A year ago, my dad woke up on a Saturday morning with a swollen forehead.
“Just above the eye,” he told me on the phone. He thought a bug bit him in the night and this was an allergic reaction. He lived alone. He had no technology to snap and send a photo to show me what it looked like. So that Saturday morning, my husband and I drove to Dad’s house, about an hour one way, to take a look at his swollen forehead.
He had an obvious gash, not a bite or sting. “You must have fallen,” I said.
“I don’t remember falling.”
“This isn’t a bug bite. You definitely fell and hit your head.”
“But I don’t remember falling.”
We noticed mild abrasions near his elbow, and when we took him to the hospital, the nurse found he had scraped his knee.
“You fell,” she said.
“But I don’t remember it.”
That night set off of a series of medical issues that landed him in and out of five different medical facilities over the next several months. Day and night, my husband, brother, and I worked together to address each new decision, each change, each issue, each problem, each emergency. The chaos stayed at code red for months.
I ended up taking on a lot of tasks, from faxing paperwork and keeping track of new meds to staying on hand for medical updates and decisions. I accompanied my dad to tests and appointments. My phone rang day and night with something related to my dad’s care. I couldn’t make plans or rely on a set writing schedule because of the disruptive nature of my dad’s needs. In winter, we prepared to sell his farm house, so in addition to my caregiving duties, I was suddenly in charge of preparing for a property and estate auction.
Every morning brought unexpected trouble requiring my time and attention, often involving a high level of urgency, anxiety, emotions and stress from a lot of people involved … producing a high level of stress in me.
I had to find creative ways to consult, to write, to edit, to think, to eat … to breathe.
Most of my writing life has been lived out in the context of raising kids, which I used to think of as a kind of chaos. But this? Nothing compared with the chaos of responding to the escalating needs of my dad, and nothing prepared me for it.
Somehow I made it through those months of chaos. My dad now lives in a place nearby, where trained professionals handle the emergencies, and I don’t have to drive an hour one-way to help. Things seem to have stabilized. For now.
Those months taught me valuable lessons, including how to write in the middle of chaos. If hell rattles the bars and threatens to break loose again in the weeks or months ahead, I think I know better how to face it, and how to work in the midst of it.
Have you faced periods of intense chaos? If you haven’t yet, you probably will. People can get sick, accidents happen, things break, situations abruptly change. Obviously, as you enter emergency mode, you’ll be responding to the situation and the needs of the people involved. That becomes the top priority.
At some point, you may find yourself trying to write in the middle of chaos—you may need to write in the middle of chaos, whether to meet deadlines or to record the details of the unfolding events. Whatever writing you need or want to accomplish, I hope these ideas can prepare you to make the most of that time.
How to Write in the Middle of Chaos
- Lower expectations
- Prioritize and postpone
- Create a mobile office
1. Lower expectations
You’re not going to get as much done as you did before chaos ensued, so lower your expectations. In your head. In your heart. You’ll save yourself a lot of emotional energy if you simply accept this from the start rather than continue to fight to keep things the way they were. Your writing output will be less. You may need to adjust deadlines and goals for certain projects. It’s not what you want, but it’s the way it is, at least for a while.
2. Prioritize and postpone
You aren’t going to get as much done, so you’ll have to prioritize. What can you put on hold and what can you manage to get done? What needs to get done? What deadlines loom? Rather than try to continue at the same pace and level of output, adjust your plans to reflect those priorities. Simplify. Postpone. Ask for an extension or sabbatical.
What can you pass off to others in order to respond to the chaos and get some writing done? Ask for help or hire some help. Don’t try to make every meal, clean every room, and address every single problem on your own. Offload to others some of the non-writing, chaos-related work so that every once in a while you can sit down and write.
4. Create a mobile office
Once I had the other elements in place—adjusted expectations, prioritized projects and tasks (postponing what I could), and people who helped carry the load (especially domestic tasks), I could get a little creative. I realized I spent long hours at these various medical facilities as Dad was moved from one to another, so I grabbed the pink backpack I bought at a secondhand store and loaded it with everything I would need to write and edit. With a mobile office, I had at my side everything I needed to get work done. The backpack went with me absolutely everywhere, and using the items contained within it, I finished edits of my most recent book, edited articles for the organization I worked for, and wrote and recorded podcast episodes. I took client calls in hospital hallways and nursing home conference rooms and my car.
When you have what you need on hand, you can write wherever you are, during whatever chunks of time you can find.
Here are ideas of items to load into your mobile office:
- laptop (and charger cord)
- cell phone with hotspot (and charger cord)
- thank-you cards
- Scotch tape
- small scissors
- 3-ring binder with current project and extra paper
With those items, I could keep up with digital and analog correspondence, open my computer and work on a writing project, collaborate with my coauthor, log onto my website and publish a blog post, and make notes on the hard copy of a project I was trying to work through. When Dad was sleeping, I could slip to the visitors’ lounge or the car and work for a while. Without everyday distractions like the dogs and the dryer buzzer, I actually found I could focus quite well. My chaotic season has ended, but I still tote my mobile office everywhere.
During the chaos, you’ll find unexpected slivers and occasional chunks of time to write. Make the most of the time you find by learning to focus. If you can avoid those everyday distractions, you’ll make progress with your writing. Sometimes editing tasks fit best in slivers of time, whereas writing works well during longer stretches of time. Also, keep in mind that in chaos mode, drafts are often messier. That’s okay. Stay focused, and keep writing when you can.
One time I grabbed my mobile office and found a conference room at one of the nursing homes where my dad was staying, but as I was setting up to write, someone came in and needed me to provide some information. My writing opportunity wasn’t quite as productive, but that day I headed to the car for more privacy. Another time, I had to leave a quiet, unused room so that someone could set it up for something else. Staying flexible was key to writing in the midst of chaos. This flex-mindset freed me to release expectation after expectation, looking for another creative alternative for when and where to write. Be open to unusual circumstances where you would never have chosen to write, but where you realize you can write. If you find it, this is your chance! Even if all you can find is a chair in the corner of a lobby facing the wall, sit down and write.
Teetering on the Edge of Chaos
This afternoon I was late getting this post written. My dad phoned, upset about something that didn’t even make sense. I decided to swing by after picking up my son from school.
When I arrived, a therapist was walking Dad down to the gym for strength training, so I walked alongside them. The therapist wrapped a strap around Dad’s chest and held onto it, stabilizing Dad as he moved the wheelchair in front of Dad.
“Okay, push this down to therapy.”
“I didn’t realize I could use this to push!” Dad exclaimed.
“You can’t, not without me here,” the therapist said. “You’re not ready yet.”
“I like pushing this.” Two steps later, Dad leaned a little too heavily on the wheelchair, and he stumbled. The therapist gripped the strap and held Dad upright.
“I almost fell!”
“Yes, you did,” the therapist said.
“But you caught me.”
“Yes, I did.”
Dad straightened up and took hold of the wheelchair handles more lightly. “I would have fallen if I’d been by myself,” he observed.
The therapist simply nodded, and I thought back to that goose egg on his forehead a year ago. We continued slowly to the gym, where he started his exercises.
I excused myself and headed home. To write.
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