Like many freelance and creative types, since the shelter-in-place mandate was initiated in California two weeks ago, I’ve been extra-convinced that all this extra time was going to allow me to be extra-productive. Stuck in my house for weeks? No more excuses! I can write songs! Books! Web content! All day, every day!
I blame this lofty notion partly on the social media posts circulating currently—the ones about great works of art created in isolation: Shakespeare’s King Lear during the bubonic plague; Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable during his time in exile; and don’t even get me started on The Diary of Anne Frank. For someone who borders on an over-achiever-Type-A personality already, this information felt like The Mother of All Calls to Action.
Except that’s not quite how it’s been playing out.
The first week of quarantine, which I’ll call the Numbed Out on Bad News Stage, I devoured every single piece of “breaking news” on every network and was left with an anxiety-ridden gut ache and zero mental bandwidth to hold a conversation without sobbing. Week two, I was able to concentrate for an hour or so a day on actual paid work, attend a couple of Zoom meetings, and scour the Internet for food and supplies. (My pantry has never seen so many cans of tuna.) Most important, I rationed myself to one hour of news per day, which I paired with a glass of wine.
Here’s what I discovered: trauma and anxiety do not a creative environment make.
Most of the writers and artists I know are a highly motivated, industrious, productive, ambitious lot. But right now, at this particular time? I want to give all of us permission to spend two hours in the bathtub, or in front of Netflix, or on the floor building Leggos with our kids, or barricaded in our closets with a glass of wine. The point is: let’s quit saying, “I should be getting more work done with all of this extra time on my hands.” It’s not ‘extra’ time. It’s an anxious, scary, tense time, and that’s not conducive to creative work.
Whatever radical self-care you need to practice to get you and your family through this pandemic, I say DO IT. Writers? Write if it feels good, if it helps you distract from the negative or focus on something positive.
But please, for the love of your own mental health and those around you, don’t write just to churn out ‘content for your platform’ during this time. It won't be good for you or anyone else.
Instead, here are some low-pressure ways to keep you writing and, quite possibly, sane:
· Take brief notes of meaningful, inspiring or poignant ideas during the day. Hand write these in a journal—maybe that one you've been saving for a special occasion—and keep it nearby. Revisit these little gems later and develop the ones that still resonate.
· Chronicle the pandemic, day-to-day, without any deep, thoughtful commentary. Just the facts. Then come back to it later and expand some of the more interesting sections. You (or your kids or your readers) may find it fascinating at some future time.
· Find a website or book that generates writing prompts and take 10-15 minutes a day to respond to one that appeals to you. It keeps your skills sharp, and carries none of the weight of something you’re going to publish. But you may be surprised and strike creative gold with one of them.
· Write short stories with your kids, especially outside your genre: try fantasy, sci-fi, adventure. Read them out loud to each other. Have your kids critique yours, if you dare.
· Email or text friends something funny, exasperating or heartwarming that happened during your day. Be writerly—descriptive, pithy, sharp. Shared experience helps us feel connected.
· Be more vulnerable and open with your social media posts, sharing parts of your life you don’t usually share: cooking, gardening, music. Again, fostering connection is the goal, not building your brand.
A final word: be generous with yourself; give your soul time to breathe and your heart space to process all that’s going on in the world right now. We writers want to to record it all in real time, artfully. But some things take time and perspective. Be present with your loved ones. The work will be there when this is all over.