis. During a heart-to-heart conversation with a friend on the subject of livelihood and its relationship with one’s calling, I recalled a question posed by Langston Hughes in his poem “Harlem”.
Hughes had asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?”This became my question too.
“Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”
The Buddha’s last word was arguably sammasati, “remember.” And in the thud of a heartbeat, I did remember this particularly important dream of mine which I had been deferring for years, without letting my voice be clear and audible, without allowing myself to risk something. It was an essential call, yet a calling I kept forgetting in the stream of the other things that plucked daily and insistently at the roots of my attention. In the times of the pandemic, the remembering also had a particular urgency to it. I remembered with a parallel exhortation not to forget.
Simply put, my dream was to have conversations with writers about writing. I wished to offer deep listening and encouragement through one-on-one sessions, to help writers listen in to themselves. In being witnessed by a fellow-writer, and through conversations with a person who had fought (and was still fighting) the same demons and wrestling with the same regrets, the process might help them intuit a roadmap out of the vortex into clarity, compassionate accountability and responsible action (meaning, the act of taking their seat and actually writing the story that they absolutely needed to tell).
It did not matter whether or not these people thought of themselves as “writers”. It did not matter if they knew what to write, or how to begin to work with this longing. For some, even the thought of writing could bring up a feeling of inadequacy and shame.What they did know, however, was that the call was urgent and compelling, that writing was somehow fundamentally connected with their dream and experience of being human, and that not to heed it felt like some sort of betrayal.
I had myself not acted on this so far because, the fact was, I had stopped writing. I had lived thirteen years of my life shadowed by the dark familiars of a life-threatening illness. This experience had shaped me, changed the course of my existence and the level of awareness I usually operated from. Observing death from close quarters and seeing my parents become frail with worry had forced me to come to a personal reckoning of what really mattered at the end, and what love could look like when it was a matter of life and death.
Yet the day I finally managed to push my head above the water, scarred but alive, and with the tender heart of “(someone) who lived”, I had the desolate feeling that the world, in its revolutions around the sun, had left me behind. My peers seemed to be all “settled” in careers or marriages, while I was still furiously watering the garden of my soul in the hopes of finding meaning and “purpose”. I was obsessed with pulling out the weeds of regret by their roots (and still they grew).
Along the way, I had stopped believing that I could have any ideas worth exploring, and was beset by the all-too-familiar shame of the imposter syndrome, as this is popularly called. It had found an imprint in the complex shape of my darkest apprehensions on the subject of (unlived) life and death. It shook me awake in the darkest hours of the night and at the crack of dawn, and whispered insidiously in my ear that I would never write anything meaningful. That I wouldn’t ever achieve my potential in this lifetime. Who was I to have conversations with real writers? I was a writer who did not write!
There was no one around who really understood the crisis of faith and imagination that I was living through. It is common for fear and self-limiting personal stories to make an appearance in the creative process, but in my experience, people didn’t really talk about these much. Nor did this render them any less painful.
This was not a problem I wished to take to a therapist. My friends couldn’t help with this. The suffering was of a very particular nature, something that only people who wrote or made art might understand. Even among those, not everyone felt called to sit with another as they sat unravelling the tangles of their creativity, not everyone had the capacity to help them spool it anew.
The day I had that conversation though, about the dream deferred, something shifted. Maybe it was the pandemic. Maybe, after years of choosing non-action and invisibility, something gave. Perhaps I was finally tired of being a “shadow artist”, as Julia Cameron would say. That day, it became critical for me to actually start practising my dream before it became irretrievable.
I decided to begin working with people who identified as women, because I was one, and my intimate understanding of their particular challenges and vulnerabilities made me better equipped, I felt, to initiate this practice with them.
The importance of being kind
Life had been messy enough, and then there was the pandemic. Many of the writers who turned up for MLW were single mothers. Even if they had engaged partners, after days of being cooped up at home during the lockdown, trying to manage the whole show without help for most – no cook, no playschool – they were exhausted, on the edge, frazzled, and chronically anxious. Many were not sleeping well; most did not have the mind space for minimal self-care.
These writers were aware that the practice of writing could have benefits akin to meditation for them. It could fill up the void, like a long inhalation. It would be cathartic, like a deep exhalation. But making a beginning was so hard. Sustaining the habit, no less. Finishing a project – unheard of.
They approached MLW with a multitude of different emotions – self-deprecation, desperation, anger, stoicism, and even hope that started out looking like wishful thinking. They came hoping to talk to someone without negative biases, someone who would not say “I told you so” or “You should have.”
Therefore, as I see it, an important principle of MLW is to be kind to ourselves throughout, irrespective of the outcomes. Instead of being harsh enforcers – haven’t all of us had ample practice with that? – why not try another way, I thought, and see what might happen?
Is this counselling, with a focus on the writing process?
Maps for Lost Writers is a form of writing counselling, in so far as it uses mindful listening, reflections and open questions to gently nudge a person closer and closer to their own experience of the creative process. Yet it is something more, and of a different quality. One of the writers I worked with grappled to define this “something more”, and finally worded it as “a sense of love”.
MLW might be better understood as a conversation between equals in the spirit of dharma, “a shared sense of sacred purpose”, offering the solidarity and kinship of a sangha, “a community sharing that same sacred purpose”. The process involves sharing stories, insights and pathways from my own troubled journey. There’s no set template; this sharing is based on trust, from one human being to another, always checking in with the individual as to how viable, hopeful or challenging the possibility sounds, and always building on that.
