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Creating in the Time of Quarantine


There’s this pervasive idea that the writer writes best in solitude – from Walden Pond to Salinger’s shed. And I’m sure there were a few of us writers – at least for a few indulgent moments – thought that self-isolation might be exactly what their work needed. It turns out that panic and deep fear and loss of wages and children suddenly not in school and being cut off or cooped up or desperately tending to others who are more vulnerable amid a pandemic is not the self-isolation we had in mind.

Can we still be creating in the time of quarantine? Some of us can’t, for many reasons. But if you’ve clicked on this piece, it’s likely that you’re someone who can.

If so, how? I don’t claim to have answers but here are a few thoughts.

1. Can you let the writing protect you? Try to carve out time and make it absolute. No bouncing back to the news. Keep your phone far away from you. Try to make the time at the page a world that you can step into – for a time, the only world that exists.

2. Don’t beat yourself up if this is hard. You should be rethinking your priorities; and it might be difficult — in light of all that’s going on — to prioritize your craft. The other day, I wrote a paragraph — that was it and not a hard paragraph — and I was pretty sure I deserved a parade.

Also if the work feels forced or faked or simply awful to make, remember that when this work is actually finished, no one (not even you, most likely) will remember whether you wrote it on a great writing day when everything felt organic, hitting full stride, or awful. The writing will exist and sometimes that’s all that you should ask of a first draft. It will have been rewritten — no matter how it was conceived. Sculptors begin with lump of clay. We have to sit down and make the lump. So do your future self a favor and create even when you’re faking it. (The first part of this – no one will know how you felt when writing it – might have come from Neil Gaiman, but for the life of me, I can’t find the quote.)

3. Creating something from nothing might be hard right now. If so, this could be a great time to give and take notes. If so, offer to read for people in exchange for getting read. This will also help combat the isolation of self-isolation. You could work on building those relationships with collaborative types, strengthen ties with other writers who might be feeling the same way. The ties you form now could be crucial and lasting – beyond the current crisis.

4. You also might want to form groups to keep up your accountability. These do not have to be writers. Anyone with goals will work – people trying to get fit, creating other art forms, learning a new language. My students have made charts where they check in and update their hours. A warning: For some people — type-As — this is too much. But in general, accountability research shows that it really works.

5. If you’re a cafe writer — you know who you are, the types who benefit from having to flex your attention muscle — recreate those cues at home. Create an atmosphere that’s noisy. There is actually a YouTube video called “One Hour of HQ Coffee Shop Background Noise.” [2] You can also put on the television, background music, chatty videos. Keep your phone near so you can ignore it. Is coffee or tea part of the ritual? Then add them.

For those with kids, I’m assuming you’ve got your own background noise. (More on kids below…)

6. If you’ve never worked with music, now is the time. My writing-with-music results are mixed. But there was one time when I put on some Hans Zimmer on loop and I wrote a very moody piece very quickly. I suggest headphones, if possible, so it really gives you a full other-world feel, cut off and spinning.

7. Take breaks. This is always smart. People think that prolific writers must push through even when burnt out. I’ve found the opposite to be true among high-producing writers. They know when to walk away and recharge. If you have access to the great outdoors, they still work. Try to get out in nature or, cat-like, at least move to a sunny window. Or call a friend. Or eat an apple. Or plan your shower specifically for recharging. Or put on music and move your body. Do a ten-minute yoga stretch video. Or a few Marshall Fitness dance videos.

8. If you have kids, I get it. I have four kids. Three were born over five years and then a fourth. Here’s my advice: jot. That’s it. Jot and be dreamy and jot some more. (An upcoming post will focus specifically on Creativity in the time of Quarantine with Kids.)

9. This is a little more hardcore. It’s what I said to son who’s a college athlete.

First, imagine coming up for air in the coming weeks (months), blinking into the bright light, atrophied.

Second, imagine that you and your teammates created a system — a game — where you kept each other going, pushed each other hard, and you emerge from this time with real results — faster times, better endurance, more shots on goal.

Pick one.

My hope here isn’t for him to get faster times, better endurance, and more shots on goal. My hope is that he has something to fix his eye on, that he feels like he can still have some measure of control in a world that feels out of control.

For the writer: First, imagine not having carved out time to write each day. Second, imagine that you have prioritized and carved out time to write each day.

Pick one.

My hope for my fellow writers isn’t an accumulation of new work. It’s that you have something to fix your eye on, that you feel like you can still have some measure of control in a world that feels out of control.

10. This is a little more big-picture.

This isn’t an easy time for any of us. And for some it’s going to get much harder. There is going to be real suffering. Real loss. And it will be unquantifiable.

For me, when I’ve had to deal with trauma and loss, personally, I’ve been able to write and I’ve not been able to write. When I have been able to write, I’ve moved through the fear and grief more steadily, in a more grounded way.

Right now, I feel trapped in a moment that feels suspended and surreal. For me, the real reason to keep creating is that the writing holds me in place. It allows me, for brief periods of time, to rise up and have a bit of distance – like being able to find a seam in the universe, open it, and slip through.

How is your creativity holding up under quarantine? What strategies are working for you? What’s been the hardest part?

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About Julianna Baggott [4]

Julianna Baggott [5] is the bestselling, critically acclaimed author of over twenty books. Her novels Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders and Pure were New York Times Notable Books. She writes under her own name and pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode — most notably, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, and on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now. She’s the creator of a six-week Jumpstart program to get writers generating new material [6] and Efficient Creativity: The Six-Week Audio Series; listen to the first episode is available, for free, on SoundCloud. [7] Learn more about Julianna and her books on her website [5].