We need to keep creating art. Especially in these hard times. Trust me on this. We need to be there for each other in all ways.  —Kelli Russell Agodon, via Twitter

In a recent virtual literary happy hour presented by Hugo House, guest writer Marie-Helene Bertino mentioned that focus was a scarce commodity these days. “Collective grief really ruins attention spans.”

That was the first time I realized that I might be grieving. I didn’t know I was grieving my old way of life, grieving for all the lives destroyed. And, as the weeks progressed, grieving for Black and Brown lives, grieving for all the harm this country has inflicted and continues to inflict, grieving for my own white ignorance and complicity—grieving for all the hundreds of thousands of dead.

Joan Miró, Painting on white background for the cell of a recluse (I), 20 May 1968, Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, Spain.

What I did know was that I was having trouble focusing on my own writing. It suddenly seemed so small and meaningless compared to the many life-and-death situations of others. In the early stages of the pandemic, I thought I would be able to make good progress on my next novel, but I found myself wondering why I was writing this and if it meant anything. The only thing I could focus on was food and scarcity. I checked my cupboards and inventoried my food stores so often the pulls on my cupboard doors fell off. But I couldn’t think much about my book. Then, as the death of George Floyd spurred protests and awareness around the world, I further wondered what my as-of-now sprawling book about identity and lost fathers mattered at all.

What made things worse was that many people in my orbit seemed to be getting a lot of work done. Friends and artists I know were making art in response to the pandemic and the Seattle protests; others found solace in their writing—and all of this made me feel not only incredibly envious but also defective somehow. Why couldn’t I sink into my writing the way I’d always done?

But I soon realized I was not alone. In R.O. Kwon’s opinion piece in the New York Times, she writes that the pandemic stopped her speaking gigs and travel so she finally had the time and space to work on her novel. “But,” she writes, “I couldn’t focus. What’s more, news aside, I could barely read. . . . I couldn’t recall why I’d even cared so much about books, words.”

This was how I was feeling, and reading this helped me further acknowledge the grief. My perspective shifted. I needed to grieve. I learned too that I needed to take everything slowly. Allow myself the freedom to write any words or no words at all. To sit and do nothing, or draw instead. To cook meals and read what words I could. The first novel I could finally read beginning to end was The Fish Can Sing, by Icelandic writer Hallador Laxness, about a boy who aspired to sing. It was a soothing balm for the grief, and for finding my voice own again.

I could think about art again. Extremely encouraging were tweets from poet Kelli Russell Agodon, reminders that art matters and we must continue to do our work. Someone needs it. We may not know who. We may not know why it matters. But it does.

She writes:

For those of you who are grieving—grieve on.

Do not ignore this pain, it is a reminder of who we need to give power to and that we need to take care of each other. To stand up, to say—No, this should not happen.

Be brave. Speak up. Make art.

For some reason, I remembered sitting before Miró’s single line paintings at the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona just over a year ago—the Painting on a White Background for the Cell of a Recluse series. How I sat and absorbed a single line at a time, doing so because I didn’t understand them. I came to slowly see that a single line can be everything. Can have power. Can tell an entire story. Can be enough.

I began to write words and phrases on sticky notes. These became lines, which I arranged and rearranged  in my notebook. I found I could focus on a single word, or a single line. These eventually became poems—poems, I realized, that centered on anxiety and grief. I just let the lines happen, good or bad, and in that way found myself slowly on the journey back to my book.

Lines that eventually became the poem “Ghosts.”

I’m not saying I can focus well. And I often don’t make my goal of editing or writing 500 words when I sit down to write. But I trust. I trust the work I’m doing. I may not know what it means or why it matters—all I know is that I need to write it. That is enough, and what it means, how it speaks to others, what it means to others will be revealed in the process. It will show me, if I let it, what it has to say.