A Letter to You from an Unproductive Month of Quarantine

Dear Readers,

This was not the blog post I intended to write. I’ve been working on a post about the Literacy Narrative for two weeks now. It is not a difficult thing to write about – literacy is my passion, and narrative-based learning is one of my favorite things to write about and share! And yet, I’ve come up against and missed my own deadline; I’m now “behind” and off schedule for my own blog.

I’m trying hard not to beat myself up about missing one self-imposed deadline. Only, it’s not just one. I can’t write at all the past few weeks. I am struggling, hard to produce much of anything and it feels like I am wasting an opportunity, totally compounding my writer’s block. My creativity is faltering, and the words seem stuck somewhere deep within the dark caverns of existence, far, far out of reach. In other words, I simply cannot. I often take my own advice: I am active, I allow distractions, I accept that some stalling is always part of the writing process. But, while the world keeps rotating despite our social stillness, my fingers remain paused above a keyboard. And it makes me feel awful. Frankly, I hate it.

There are a lot of conflicting articles, memes and infographics circulating the internet: Use this time to be productive! Followed by, Don’t worry about being productive! No matter what side we fall on what part of the day, I think it is more valuable to disregard the platitudes altogether and discover the root of why productivity is at such a high-level of conversation in the first place. After all, we are all antsy to get back outside, back to routine, and possibly even to work. We are productive or we are rendered useless. This is a collective emotion after several weeks of world-gone-mad.

With writing and other creative-based work, productivity pressure is especially difficult because the creative process is not as simple as just clocking in, completing tasks, then clocking out and feeling “productive.” Nor is it as clean-cut as completing those deep-cleaning or organizing chores you’ve put off for months and now have successfully pivoted your value into stress-cleaning and can now enjoy a post-accomplishment beer. (Still valid though—have that reward!)

As Americans, we are, from a very young age, indoctrinated into interlacing our human value with measures of productivity. And, while if you follow me, you know I actively push against this ideal, it’s still engrained into the fabric of our identities. We have seen the facts that toxic positivity can cause mental health decline, specifically in our current state of collective trauma. The truth is, we have already been in a state of trauma before the pandemic outbreak. It is why the term “workaholic” borrows its definition using the suffix -holic: an abnormal dependency on. We are abnormally dependent on measured productivity. Addicted, psychologically and physically. Not just to keep moving, but to literally produce. Produce content, goods, services…even creativity. Without tangible means of production, we are but clumps of cells floating aimlessly in the universe.

No. We are so much more than that.

Why does it feel so terrible, then, to lack creative production, knowing this? This form of social productivity pressure can lead to mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and forms of PTSD. I am not telling you this to cause more pressure to not feel bad (yes, that is a thing—I’m currently battling that very feeling). But rather to remind you that it’s not your fault that you “can’t” write. Not now, not ever. And it’s not your child’s fault, either. It’s not your student’s fault, either.

For creative writers, a lack of creative outlet is burdening—especially during times of trauma, where we are used to creative production as a means to work through issues and heal. For those who struggle to write in the first place, this feeling can be awfully self-depreciating and have long-lasting impacts on how you value yourself and your voice as a writer.

So, what do we do about it?

The truth is, I have no idea what to do about it. That’s okay. We do not need to solve our problems of productivity with a productive solution. And so, I’m not going to give you advice about how you should read a book or take a walk or watch television as a means to eventually produce more.

I’m going to tell you to stop and breathe.

Will that help you finish your term paper or get your children to finish their at-home schoolwork, or help you complete your personal words-met goal today? NOPE.


I am not advocating totally blowing academics or work off—I know, deadlines are real, and grades are due. Being a perfect model of productivity, however, will continue to feed into the generational trauma of this hustle mindset: where we praise our mental and physical deterioration for the sake of measured production for someone else. Let’s, for once, not add to that trauma and settle into whatever mindset we find ourselves in. Take a day to actively NOT measure your productivity – if you are completing work, or reading a book, or writing an essay – do it without thinking about checking off a box. And if you can’t check off that box, for whatever reason, give yourself grace and float on. Think of moments as more than tasks or checkpoints and be still with that perception.

