I went looking for an answer to the question of why the pandemic and quarantine has affected so many artists — in my world, mostly I mean writers — so negatively. In my case, before COVID my daily life involved sitting in my home office writing my fiction, ghostwriting other people’s fiction, and writing business articles for a regional magazine. My workouts involve hiking and running on desert foothills behind my house. Outings involved coffee or lunch meetings with friends once or twice a week, often (quietly) begrudged because it meant I wasn’t writing (I enjoyed these when I got there. It’s getting there that’s hard.) So quarantine and pandemic, before and after my husband’s 8-week furlough, meant life as usual.
So why wasn’t I writing?
What I found when I went looking for why the pandemic interferes with creativity was a great many articles on creatives in advertising and entertainment, and how creating things like photoshoots used digital tech to go on with business. Interesting, but not what I was looking for. I also found articles on how businesses had to scramble to be creative and keep their doors open (well, not open, but…)
There are also a lot of articles out there on how people are coping with lockdown and remote work by taking up hobbies they’d abandoned before or starting new pursuits, learning new things, and trying new creative pursuits. According to a study commissioned by Canva, 51 percent of Americans started new creative pastimes and continue those consistently, working on whatever it is at least once a week.
There are way, way too many articles talking about how Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare discovered calculus and King Lear during plague years. I am not Shakespeare, nor was meant to be, and calculus is of dubious good-job-ness, at least from me.
What I didn’t find was information on why individual artists — again, in my world, lots of writers — by and large have found the pandemic and quarantine deeply damaging to their creativity.
On the one hand, there’s the change in the routine. When my husband was sent home with pay for all of April and May 2020 because he was in a high risk group and the civilian army base he works at was already experiencing problems, my schedule changed completely. Instead of having from 5:30AM to a little past 6:00PM Monday through Thursday to schedule interviews for nonfiction, write articles, hike, ghostwrite fiction, and best of all, write my own fiction, I suddenly had 24/7 of Someone Else In The House and not only that, there was nothing normal we could do. It wasn’t a staycation where we could drive to Sacramento and go booking (haunting used bookstores for treasures), drive to Monterey overnight, drive anywhere safely, it was rather like a very long stretched out Sunday. I find Sundays very dull. The last day of weekend when everything seems flat (unless The Walking Dead is on). During that time I searched for pockets of time to write uninterrupted.
I’m grateful Rick is in a job that’s taken most COVID precautions seriously. I’m glad he was kept safe and that through Dept. of Defense he’s already had the first of two vaccination shots. But I regret the time that went by when I wasn’t able to create.
Then he went back to work and I still couldn’t. And I didn’t know why. Other writers who know me would be surprised to hear me say anything resembling “blocked.” I write. Daily. A lot. I always have.
I always had. I love to write. So why have I found myself in the last year watching clips from MSNBC and CNN on YouTube and bingeing on Rhoda (yes, the sitcom; no, I don’t know why).
I am a part of several writers’ networks and friends with a lot of writers and Facebook friends with even more. I read blogs by writers I admire and don’t know and watch them on videos. Out of however many people that is, I have only seen less than half a dozen who say the pandemic and/or quarantine freed up their time and their creativity and led to them creating new work.
Along with every article mentioning Newton and Shakespeare (look, I just did it for a second time) there’s a tendency to point to people who, finding themselves with a lot of time on their hands all of a sudden and a limited number of things they can do with that time, have learned something new or reinvigorated old artistic hobbies, or taken up new arts.
All of which makes sense. It’s something enjoyable to do. It may very well be the use of a new talent or, in some cases, something pleasant to do even if the talent for doing it isn’t there. I used to draw but stopped when writing became the driving passion. In the last two years, predating the pandemic, I’ve started drawing again and sometimes doing some watercolor. That doesn’t mean I’m good at it. I just enjoy something creative that I’m not trying to make a living with.
The writing, on the other hand, is what I do. I make a living with my writing. I’m working toward both indie and traditional publication. I love writing, and I miss the spontaneous outpouring of it. I hate questioning each word that goes down on paper or questioning what the next word will even be or worse, either finding I’ve watched Season 4 of Rhoda instead of writing, or listing all the things I’d rather do first. Used to be, nothing came first.