There is also my own need, which I choose to consciously own and acknowledge in the process – to be seen, and to see myself as I see others, with “unconditional positive regard”. This too has no place in traditional counselling. A quote from Lilla Watson perfectly sums up the connection I feel with this work: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Perhaps these explorations are simply about creating a safe space to help people open up and reflect on the fears and anxieties that keep them from writing. Over the past month, I’ve seen just how enabling this is, by itself. Or perhaps it is to offer “fierce encouragement for writing and life”, which is how my colleague Jena Schwartz defines her work.
These conversations often start off by unravelling life experiences rather than focussing on any specific creative endeavour. And I’m humbled every time I perceive a deepening of my role as witness not only to art-making, but to life itself.
Lost, and found
The response to what was started as an experimental container to practise our longings together has been overwhelming. I’m hearing that this work answers a subconscious need that people often didn’t even know they had, before they’d experienced it. That it has made them feel seen, heard, understood and guided in a way they have rarely been before. That the ability to see their fear more clearly is helping them flow, or rather, overcome the fear of flowing. That it gives them a feeling of ashwasan, to “keep going”. That someone could go to bed feeling less lonely.
I’ve received blessings and embraces. In the short lifespan of this experiment, writers who have been a part of MLW have initiated entire conversations around this work with people they care about.
One beautiful fallout of this process for me personally has been that I, whom I consider to be one of the most hopelessly “blocked” people I know, have started an (almost) daily practice of writing. The words I use to offer encouragement to others seem to be hitting home, right here, in my own body and heart.
My conscience demands that I walk the talk, that whatever strategy or mindset I urge my fellow writers to experiment with and “see what happens”, I try on myself first. Sitting with a notebook and pen, or with the cursor on my laptop has become my version of sitting zazen. It is helping me slow down and practise faith in the uncertain times of Covid-19, when anything except the present moment is unknown and unknowable.
I’ve started trusting that if I begin putting “one word after another” from exactly where I am, with whatever I have, I would write something meaningful.
I’m acknowledging that “shitty first drafts” are good.
That we aren’t alone in perceiving an unbridgeable gap between what we imagine and what we are able to write. As Zadie Smith says, “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”
I’m ritually reminding myself of the songwriter Nick Cave’s beautiful perspective on writer’s block:
“In my experience, lyrics are almost always seemingly just not coming...But the thing you must hold on to…is this – when something’s not coming, it’s coming...What we are talking about is not a period of ‘not coming’ but a period of ‘not arriving’. The lyricsare always coming…They are always on their way toward us. But often they must journey a great distance and over vast stretches of time to get there...our task is both simple and extremely difficult. Our task is to remain patient and vigilant and to not lose heart – for we are…the portals from which the idea explodes....We are…the flourishing and the blooming – but we are also the waiting and the wondering and the worrying.”
And I’m constantly asking myself, “Will I write, even if afraid? Will I be aware of the meaning and worth of my work, and will I do it anyway?”
In conclusion, I wish to append one of the short pieces I wrote after starting this journey. This is a way for me to stand behind what I wrote in faith, good or bad, as tangible evidence of how it was to be alive and writing at a particular moment of the pandemic.
Write to yourself as if speaking to a friend. You are.
Write the story you’ve always wanted to read.
Write the big things that bother you (and write the small things too).
Write the questions you cannot find answers to.
Write what keeps you up at night, and what wakes you early.
Write to recall yesterday, write to imagine tomorrow.
Write to be present in your body and heart in the here and now.
Write to count your blessings.
Write to cast a spell, or to reverse a hex.
Write to turn your grief into a poem.
Write what gives you goosebumps.
Write what makes you smile.
Write what brings up shame, what bubbles up as sheer pleasure.
Write what makes you shy.
Write your biggest embarrassment.
Write to clear the rubble and find a path.
Write to pick yourself up when you fall.
Write to say I love you. Write to mouth I’m sorry.
Write to say thank you from the bottom of your heart.
Write while you breathe in, write as you breathe out.
Write to hold the pose. Write to pause.
Write to run with it. Write to rest.
Write to lick your wounds. Write to heal.
Write to speak in your own voice.
Write to show up.
Write what it is to repair a regret, to fix something broke.
Write about sunshine. Write about gloom.
Write about the shadows that follow you. Write about the shadow that’s a part of you.
Write to pull the curtains back. Write to draw the blinds down.
Write to let your imagination soar. Write to rein it in.
Write to conjure a white rabbit out of a black hat.
Write about bodies. Write to be intimate.
Write humour, write tragedy, write to spill your guts, write dirty.
Write about being human. Write about the feral in you.
Write about love. Write shame. Write indifference, and write kindness.
Write about brewing tea. Write about stirring broth.
Write about a killing, write about a birthing.
Write to purge venom. Write to make medicine.
Write to pay your respects. Write remembrance of ancestors.
Write rituals. Write prophecies.
Write to remember the dead.
Write with words. With blood and sweat.
Urbi Bhaduri is a traditionally published writer, editor and literary arts educator. She has worked extensively in the development sector with adolescents and young adults living on the urban margins, facilitating learning on themes ranging from self-exploration, sexuality and entrepreneurial mindsets to writing poetry and memoir
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.