When COVID-19 hit, bestselling poet Rupi Kaur had writer's block — so she started teaching on Instagram
Kaur has sold millions of books and has 4 million Instagram followers, but even she struggles with self-doubt
Originally published on April 29, 2020
By almost any measure Rupi Kaur is a massively successful writer.
The Canadian poet, illustrator and author sold more than 2.5 million copies of her debut book Milk and Honey, and spent 77 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Her second book, The Sun and Her Flowers, sold more than three million copies, and was translated into 35 languages. In 2019, The New Republic named Kaur "Writer of the Decade." On Instagram, she has more than four million followers.
But when COVID-19 hit, even Kaur found herself with writer's block.
"Like for everybody, for the first couple of weeks, I wasn't able to do anything, which was really hard because I was beating myself up for it. There was so much uncertainty," says Kaur in an interview with q host Tom Power.
"There was a collective grief that I think we were all feeling, and our year was suddenly up in the air. So for the first three weeks, I wasn't able to write a single word."
But with a manuscript deadline looming, Kaur knew she had to get the creative juices flowing again. Then she had an idea: she would host live writing workshops on Instagram.
"I started doing the workshops because I was lonely and I was desperate, and I was scared and lost," says Kaur, on the phone from her parents' home in Brampton where she's riding out the crisis with her family.
"And I always go back to connection and sharing. That's why I started to publish. That's why I share my work. I'm desperate to connect with other people because I think that's what keeps us alive, and keeps us going."
'Let your subconscious do the work for you'
In the Instagram Live workshops, Kaur isn't teaching students the mechanics of poetry. Rather, the exercises get people freewriting — that is, writing whatever comes to mind without inhibition.
It's also a technique Kaur uses before she sets out to work on her poems.
"I'm not really interested in teaching people technique and skill right now. The sessions I've been doing have just been, 'Here, let your subconscious do the work for you. Our thoughts are already processing, so don't worry about editing. Don't worry about revising. Just let it come out of you,'" says Kaur.
"And we tackle different subjects. Sometimes it's fear. Sometimes it's love. Sometimes I leave it up to the writers," she says. "But I'm interested in pulling out of people what's happening on the inside that they might not be aware of."
Of course, many people have said they plan to put pen to paper during these isolated times. So what happens if they think their inner voice sounds, well, cheesy or overly emotional or just plain bad?
Kaur says it's a feeling she battles all the time, just ask her editors.
"I am the most complaining, down on myself, hard on myself person. I think everything I write is so emo and so all of the things that everybody else says about their work," she says with a laugh.
The key for Kaur has been to aim for connection, not perfection.
"My number one goal has been to share and connect. That makes it easier to share something you might be a little bit insecure about," says Kaur. "And you don't really get better until you put yourself out there and it's that journey. So just take that leap and take that risk."
'Writing to enjoy'
Kaur also emphasizes that writing doesn't have to be about publication; it's also a form of therapy and meditation.
"And that process is nurturing," says Kaur. "You always come out of it feeling better and feeling more connected to yourself, which I think is really important at this time, when there is so much uncertainty clouding our days."
Having a deadline looming and millions of fans waiting for your next book can also put a serious dent in your creativity, says Kaur.
After the success of Milk and Honey, the poet felt intense pressure to produce new work — but then the words didn't come because she wasn't enjoying the process.
This time, however, she's approaching things differently.
Now in this period of stillness, I've been taking a step back, learning how to take the pressure off and writing to enjoy, and writing to just be where I am.- Rupi Kaur
"Now in this period of stillness, I've been taking a step back, learning how to take the pressure off and writing to enjoy, and writing to just be where I am. And so every day I wake up in the morning, I meditate and I'm like, 'OK, what is it? What do I need today?'" she explains.
"That is what I'm going to write. And it's a journey every single day."
Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview produced by Vanessa Nigro.