Creativity in Quarantine

Every writer dreams of having a month or two just to sit and write. No distractions, no obligations, just a little study (with a dreamy view, of course), a pen, and paper. It’s how we imagine finishing the Next Great American Novel that we always talk about writing. It’s the rest of the world that gets in the way.

And now, here I am. Locked in my childhood bedroom (I’ve got a poster of One Direction staring me in the face to prove it) with all the time in the world. My laptop is sitting there, Google Doc open and ready for me to whip up that manuscript that will cement my place in history. For whatever reason, I can’t bring myself to do it

Theoretically, I could blame my classes. It’s hard to get good, creative work done when I’m bogged down with assignments and readings and discussion posts. But looking at my schedule––I’m taking a novel-writing class AND a poetry writing class––I’m given plenty of opportunities to express myself freely. For the first time in my life, everyone is encouraging me wholeheartedly to pursue my passion and (again) for the first time in my life, I’ve got nothing to say.

I have a hypothesis about writers (or maybe about me as a writer specifically): we don’t thrive with all this open space out in front of us. We work better when we have to cram our writing in between all the life that’s happening around us. Writing frantically on a bus, your hand curving with every turn in the road. Scribbling in the darkness of the movie theater, using the previews for inspiration. Jotting down that little conversation in your notes app as you run to class.

Writing is a fluid and flowing process––no amount of free time can make up for the stagnant state we find ourselves trapped in. Sure, I have hours to write every day, but what am I supposed to write about?

During this long first month of quarantine, I'm learning that I am deeply inspired by the world directly around me. My writing depicts the conversations I have and the people I see walking by me on the street. As much as I’d love to believe I have this intrinsic creative spirit flowing through me, I find that most of my writing is simply a reflection of the world I live in.

I struggle even now to put words on the page (yes, I’m talking about writing the article in the article, it’s going to get a little meta). It’s not so much that nothing is happening to me, I just feel so hyper-focused on the pressing reality that I am not an individual voice during this collective experience. What qualifies me to write about a global pandemic? I am not a doctor or a politician. I am not on the frontlines, nor am I particularly eloquent when speaking about the disaster. I offer no facts or figures, just my own meager opinions. What makes me qualified to write?

But in this creative slump has come some good. I’ve always been a casual fan of film but quarantine has offered me time to learn and absorb great works of cinema. While I struggle to produce works of my own, I can learn from other people. Quarantine, while perhaps stifling to my immediate creative process, has forced me to step back and admire the perspectives of other artists. I had time to watch The Godfather and just about every horror movie made in the 1980s (a great decade for horror, by the way). From this, I’ve learned about storytelling.

From horror, I’ve learned about character development. What it looks like to flesh out a character when their inner workings aren’t necessarily integral to the jump scares of the film. I’ve watched filmmakers use setting and place and dialogue to establish their story. Movies have no choice but to show, not tell when it comes to much of the story, something I can strive to do in my own writing.

Reflecting on my month of social distancing (and looking forward to the future of more social distancing) I’m starting to forgive myself for not constantly producing work. While I certainly don’t want to make excuses for myself, I do want to be gentle in this unprecedented time. If all I can do right now is sit back and learn from the words of others, that’s okay. If I have to drag myself back into writing one word at a time, I am confident that I will be able to do it.

To other creative people, I encourage you to do the same. It’s easy to feel guilty with all this empty time surrounding us but we need to set realistic expectations. Forcing ourselves to write (or draw or sing or dance or paint) every day during a pandemic won’t make us better--it’ll make us dread our art forms. Let’s learn to make mistakes, take a step back from creating, and learn from each other.