A Creative Life in a Time of Crisis
This is, and isn’t, about the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope this article is useful beyond/outside of quarantine circumstances because so many creatives (artists, writers, poets, designers, etc.) struggle with these issues periodically throughout their lives.
Let’s start with what should be obvious, but somehow isn’t:
You are not obligated to produce new work during your quarantine.
I know. This is either a trite statement, and you are rolling your eyes, or it’s the first time you are feeling affirmed and allowed to breathe a sigh of relief.
So let me repeat that: You are not obligated to produce new creative work during your quarantine.
Guess what? That applies to other times of crisis in your life as well. You are not obligated to produce new work when you are dealing with a divorce, illness, job loss, or any other major life change or difficulty.
Back in the day, I ran a Yahoo group (yes, I know I am aging myself, and I don’t care) of Muslim writers. A frequent topic of conversation was “writer’s block.” Now, there are two types of writer’s block that I am familiar with (maybe you know of others).
- I’m working on a project, may even have a deadline or at least a schedule, and I have found myself stuck and unable to move forward, or
- I’m not working on anything in particular, but I feel like I should be working on something. And yet, I have no ideas or nothing I try is working right because they are not fully formed ideas yet.
It seems, no matter how experienced, writers (and other creatives) feel an enormous amount of stress to “always be writing” (or creating). I know where some of that pressure comes from. Maybe it’s a personality trait, or even a workaholic tendency (raises hand). Perhaps it is a way to justify avoiding other less pleasant parts of life (who has time to do something as mundane as washing dishes when you “need” to be working on that novel or painting?). Or maybe it’s external pressure such as that teacher who told you a writer writes every day. You can probably think of several other types of pressure you feel.
One of the pressures during the current quarantine is that you see your friends and colleagues have been very productive with new hobbies or areas of interest you weren’t aware they had all this time. Now that they are home, they have time to engage with these interests and to post frequently about them. Does this mean you are doing something wrong because you haven’t kept up with learning a new language, producing a ton of new art, or finishing your novel? Hell, and I cannot emphasize this enough, NO.
A dear family member wrote a poem every day in April for National Poetry Month. And you know what? They were excellent poems, too, not just writing a poem to be able to say they did it. And yet, a mere six days into May, they are lamenting that they have no creative juice left.
Another family member who is a visual artist recently had a baby and hasn’t had time or energy to paint since then. She feels terrible and thinks something is “wrong” with her that she can’t balance both passions.
Let me tell you a not-so-secret thing: I have bipolar disorder (along with C-PTSD and various other chronic illnesses and disabilities). Something I learned years ago is that my bipolar emotional cycles match up to my creative process. That is to say, during manic phases, I have a million ideas (and try to keep notes of them!) and am quite productive. During my depression phases, I feel like I will never create anything again. I am exhausted, sick, worn out.
No matter how many times I repeat this pattern, in the depression phases, my mind tells me I will never accomplish anything meaningful ever again. I will never have a good idea again. I will never complete anything. During those depressions, I also notice everything wrong with whatever I just completed before falling into the depression too. Suddenly everything I do or have done looks like trash to me.
When I’m not in the middle of a depressive episode, however, I can remember that my depression is just a time of rest after a manic phase. I have earned that rest! And it is time to let my body and mind recover from that work. The backend of my depression episode is the time when I start dreaming, and it is out of those dreams that new potential work begins to develop. Sometimes I can even begin painting things during that time — which is why a lot of my work is so brightly colored, as I am trying to pull myself out of depression.
The thing about creativity is that it is a journey. No matter what kind of art you make, this is true. There are times when you feel like you have to fight against external forces (depression, deadlines, comparing yourself to others, negative or pressuring messages from others). There are other times when, while all creativity is work, things seem to be going your way and you are happy to expend the effort. There are other times (and these are the times no one tells you about) when you have to let yourself rest. It is during those restful moments that you observe your surroundings, you gather your energy and ideas, you dream, and you make new connections between your observations, dreams, and research, etc.
You are not obligated to create new work during quarantine or any other personal crisis. You have the right to rest. Trust yourself that a period of rest makes it possible for you to be creative again later. Release yourself from pressures to be productive all the time.
If you are struggling with depression, anxiety, sleep loss, stress, grief, etc., here’s a great list of mental health resources during COVID-19 compiled by Maisha Johnson for Healthline.