I don’t know about you, but if you’d asked me a year ago what I’d do if I were suddenly unable to leave the house for the better part of a year, I’m pretty sure I would have come up with a fantastic, fantastical description of all the writing I’d get done and all the quality time I’d have with my family. I’d probably also throw in a profound-but-catchy line or two about all the hidden gifts and opportunities embedded in the chance to simplify and go inward.
Things started out OK. My sisters and I agreed that Mother Nature was giving us a much-deserved time out. I reminded myself that my parents are essentially hermits anyway, so they’d probably be fine. I laid down the law around family time and exercise for the kids. I pulled out David Copperfield and tidied up the corner of my bedroom I use to write. I took walks, and stared out the window, and enjoyed ALL THE FOOD. But after about 12 hours of this behavior, something became abundantly clear to me. Yes, I was suddenly free of having to drive my three kids to kingdom come and back, and it was kind of glorious to have everyone home and healthy, and I did have more time to write, but THERE WAS A PANDEMIC GOING ON.
In my defense, I do love to daydream. And I am an incurable optimist. But I’m also a seasoned realist, and I’ve been in the thick of creative work for the better part of two decades, which means that I really should have known better.
I should have known that creativity does not answer to open stretches of time or clean writing spaces; it’s not, in other words, usually a matter of scheduling or outside constructs. Instead — as I found out while writing huge swaths of my first novel in five-minute increments by my kids’ nightlights and on receipts in the car console — it answers to what’s going on within. When my kids were young and flourishing and I was both desperate to express myself and saturated with experience, the writing came freely. It follows, then, that I experienced just a bit of a hitch in my step while watching the world take a nosedive into a catastrophic outbreak.
And so I’ve immersed myself in a different kind of study. When I’m not feeling shattered, or wildly hopeful, or enormously discouraged, or navigating the curious sensation that I’m on an unending vigil – I don’t know exactly what I’m looking out for, and yet I can’t stop looking out for it – I check in. Sometimes I write. Sometimes I don’t. I remind myself that it’s a good sign of mental health that I’m not responding to a global panic at the disco with equanimity and the sangfroid needed to dive in regularly to one’s work. I remember that rich experiences – especially those that turn us inside out and upside down – are the key to germinating worthwhile material. I remind myself that pandemic planning is an oxymoron. I try to just see what the day or week looks like, and visit with my creativity as best I can.
And while this might look like I’m spending most of my time puttering or plotzing, the only real block I experience now is when I try to sideswipe my reality with lofty goals and great expectations. Instead, as always, when I keep my nose to the ground and my antennae flickering toward whatever is available in the moment, my work continues to unfold. Some weeks this means I write regularly, some weeks I simply work out problems in the shower and at the stove. Either way, by staying in touch with what is, instead of what I hoped would be, some essential thing almost always takes route or blossoms. And by tending when I’d rather reap, pausing when I want to run ahead, writing five words instead of moaning over being unable to write 500, the work gets done. My creativity begins to trust that I’ll spend my energies working on whatever is there, instead of getting my knickers in a twist about what isn’t. And when I’m really on my game, I even remember that I want my writing to ebb and flow, like all flourishing, organic things.
Art: Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa