The dry rustle of hands shoved into coat pockets is an act of protection, hugs are replaced by nervous nods, and to step out into the crisp sunshine more than once is to break the law. Social media is a flickering buzz of news articles, virus-related memes, and screenshots of Zoom meetings, a glass of stockpiled Chablis tilted wryly towards the camera. The line graph of confirmed cases skews alarmingly upwards.
We are living in strange and unexpectedly challenging times. In between breaking news updates and frightening Covid-19 statistics, there is a sudden influx of articles trying to get us to make the most of lockdown by persuading us to channel our energies into creative pursuits and produce something useful.
The Pressure to Be Productive
How many times have you heard the following this week?
– “Shakespeare wrote King Lear during quarantine you know!”
– “No excuse now not to write that novel.”
– “Salvador Dali produced work from a pandemic.”
– “It proved a great theme for Stephen King: look at The Stand.”
How many times have you felt frustrated, or resentful, or at worst a complete failure for having a new-found disinclination to create anything? For every article that breezily states that now is the perfect time to write that novel, a flicker of guilt only makes you feel worse.
So you watch yet another episode of Ozark, already soporific with hours spent in the foetal position on your sofa, wondering whether you should just make the daunting four-metre journey to your desk or just open another bottle of Rioja. It’s Monday.
You would assume that from such articles, and the stream of online events and readings, it would appear that every other creative person is flourishing under the circumstances and producing masterpieces.
Ben from your third-year university class has just recorded another song (and amassed 46 likes in the past two hours). Kate from the poetry open mic has uploaded three new poems in the space of two days, and has just logged an hour-long Pilates workout on her fitness app (you have yet to comb your hair today). Meera has had another successful day home-schooling her perfectly-behaved kids, yet she’s still found time to partake in two very important conference calls (meanwhile, your kids spent the morning trying to hit each other in the face because one had ‘six more Cheerios’ than the other).
Feeling vs Writing
If you’re feeling anything like I do, you’ve probably felt all the emotions this week. Fear. Anger. Sadness. Boredom. Hopefulness. Hopelessness. If I asked you to pinpoint the one emotion you’re feeling right now, would you be able to pare it back to just one? I certainly can’t.
Every time I go to express what I’m feeling on paper, I simply cannot write a word. If I had to explain this visually, it’s as though the emotions are an explosion of dust and debris, sinking slowly and then rattling upwards again with every harrowing announcement that flashes across the TV screen or cough overheard from the kitchen. And until that dust and debris settle, like the blizzard inside a shaken snow globe, the feelings simply will not settle into solid artistic form.
Instead I try in vain to ignore this relentless pressure artists feel to produce something vital in response to global crisis.
Time? What Time?
What many well-meaning ‘positive’ articles tend to forget is that not all of us are suddenly blessed with masses of ‘free time’. Key workers are still out working heroically. Many of us are continuing our 9-5 jobs from home, sometimes working overtime due to the unforeseen situation and its challenges. I’m one of the people still working my full-time job from home. Many of my friends and contacts are doing this while also looking after their children (but please don’t assume that those of us without children are on one long holiday; this situation is hardly a five-star relaxing escape to Barbados). Some have caring responsibilities for vulnerable people in their families, or are facing their own challenges with mental or physical health.
Contrary to what these articles world would lead you to believe, this is not the chance for an extended sabbatical. This is a situation which does not discriminate.
It’s a reminder that we’re each of us vulnerable and human; any of us could need help at any time.
Give Yourself A Break
I’m not here to tell you that just because Shakespeare, or Salvador Dali, or any other creative genius managed to write a masterpiece, means that you can too if you simply stop wallowing and start creating. I’m not here to spring about on the balls of my feet like some hyperactive life coach, roaring at you to just ‘believe in yourself!’; that you can produce something phenomenal if only you eliminate that pesky self-doubt I’d written about before.
We’re talking about something far greater than just a wobble of self-doubt here.
Apart from the one exercise session a day, which sometimes you may not have the energy, nor indeed motivation to muster, there is little else to look at than those same tired walls around you. There is not nearly the same level of human interaction that can normally spark inspiration within you; whether that’s an intriguing conversation overheard in a crowded cafe, or a breathtaking view somewhere far off the beaten track. Like little dogs, we walk or run the same blocks daily in regimented blocks of time.
The fluidity of creative thought is made rigid; stiffened with shock.
What I’m saying is, these aren’t the perfect conditions to be creative. If you’re struggling, just give yourself a break and allow yourself time to enjoy the work of others instead. It’s now that we’re plucking the previously untouched novels from our shelves and losing ourselves in film plots, that we realise just how vital art is to help us endure.
What You Can Do Instead
As an alternative, I started learning Portuguese this week as languages are something I genuinely enjoyed and miss from school. Trying to master the flow of the vowels and discovering Portuguese films (with the subtitles on of course) with the hope of being able to converse with people in the language is proving a real motivation to me. I don’t feel pressure to do this; I simply enjoy learning new vocabulary and grammar in a different language (I know little in the way of intelligent conversation yet, but if you need someone to report that ‘the cat orders beer’ and ‘the armadillo has a car’, I’m your girl).
Find something you enjoy, or something you’ve always wanted to try, and do it without pressure. Just be curious and playful, and take joy in learning just as a child would. It’s a welcome distraction in the evenings and on weekends when you become more acutely aware of where you’d be and the company you would have during those times.
Learning something new can be empowering, so long as you want to do it and it brings you joy. Comfort and entertain yourself as you would a small child – if that means a Disney Plus marathon, do that instead. Leave the dishes from your Baked Alaska attempt until the morning.
A Few Final Words…
I wrote this blog post simply because I couldn’t write, due to the pressure and expectation and guilt of not writing.
And, lo and behold, now I’ve written something.
It may be the only thing I write while the world around me is that snow globe incessantly shaken, swirling and settling, then kicking up again tumultuously.
If what you’re thinking involves pressure, punishment, or guilt, then it’s not an act of care – and right now, we need more care than ever.
Eaten that extra slice of cake when you think you shouldn’t have? Well hey, it tasted great. Let the kids make a den in the living room again when they should have been learning long division? Accept it, for this hour they’re laughing wildly. Abandoned your novel-in-progress to do a virtual pub quiz over Zoom with your best friends? Enjoy it. It’s good to see their faces.
That notebook full of ideas isn’t going anywhere – it’s ready for when the dust settles and you want to return.
Shakespeare never had virtual pub quizzes anyway.