In short: do your best today. If that’s not finishing your novel or turning in an A+ term paper, you are still a writer. You are still a learner. And you are still valuable.

With Love,

Say What You Really Mean and Avoid Value Judgements

Photo by: Patrick Tomasso

The most common feedback I give my students with their writing is: Be specific! That is always our goal, isn’t it? To compose with the 3 C’s: Clarity, Conciseness, and Coherence. So often, general statements muddy a composition, making it difficult to understand what claims are actually being made, and therefore impossible to distinguish the purpose of the writing. Part of the problem here is that when we hear the term opinion, we think evaluation: “good” or “bad.” But these are value judgements, and ironically, do nothing to add value to your writing. Omitting value judgements from your writing can improve the 3C’s and allow you to communicate more effectively.

By definition, a value judgement is: a judgment of the rightness or wrongness of something or someone, or of the usefulness of something or someone, based on a comparison or other relativity. As a generalization, a value judgment can refer to a judgment based upon a particular set of values or on a particular value system.

Some examples of value judgements include: good, bad, better, best, wrong, right, worst, best, etc. Basically, you are assigning value to something in a subjective, ambiguous manner.

Value judgements are problematic for a myriad of reasons. Firstly, think about the word judgement and its negative connotation–it is one thing to have an opinion, it’s another to use that opinion as weapon. Secondly, value is totally subjective. What value system are you making your judgements by?

Step outside of your writing for a moment and understand the context. Who are your readers? Who are you to your readers? Assigning value to a topic, subject or argument is not inclusive and can offend, alienate, or disregard entire audience groups. This is where empathy and narrative-based learning can help provide insight to others’ experiences and why it is so important to consider different perspectives. “Good” weather to a surfer in Southern California, for example, is not “good” weather to an ice-fisher in Michigan. As Morticia Addams famously said: “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” Value judgements then open up your writing for misinterpretation, giving your readers the opportunity to misconstrue your overall point.

Aside from lacking empathy and possible alienating audience groups, value judgements simply do not say much. They are often used as fillers that provide a shallow opinion of a general topic. Value judgements usually spark more questions! Good, how? Good, to whom? Good, why? These generic, shallow statements are not claims at all, but shadows of opinion that dim your writing and obscure what you are trying to communicate.

Ask yourself or your students: What do you mean by ‘good’? ‘Bad’ to whom? Think of precise adjectives that illustrate exactly what you are trying to say in the context of your writing. Instead of “good” think: effective, positive, encouraging, convincing, secure etc. Instead of “bad” think: harmful, destructive, dangerous, ineffective, etc. Choose a different descriptor that actually adds value to your overall point and the argument or statement you are trying to make.

This also applies to creative writing practice when it comes to using value judgements in the form of generic descriptors. When you describe something as “beautiful,” you are creating more questions as to how? To whom? Why?

When we think of writing as communication, the need for saying what you mean is easier to practice.

This practice goes beyond writing in an academic setting. As parents, we should say what we mean to our children too, and teach them to communicate effectively. Rather than tell them good job–mean what you say! When you ask your child how their day was, and they respond with good… ask them to explain how and why. Teaching literacy in this moment, including vocabulary, deep thinking, and communication skills will help them transfer the concept to their writing and academics. Encouraging literacy practice off the page will help to deepen learning capacity and improve the link between meaningful communication and writing.

Even in our personal relationships, we know how important it is to say what we mean—in our families, workplaces, friendships, partnerships—we know we should always communicate our needs and opinions precisely. It is no different with writing.

I encourage you to spend the entire day avoiding value judgements: start with removing “good” and “bad” from your vocabulary and say what you really mean.

