How I Survived 2020, I Wrote Poetry

Sometimes we need to just write for ourselves

You would think that during such apocalyptic times that the best thing a writer can do is, well… write about it, but that is not always the case. We all felt the 2020 blues, we are still feeling it. The pandemic and the daily Covid-19 death tolls in the news has also taken a toll on our mental health — no one can honestly say it hasn’t affected them either directly or psychologically.

Last year I became so depressed I stopped writing, mostly. As the walls closed in around me while I scrambled to complete academia deadlines and teach students who were forced to stay at home during lock-down restrictions. It wasn’t like there wasn’t much to write about — 2020 was on par with some of the best post apocalyptic dramas out there. But I couldn’t write a word of non-fiction. The feeling of being completely immobile and useless, as if anything you do is a pointless act, is debilitating. I would just stare at a blank screen for an hour and then close my laptop, month after month. This resulted in a long term feeling of guilt and powerlessness.

The problem with stopping writing is that it can be much harder to start again if that block (whatever it may be) is given time to grow. After almost a year of no writing I had to analyze my feelings of guilt surrounding this and ask the question:

Does a writer always have to write even when it’s expected of them? Is a writer allowed to stop writing, to stop caring, or is that giving up?

2020 swallowed me whole and for a while I wasn’t sure what was really happening to me. But it wasn’t long before I realized that I was experiencing some of deepest depression of my life — the kind of depression that covers you in a black shroud. Yet sometimes that shroud is actually a blanket of protection.

The problem with being exposed to a constant barrage of devastating news is that it wears down the mind until it reverts to defense mode. This can manifest itself in all kinds of ways, from harmless escapism such as video games, to more extreme methods like binge drinking, or dropping acid in the middle of a parking lot and waving in the cars as they arrive (Melbourne teens all handled lock-down differently last year).

Sometimes depression is a puzzle that doesn’t need solving

With all the doomsday pandemic news bombarding the internet daily, making sense of the reality of 2020 was not an option. When I attempted to write a serious article about the pandemic or experiences in lock-down I quickly felt powerless, overwhelmed and soon felt like Frodo Baggins drowning in The Dead Marshes. When I attempted to work on my fiction, I hit a wall when faced with our uncertain future and large-scale writing projects seemed fruitless and uninspiring.

Zen Buddhists often see depression as a koan, which is a lot like a puzzle they meditate on to help them gain deeper insights about the world and their own lives. To a Buddhist, depression is not always a soap opera that runs on the drama. Rather, something is out of place within, yet it isn’t something that has a sudden solution like chess — depression, like a koan, asks you to sit with the feeling and give yourself the space needed to let the answer arise without forcing it.

Many find these answers through meditation, and while I do practice casual meditation, my impatience often gets the better of me. I have found that simply breathing and sitting with the depression, not fighting against it but sitting in the eye of the storm, allows me to penetrate my busy mind and observe my thoughts without attaching opinions — just look at the bizarre puzzle my mind has created. But once I achieve this state of mindfulness the next best thing for me is to write.

Writing poetry in an act of self compassion

We all have an inner voice, or a “higher self.” Whatever it is, mine didn’t want me to write articles in 2020 — it wanted me to write poetry. So during our 112 day lock-down in Victoria I wrote poetry for myself with no intention of publishing anything. Sometimes I wrote verses freely and words flowed like a gentle river, and sometimes I could barely write three verses. But the important thing is that I gave myself permission to write whatever I wanted without any deadlines or expectations.

When I write poetry I feel liberated from responsibility and conjecture. Plato once said:

“Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.”

When I shut the world out and write poetry for myself I feel that vital truth. It is my own truth and it is something that cannot be judged, belittled, praised, critiqued, or rejected. It is the truth of the moment — a sometimes enlightening discovery, or a walk through a mist drenched forest of the unconscious. Whatever it may be, it is self expression for the sake of it. Much like a surrealist painter who ventures blindly into the canvas, letting the paintbrush be the guide, poetry can often be a spontaneous art-form where you allow negative emotions to rise to the surface. But instead of these feelings manifesting as destructive and painful, art allows you to unravel them unconsciously.

“In times of great distress, our best friend is inside the heart … it is our compassion.” — the Dalai Lama

Often poets write about self-compassion as this is a conscious approach to self development, and sometimes writing about an particular issue can become a way to dispel the demons within. But my focus was not on any particular theme, not even the pandemic. I didn’t set myself any rules or guidelines in 2020, I simply let myself write, and what came out was mostly poems about the environment; nature, the land and the ocean. Perhaps this is what I have longed for.

There is the art of writing poetry, I have even written about it. There is a discipline that comes with any art form and perhaps many would argue that before one can write free verse or write spontaneously, one should first understand the craft. At the same time, rules can become obstacles in the road to our self expression, especially when that creative pursuit is cathartic. The Greek word katharsis is the action of “cleansing, purifying, or purging.” In psychoanalytic theory, this emotional release is linked to a need to relieve unconscious conflicts. Sigmund Freud believed that by recalling a complex into consciousness and expressing it, one could perhaps eliminate that complex.

Poetry and the creation of art in general is the very act of purging painful emotions — a kind of spiritual housecleaning where we give ourselves permission to be creative in an unrestricted, childlike way. Because sometimes we need to let the world burn, we need to close our eyes and ears to the doomsday machine, and just write for ourselves.

Originally published in Medium.

One response to “How I Survived 2020, I Wrote Poetry”

Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

About Me

Jakob Ryce is an award-winning writer and teacher from Melbourne, Australia. He has a B.A. in English Lit, and his work has been published in On The Premises, Drunk Monkeys, The Fourth River, and the Wyndham Writing Awards. He released his first book of poetry in 2021 and has since been working on a follow-up, including a debut novel.


%d bloggers like this: