Accounting for Creativity in the time of Pandemic
We invited four local writers and performers to share their creative experiences during the Coronavirus pandemic. Lockdown has impacted individuals and communities across all fields, including creative environments. How has the state of isolation, crisis, public shutdown, and uncertainty affected their lives, how has it shaped their creative output? Here are their answers in their own voices.
I have never been what you’d call a morning person. My days invariably begin slowly, quietly, and ideally alone: I brew coffee, I drink it, I smoke, I feed the cats. Some rituals are so steadfast even a global pandemic can’t shake them. Besides, the cats don’t know humanity is in crisis nor, I assume, would they give a shit if they did know. All they care about is getting their breakfast by 9 o’clock sharp. I’m not much of a breakfast person myself, but I can respect that- we’re all creatures of habit in the end.
During this first half hour or so, it’s as if nothing’s changed. I’ll scribble in my journal or sketchbook and almost forget entirely about what’s happening in the world outside. But then I hear my partner Tam, who would usually be in the office by now but instead is furloughed & taking full advantage of the lie ins, ambling into the shower and the spell is broken.
Tam is a musician and producer and I’m a writer and avid doodler, so we’re both artists in a sense. However- perhaps unsurprisingly- neither of us make a living from our art. We’ve both spent our adult lives attempting to fit our creative practices into the spaces left around various day jobs, a balancing act I’m sure many of you reading know all too well. In recent years we’ve transitioned from shift work to nine-to-fives, which has brought its own unique rewards and challenges and- crucially- has allowed us to work from home since the pandemic hit.
Working from home is a luxury, and one I’m deeply grateful for- but it’s had an inevitable impact on my practice. The space in which I live and create is now also my office. I’ve found it far more difficult to flip between the ‘work’, ‘create’, and ‘relax’ functions of my brain without a clear geographical division to separate them. The effects of lockdown on my creativity haven’t been entirely negative, though. I’ve used all this newfound free time to teach myself (excruciatingly slowly) to paint. Tam and I have collaborated on three songs, and it’s the first project we’ve ever worked on together. We’ve been a couple for three years, and it took total societal shutdown for us to finally create something together.
So overall, it seems, the lockdown hasn’t hampered my creativity all that much- but I’m bored as fuck and the cats are sick of the sight of me, so swings and roundabouts, I suppose.
Tom Byam Shaw
Most days right now consist of me waking up and persuading myself that it’s all right not to exercise. I stare at my running stuff and it stares back at me and sometimes I put it on and sometimes I don’t. Once I have my running stuff on I usually am out running within the hour. If God has not cursed me to wake up after 8 AM that usually means it’s not to hot and I’m all right. If I am cursed it’s miserable going and it ruins my day.
After this carry on I will try to write. Trying involves opening a Microsoft word document titled “quarantine series” and looking at it. Once I have failed to write I will answer emails or play video games. My supervisors and other masters have been kind enough to not set me strict deadlines, but I still loathe myself for acting this way.
Generally what this whole experience reminds me of is a miserable stretch of 2019 where my time was entirely occupied by begging the illegitimate nation of Australia for a document that would allow me to enter their wretched country to pursue a PhD. Like now, I lived at home; was personally and creatively stagnant; and occupied my time either with distractions or imagining inventive ways by which I could be murdered by a kind stranger.
Every period of my life where I was the most unhappy, my mental ill-health persuaded or compelled me to stay at home and occupy myself uselessly. This leads to a kind of vicious cycle where confinement worsens my mental state, which further compels me to stay inside, which makes me feel worse &c. Coronavirus and the lockdown have therefore felt like a grotesque prank that the God and the imperial powers of the world have pulled on me specifically. For yuks.
I have recently finished a short story but I feel for the amount of time that I’m spending indoors I should have smashed a substantial dent in my PhD thesis by now, or at least written the definitive piece of COVID-lit (an inevitable subgenre that will probably finally turn me into the European Timothy McVeigh). It’s at times like this that I wish it was the 14th century and I was Boccaccio. The plague was more deadly (less competition) and European literary technology was dogshit so you could write absolutely anything and be lauded as a genius. The Decameron is just teens getting horny in a field. Awful.
Eventually you stop checking the news, crossing off days, making elaborate plans for the future. Lists and goals and frantic dreaming let up and the clouds part to reveal a shaft of sunlight: today. You lie back, book propped open on your stomach, hand steadying a cup of milky coffee by your side. Squint at the sunlight. Plop back into your body like you’ve finally realised it’s untenable to live your entire life floating miles above. Surrender to your fate comes easy as breath, inhale the aroma of coffee and that shiny new-book smell, exhale a steady stream of acceptance. This is just how it is now.
I have a lot more time to be alone with the thoughts in my head. Social media is the worst kind of distraction: the world outside my sunny window is too sad, too heavy with politics and death. So I sit on the windowsill, pinioned by possibility. Time stretches before me like endless highway and I could do anything with it, or nothing at all. Though I expected the worst, the flashes of terror I usually feel when forced to be still have not yet come to grip me by the shoulders, dislodging repressed memories and sending me spiralling back to that darkness.
I take myself out for long walks and listen to the winding narratives that weave in and out of my mind. I begin to wonder what might happen if I didn’t let them drift on by, but caught them instead, refashioned them into something that could serve me one day. For a few days I write rambling stream-of-consciousness accounts of the major events in my life as I recall them, rife with gaps in memory and narrated as if by someone on the outside looking in. I grapple with honesty and what telling the truth might cost if certain people read it. Weigh that against the weight of carrying words unsaid forever. Emboldened by these new and strange circumstances, I write.
I suppose what I am saying is that in lockdown I’ve been writing the memoir that I’ve been too scared to write up until now. That the world outside is now scarier than the inside of my head. Some people only learn in the deepest of darkness how to make their own light. I think that’s what creativity it. It’s making your own light.
I’m now into my tenth week of lockdown and it really has had quite an impact on my life.
I’m now furloughed from my main job and have no hours / available work at my second, so this has obviously caused a huge depletion to my income. Initially I didn’t think it would be that bad – I had a heap of things I needed to do when it first happened, and a heap more that I wanted to do. After a fortnight or so, though, it was safe to say the novelty had entirely worn off. It was boring and repetitive – but mostly it affected both my creativity and my mental health.
I was at least given some form of reprieve when I was invited by a friend to take part in National Poem Writing Month, or NaPoWriMo for short – more specifically using the prompts created as part of EscApril by the poet Savannah Brown. I consider myself more of a prose writer, but since I was stuck at home with little else to do I agreed readily. I ended up managing all 30 days, although I don’t necessarily think my output was particularly consistent.
With regards to these verses, certain themes cropped up – mental health was a main one, and so too was Shetland, even in the pieces that I didn’t write in Shetlandic. Had it not been for lockdown I’d have had two trips home by now – one in March for Delting Up Helly Aa (the last event of that season of festivals) and another in May for the local folk festival. Both of these events were of course cancelled. Homesickness played a part for sure – I wrote pieces about my hometown, my nephew and niece, and my granny. I plan to do another 30 days’ worth of poetry in June, and we’ll see how that goes.
Currently ideas and indeed motivation for prose have been a bit few and far between, but I certainly hope I can change that as time goes on.