Literacy, Movement, and the Mind-Body Connection

photo by @davidmatos

Do you consider bodily movements and exercise as part of your child’s academics? What about as part of your writing routine?

I encourage you to.

This is a great article that moves away from the idea of the brain being a “muscle” we should work out, as that usually encourages traditional “work” hunched over a desk with a pencil to paper. That is the very opposite of how we should view our body-mind link.

A major reason we are still allowed to engage in physical activity outside during shelter-in-place orders, is because it is necessary for mental health. For those self-isolating in apartments or in large cities where a jog around the park is not accessible, we can still move around inside and enjoy extensive benefits. Don’t think about these movements as exercise or work, though — connect your mind and body in a conscious, intentional way without the pressure of fitness goals. Instead, use that time to inspire creativity, self-meditation, and healing.

For kids: while doing yoga, dancing, or calisthenics together, ask how their bodies feel before, during, and after. Ask them what kinds of things they were thinking about while they were moving their bodies. Take an opportunity to have them write or draw about their bodies and experience. Or, before yoga, meditation, a run or bike ride, guide their minds to a place of imagination, and afterward, have them tell you a story they made up during their practice. Remember, writing and reading is not the ONLY form of literacy: oral language and storytelling are equal skills!

For others: guide yourself in the same processes as above by engaging in intentional movements that link your mind-body spirit. Let your mind wander as you move. If you have a partner, talk about your experiences afterward, and if you are doing it on your own, consider journaling. Again, don’t think about rigid goals, whether in fitness or writing. As yoga teacher and writer Tara Burke posits, this mind-body connection is embedded in “body agency, active listening, acceptance of the whole human experience, and holding space for one another to be seen, to be felt, to move and grow for greater, more alive and connected living.”

Decolonize the idea that a rigid work-mindset is our only access to learning. Reshape the way you see exercise by showing your child or yourself how language and movement are interconnected.

Have you ever felt the magic of freewriting?

photo by: @craftedbygc

I am resistant to making this strange time of isolation all about productivity and staying busy and pretending like things are anything but normal. They’re not. And that’s OK. It’s also OK to not feel creative, or to feel too overwhelmed to do much. And, if you are a student, or parent of a student, the pressure to keep up with academics can feel overbearingly stressful. That’s all OK.

The practice of Freewriting can help alleviate some of those feelings: writers & non-writers, students & non-students alike.

In fact, dismiss what you even associate with the word “work” or “practice.” Begin to dismantle the conditioning of society and allow yourself to just BE. That doesn’t have to be a negative thing; I know it’s hard. But know, that we can still learn, and create, and heal and produce in this state. Here’s how:

Often, I will begin my classes with a short freewrite or two. Generally, the topic of our freewrite is tied to either what we’ve already been reading and discussing, or ideas and concepts I’m about to introduce to them. The concept is this: for a designated amount of time (I usually do 5, 7, or 10 minute stretches) you just WRITE. You don’t think before you put the pencil to paper; you don’t worry about it being “good” or about grammar or logical organization of your sentences. In fact, the only rule is: don’t stop writing. If you get stuck, I encourage you to literally write random, nonsense words until a thought makes its way down the avenue of your spine and arm and fingers and transfers to the page and a sentence forms. This works as a stream of consciousness: a continuous flow of thinking and writing that may end in a totally different place than you started. Don’t stop writing. Don’t worry about anything else.

Why is this activity so magical? Because it’s freeing. That’s why it’s called a freewrite. Dismiss the pressure to be a “good writer” or that your ideas are not worth writing about. You are. They are. Writing is also cathartic and healing–practicing small, no-pressure activities of reflection can do wonders for your mental health. Just like we don’t need to be well-practiced, flexible yogis to benefit from moving our bodies in an intentional, conscious, healing way…we don’t need to be WRITERS to engage in the healing, reflection, and mental exercise that freewriting offers. The benefits are also practical for learning and keeping our fingers, minds, and thoughts sharp as we improve literacy skills across the board.