It’s not that I don’t care about people displaced into remote work and finding it not as much fun as expected (possibly because everyone else in the family is working remote or schooling remote or whatevering remotely and it’s crowded and loud and hard to concentrate). But for those of us for whom creativity was both art and income, for those of us who have more books planned out in our heads and hammering for release than we can possibly write in a century, whatever the opposite of an annus mirabilis (marvelous year) is, the pandemic has been that — frustrating and bleak.
Maybe the creative mind needs the breaks I’ve once resisted. For me, going to meet friends for lunch or to hike seems like a good idea, right up until it’s time to go. Then I want to stay home and write, whether or not that day’s writing was going particularly well. I always end up enjoying the get togethers, it’s just getting there that’s hard. The unavoidable dentist’s appointment or trip to the vet or any errand taking place during writing hours when it should just be me and the cats and the words during pre-COVID days was something I resented.
But. But I wrote up until the minute I had designated I needed to leave, and go do the whatever. Or I left precipitously so I’d have more hours when I got back, and because having the trip looming over me was annoying, and routinely when I did get back, I produced better.
When I was an office temp working in law offices, the best way for the firms to use me wasn’t to have me replace a sick or vacationing paralegal but to give me the overflow work to free up other paralegals and secretaries who knew the firm. That often meant typing long, long documents. I always had the feeling if I just — kept — going I could get it done. I’d stay there, typing, getting more and more typos to correct and more and more frustrated until I had to stop to drink water, stretch, take a bathroom break, something. After that? Better typing, fewer frustrations, clearer mind.
Hopefully the end of pandemic and quarantine will see the same results as we stand up and stretch and blink at the world around us — and settle in to create again.
In one last Google search for why the pandemic and quarantine have affected writers and other artists and stopped or significantly slowed their creativity, I found an article from the Mayo Clinic.
My thoughts during plague year have been that the unpredictability and disruption of schedule have played havoc with my writing. Along with the horror of COVID worldwide and especially in the US where the previous administration often seemed focused on making the pandemic worse, there’s the uncertainty. Would my husband suddenly be home 24/7 again? Over the winter, how would I connect with friends when our usual pandemic response to hike or picnic was prevented by snow?
So basically chaos, uncertainty, and loss of schedule affected me. But on individual days, days when Rick had gone to work on Monday and Tuesday and was expected to go on Thursday, when his usual four 10-hour days plus 2-hour commute was in play and I could expect a 4-day writing week, why weren’t the words flowing? Or even creeping? Where were the words? Quarantined? Hibernating?
According to the Mayo Clinic, Coronavirus grief: Coping with the loss of routine during the pandemic (October 13, 2020) the Mayo Clinic Staff postulates that losing a routine, which imparts a sense of self, can cause grief. They point out the pandemic has affected basically every aspect of life: work, play, school, childcare, how people shop, eat, gather, worship, exercise. Even someone like me, a writer living rural who works out in the foothills and who wants to spend days writing in a home office, has experienced the loss of lunch and coffee meets, dinners out, movies in theaters, concerts, arts events, shopping (and the inexplicable number of times I find myself in Target). “As a result,” the article states, “the pandemic has had a major psychological impact, causing people to lose a sense of safety, predictability, control, freedom and security.”
People experience attachments to the routines in their lives. It’s a part of who we are. Writers in particular are apt to talk about routines or rituals before settling down to write. Some of us create them on purpose, setting the stage for the creativity to come. Because the pandemic has been all about sudden and definitive change, and the end to what we once knew as normal, there’s grief. “Unexpected endings can cause strong emotions,” states the article. “This can make it hard to deal with what’s happened and move forward.”
Tomorrow: Dealing with grief. Dealing with change as an artist.
Saturday: Post pandemic plans for productivity.
Jennifer Rachel Baumer is a freelance writer who spends her days writing, baking, procrastinating, reading other people’s work and spending as much time as possible hiking in the desert and soaking up sunlight. Occasionally she remembers to post recipes at her blog, High Desert Bakery.