How To Be Creative When Everything Is Bad
I hear a lot of people saying – as we approach the year anniversary of this pandemic and lockdown, a year of not knowing what it means to hug those close to us or see people we love, or do any of those previously forgettable but now utterly unimaginable everyday things like sitting at a crowded bar or sharing a dessert with everyone at the table – that they are hitting the wall.
I think I hit mine. (I say “think” because I realize that it may not have been it – that something worse might still be coming.) It happened a few months ago, knocking the wind from my lungs. I wanted rage at something, at the world and the circumstances that had shaped it into what it was, but it was like those dreams where you try to scream and nothing comes out. It just stays inside of you and you feel a little like you’re drowning. I was uncertain of what to do – everyone is falling apart at different times, and so whenever I do, it feels like I’m the only one who is.
I took long walks and cried and I did that again and again until the bruise from hitting the wall didn’t hurt so much, even when I pressed on it.
In all of this, I have been trying to be creative. I’ve spent a year working on a book and made little progress, and it’s a daily battle with myself and my brain. I look at the book that I wrote, years ago, and it is a piece of alchemy I do not understand. I put words together, again and again, enough of them to make a memoir, and it feels like someone else did that.
I spoke to my friend Rachel Friedman the other day, who wrote one of my favorite books about creativity (a book that made me cry because she wrote about things that I had felt acutely). We talked about what it means to try to create right now.
For me, I feel like I have no excuses. I have large swaths of time, a quiet office, few distractions. I don’t have children to homeschool or feed or keep alive. I have a husband who is clean and tidy and considerate and makes me dinner almost every night, and sometimes when I am tired and cranky he makes me lunch, too. The only thing stopping me, as always, seems to be me. This is insufferable, I know. No one wants to hear about a writer struggling to write. It’s a navel-gazing ouroboros, a nice big loop of self-woe from people with too much time on their hands.
“I don’t think writer’s block exists,” Rachel says to me delicately, when I tell her that I am wrestling with trying to make something in all of this mess. “I think what it is is fear. I think we’re afraid, and that fear means that we stop creating.”
There is truth to this, of course: I am soaking in fear and self-doubt. But I also have to get something done, I tell her. I need to make sense of this time. Because simply getting through this stretch doesn’t seem like enough. “Everyone keeps talking about how Shakespeare wrote Lear during the plague,” I say.
Rachel laughs, but it’s somehow gentle and light, not mocking. She tells me she doesn’t even know if that’s true. (I am inclined to agree. I tell her how I think Emilia wrote half his plays, and one day I’m going to write a book from her perspective, just one more in a list of projects that I talk about but never do.) Rachel tells me she thinks creativity isn’t as isolated an activity as we often think it is, and at a time when we’re all so alone, it’s unfair to expect that we can produce art.
And there is the crux of it, the catch-22 of it all.
So many of us are trying to create, because it seems like the only way to make sense of this lonely, sad, impossible moment in time.
But it’s so hard to create right now, because of how we feel in this lonely, sad, impossible moment in time.
I don’t really know what the answer is. Sometimes I tell myself that the only way I’ll get through this is if I finish this manuscript. Other days, I remind myself of the lesson in Rachel’s wonderful book – that there are so many ways to be creative. Like finding a new way to calm yourself down when the world feels impossible. Maybe it is a doodle you draw while you are on a Zoom call, or the cookies you bake your neighbor. Or the thread of texts that you and your friend send one another so that you each feel less alone in the quiet hours of the night.
If you are my husband, your creativity is in the food you cook, so lovingly that it makes my heart itch a little.
These are the things we make that are not books. But they make these days easier, and maybe that is miraculous in and of itself. Maybe that is its own kind of art.