FOR YOUNG STUDENTS: keep the activity short (3 or 5 minutes) and choose a happy topic based in reflection of a time period or day. Whether it be their day, their dream, a past holiday or vacation; don’t rely on specifics, but instead encourage open-ended answers with ideas like “What other things or places or moments make you feel Christmas magic when it’s not even Christmastime?” This helps to develop and sharpen skills such as: serial recall, summary, fine motor skill and legibility practice, reflection, and imagination. When they are done writing, ask them to share parts of their freewrite, and to summarize what they wrote about. You can also ask about the process itself as you encourage them to massage their hands and connect with the part of the body that allowed them to write: How did it feel to be able to write without worrying about spelling or grammar? How does your hand feel after writing for so long straight? What kinds of things did writing about this make you wonder about, or want to explore?

FOR OLDER STUDENTS: Start with a short freewrite (5 or 7 minutes) about a general topic: such as, “How do you feel your body has changed since school has closed?” Then, read aloud a short story, article, poem, or passage on the topic (try, “When the Body” by Linda Hogan). End with a longer freewrite (7 or 10 minutes), asking them to reflect on what you read and how it made them feel, connecting to their thoughts about their own body. Remind them to not worry about logic, structure, spelling, or any of it. For teenagers, let them know you won’t even read what they are writing. There is no wrong answer or “bad” writing here. Then, as you encourage them to massage their hands, ask them to summarize what they wrote, and how each freewrite compares before and after the reading. Skills include: handwriting practice, listening and reading comprehension, reflection, oral storytelling, summary and paraphrase, and memory retention. For college students: lead yourself, or ask a friend to do this with you over email or Facetime, or ask a parent to facilitate. You can attach this to your current courses (yes, even math!) or not. Remember, it’s not about directly correlating current academic learning to this activity.

FOR WRITERS: PUT AWAY YOUR CREATIVE PROJECT. Do not tie your freewrite to those. This is like your warmup for a run: do arm circles directly help you run faster? Maybe not literally, but doing them lubricates your joints, warms up your muscles, and gets your heart rate going, and most importantly, mentally prepares you by getting you into the mindset. Don’t force creativity or productivity. Write for 10 minutes at a time, with the same no-pressure rules. You can seek out set flash fiction prompts from Nancy Stohlman (https://nancystohlman.com/20…/…/19/30-flash-fiction-prompts/) OR read curated articles from Roxane Gay’s Unruly Body Series and respond with a reflection on what your read, OR simply reflect on how you are feeling right then, right now. When you are done, don’t re-read it–that will lend to analyzing and editing and correcting, as we writers tend to intrinsically do. You warmed up your creative muscles and will now be thinking and processing for the day thereafter.

FOR NON-WRITERS: Reflective writing helps you process your feelings and emotions without needing to seek out additional resources or people or time, which can be difficult right now. You can consider freewriting like a type of journaling, only more intentional. Still, set a type of prompt or topic or question for yourself before you begin and write that at the top of your page before you set your timer. Don’t feel pressure to write about anything meaningful or directly related to the current crisis–though of course, you may. Think about the weather, about memory, about your body. Build up from 5 minutes to 10 minutes and do this in the morning, or afternoon, or evening. It is a type of meditation and self-reflection: re-read what you wrote and take joy in the process.

FOR EVERYONE: Do NOT type on your laptop! Use a notebook, your grocery list pad of paper on your fridge, blank computer paper, I don’t care. Use a pack of glitter gel pens, an old eyeliner pencil, your kids’ crayons. But you MUST physically use your own hand to write; studies have shown you simply do not benefit in the same way. This is a mind/body process indented to slow you down. Let yourself slow down and feel and write and think and move.

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Will you try this for yourself or your kids? Let me know how it goes in the comments! Happy writing ✏️❤️