Writing Coach Insights: Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste


If you haven’t heard the word crisis at least a billion times over the past few months, I congratulate you, for you have successfully insulated yourself from the sense of panic that pervades public and private discourse these days. Even if, exhausted by the continual drama, you’ve stopped watching the news, it’s likely that you still haven’t been able to avoid this word entirely, whether it’s been uttered by the grocery store cashier, the bank teller, a friend, a family member, your spouse.

Panic is only one possible response to a crisis, whether it’s a very personal one or one shared nationally—or globally, for that matter. In an interview, Rahm Emanuel said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” (Check out the video below.) If only he’d said this a little more poetically, it would be worth carving into a monument somewhere. Still, the rough-hewnness of his statement somehow works for the current atmosphere, which calls for everyone to get a little closer to the ground. But what I most like about what he said is that it flies in the face of our common conception of crisis, as well as our assumptions about the proper reaction to such a phenomenon. Overall, the culture seems to agree that panic is in order. However, in Emanuel’s view, a serious crisis is a rare and valuable—maybe even precious—opportunity.

What exactly is a crisis? Off the top of my head, I’d say it’s a set of circumstances that necessitates a change—in customary action, and, more importantly, in perspective. Something we’ve become accustomed to suddenly gets taken away. Previous ways of doing things suddenly become untenable. Sounds scary, yes? Maybe. Yes, it’s a slap in the face from the universe, but it’s one that gets us breathing again, wakes us up to possibilities we wouldn’t even consider before because we were clinging so hard to the known, the familiar, the comfortable.

And letting go and waking up to new possibilities is the very definition of creativity.

Did you ever notice that some of your most prolific times, writing-wise, have occurred when your life has been highly unpredictable, when circumstances you’d depended on for a long time—whether related to health, friendship, money, love, sex—are called into question? I don’t think this is because you have to be unhappy in order to write well. You just have to be open. You have to let go. Unfortunately, few of us are willing to truly let go until circumstances require us to do so. That’s where the unhappiness comes in.

I realize that this is all very abstract. After all, what does it mean to “let go”? Exactly how will leaving the familiar behind help you write a brilliant poem or finish your novel? I don’t know precisely. What I do know is that we all experience crisis. My advice to you—and I’ll do my best to put this into practice in my own life—is this: Forge ahead and use it. Eat, sleep, wake up in the morning, and milk that crisis for all it’s worth.

And, once in a while, if you can, stop for a moment to say thank you.