I cannot think of the past year without linking it to 2020, when all our lives changed. As the coronavirus became a global pandemic, I had so many conversations with friends about the value of art in this time. Was it worth it to play around with the order of words on a page, to create characters that didn’t exist when there was so much devastation in the world? When we were emotionally, physically, mentally drained? You know the answer, just as I do, or you wouldn’t be here, reading this essay. It is always worth it—to search for meaning through the act of writing, to discover ourselves through our narratives, to create art by linking words together. For me this is the truest answer. The next question, though, is how? How do we keep going? When each new day brings more uncertainty, more bad news, more fear, more to hold in our minds while keeping it all together—our families, our jobs, our planet—how do we keep going as creative people?
To try to answer that question I have to return to the beginning of the pandemic. In March 2020, when New York City shut down, I was six months pregnant. It felt as if suddenly and all at once the shape of the city I call home had changed. Nonessential businesses shuttered. Sirens, which were always a part of the auditory landscape, became a never-ending source of noise, a sinister reminder that we were at the pandemic’s epicenter. Everyone stayed indoors. As the baby kicked inside me I wondered whether my husband, then a medical resident, would be sent to the “front lines.” I wondered if one of us would die, if I would have to raise a child alone, if our families and friends were all right, if our world was imploding. If, if, if. After weeks of doom-scrolling and anxious phone calls and blankly staring out the window, I turned to the one thing that could bring me solace—my writing.
When I found out I was pregnant in 2019, I had set myself the goal of finishing a draft of my novel before the baby came. As a first-time mother I was afraid of how a child would change my ability to write—the time needed but also the mental and emotional capacity to sit and wonder. So much of writing comes in exploring and experimenting, in having faith that following an intriguing question will lead to fruitful discovery. I didn’t want to lose that wonder. With the world in crisis, with the future so uncertain, I felt an even greater urgency.
I decided to give myself a word-count target to help structure my hours. If I could write a thousand words a day, perhaps I could finish before the baby’s due date. Maybe with this daily goal I would stay motivated, even when I felt scared or distracted or overwhelmed or, more often, all those emotions at once.
It worked. When I felt drawn to panicked headlines like “Some Pregnant Women in New York City Will Have to Deliver Babies Alone” (New York Times, March 24, 2020) and “Do You Want to Die in an ICU? Pandemic Makes Question All Too Real” (New York Times, April 24, 2020), I redirected myself by looking at the unmet count. I had written only 578 words! I couldn’t keep scrolling and thinking of what-ifs. When I wasn’t sure of how to continue within the novel itself, I kept going, marking questions I would answer later. Clarity would come with a full draft, I reasoned. I fumbled my way forward until—just in time—I finished.
That June I gave birth—a story and act-making of its own. A few months later, after the haze of sleepless nights with a newborn lifted, I decided it was time to return to my writing. I printed the novel and sat down to read. I had finished in such a frenzy, spurred on by fear. Would it be any good?
Dread built up in me as I read. There were moments that excited me, when I could feel the rhythm and impact of a scene, when the emotional aching I was aiming for landed just right, but the questions I had ignored were still there. Was this character’s evolution the best way to show the power of state-sanctioned violence? Was having two shifting perspectives and a shifting timeline too confusing? On a more granular level, what was this character’s motivation for betraying her friend in this scene? Was the appearance of a jackknife in the middle of the novel distracting or compelling? The questions had not, as I had hoped, answered themselves.
I felt like a failure. I was despondent for weeks, frustrated with myself for wasting time. In between teaching online and breastfeeding my newborn, I berated myself. Shouldn’t I know how to do this by now? Why wasn’t writing any easier? I took walks in the winter cold. I taught my students with a focus on joy, on revision, on believing in one’s writerly worth without really listening to my own words. I felt burned out, listless.
Then one morning I looked at the pages strewn all over my desk and realized: I had completed the task I had set out for myself. Maybe it was a “bad” draft, but it was still a draft. A novel with characters and a narrative arc. Amid the horror and uncertainty of the pandemic, I had created not only a new life, a human who gave me the greatest solace, but also a book. A book that I had started in 2017 from a germ of an idea and a blank page. How wondrous to now hold these two creations in my hands. So why was I giving myself such a hard time?
I had done what I often do: I had moved the goalposts. I hadn’t acknowledged, let alone celebrated, finishing a draft. Instead I had moved on to wanting the best possible version of my novel, which, of course, made me feel like I had failed. This subconscious sliding from one step to the next felt like reaching for one water glass after another, an entire row of water glasses, finding each of them empty—forever striving without ever quenching my thirst.
I felt enormous relief with this realization. I looked at the printed pages and tried to sit with them in a kind of sustained gratitude. I made myself acknowledge aloud: “I finished my novel.” I celebrated with wine and an indulgent dinner. The next day I considered how to break down the manuscript’s remaining questions into smaller goals. I would revise for character first, and then another revision for theme, and so on.
Since then I have formed new strategies to prevent burnout by consistently creating achievable goals and, more important, celebrating when I reach them. A lit candle, a cocktail with friends, a bag of candy that will rot my teeth, a new book to read. Always, a verbal acknowledgement. I also provide external reinforcements. Every day I consider the small moments in between my work that rejuvenate me—the way the prism catches the light in my living room, how the poncho I wore tickled my neck on my morning walk, the sweetness of my now toddler scooting onto my lap to read together. Every Friday my friend and fellow novelist Lucy Tan and I e-mail each other a summary of what we have accomplished that week. These exchanges help me to reflect on the work I am doing and remind me that I am part of a larger literary community, all of us striving to create.
Now, as one year ends and another begins, I am writing to bridge the gap between what my book currently is and what I want it to be. I am no longer focusing on word count, but I’m grateful that I did so in 2020. I’m building on those bones, and I’m learning. When I feel overwhelmed or sapped of energy, I think about all the goals I have met—connecting the events in my novel to Korea’s larger history of violence and oppression, pulling out the threads of a complex mother-daughter relationship—and I rejoice in them. These small celebrations help to sustain the wonder that is necessary to write, to discover, to keep returning to the page again and again.
Crystal Hana Kim is the author of If You Leave Me (William Morrow, 2018), which was a Booklist Editor’s Choice title and named a best book of the year by over a dozen publications. A 2021 Jerome Hill Artist Finalist and a 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize winner, she teaches at Columbia University and in the Randolph College MFA program.