Stuck in the COVID Doldrums?
It Might Be Time to Re-ignite Your Creative Pilot Light
Over the course of a couple of weeks, I met up with some friends — separately and properly social distanced — to catch up and see how the pandemic world was treating them. All these friends are either artists by profession or make art a focus in their lives. They are authors, musicians, painters and more.
And all of us, except for one, are artistically blocked.
One friend, who’s a fantastic musician, mentioned that he’d lost his guitar-playing calluses and hearing that broke my heart.
Another friend, a writer, said that not only has he had problems starting a project, but he hasn’t been able to sit down and read anything of length since this whole COVID mess started.
As a fellow writer, I related to his plight. I’ve got books in my mind — both fiction and non-fiction — that are on deck and ready to be written, but I can’t gather enough concentration to pull the trigger on any of them. I’ve also collected several books over the past four months to read that seem interesting; I’m stuck in the first 40 to 50 pages on all of them. Even reading a long-ish blog post like this is challenging (please, keep reading!).
At first, I thought it was just me being profoundly unmotivated. However, after speaking with these people, all of whom have put out some incredible work into the world, a bigger picture is starting to form.
It’s difficult to do creative work when the world seems to be falling apart every time you peek at it through nearly closed fingers.
We all seem becalmed on an ocean of uncertainty, and not being able to see the end date on the horizon isn’t helping.
What’s Going On Here?
With business being slow and everyone working from home, this would seem like a great time to get all those creative projects underway. Hell, if we’re stuck at home for three months, let’s emerge with the first draft of a novel or a kickin’ new album! If we have more time on our hands, that’s time we could use on those ideas that we never seemed to have the opportunity to tackle before.
Except it’s not.
I can’t speak for all my circle, although I doubt that I’m alone in this, but there are plenty of distractions available at any time of the day, and my mind has been desperately looking for ways to distract itself. Instead of laser focus, my attention span has been more of a firehose; it starts out strong, but soon disperses and just turns into a wet mess. I’m good for 10- to 20-minute stretches, but then my brain starts to wander.
(Even as I’m writing this, I got distracted when I saw that the new trailer for Bill & Ted Face the Music had just dropped. It’ll be coming to a theater near me at some point, I suppose.)
Instead of writing the books that are in my soul, in the past couple of months:
- I have binge-watched The Sopranos (one of the best shows of all time, but it’s a lot to take in during a compressed period. It’s honestly surprising that more people aren’t whacked on a day-to-day basis.)
- I am currently blowing through Orphan Black (its convoluted plot is holding together much better when watched in a block rather than stretched out over five years, I’ve found)
- I have almost got Damascus camo on my weapons in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. I only need to level up my knife, riot shield and JOKR launcher to get there. (If none of that made sense, don’t worry; it’s not even a little important).
The “Why” of It All
I guess two questions come to mind on this topic:
- Why do we believe that we should be creative during this time?
- Why the hell aren’t we being creative during this time?
I guess I’ll try to break it down, at least for myself, but you’re welcome to come along for the ride. Again, this is from my experience and musings; your mileage may vary.
My work — what there is of it — is still getting done, so I’m not just sitting on the couch watching my daytime television stories. As always, it’s much easier to put my client’s needs ahead of my own creative output. Any extra-curricular activities, however, just aren’t catching fire.
Worse, the guilt starts to kick in. Killing time, my upbringing tells me, is a sin. It’s the only thing we can’t get more of, so piddling around on social media or trying to get that sweet new weapon upgrade is just turning the treasure of time into squandered trash.
Marinating in guilt is not a great way to get the creative juices flowing. It’s just stapling things to the end of a to-do list that you’ll feel bad for never finishing. And on the cycle rolls.
The big question, I guess, is why? The time is available and the motivation — or at least the desire — to create is there. It’s not a problem with the engine; there doesn’t seem to be any gas in the tank.
The reality, I believe, is that to create, there needs to be a stillness in your mind, where ideas can form. Ideas are at their most beautiful and their most fragile when they first start to coalesce. It’s important to let them come together at this point and not get blown away by a tornado of 24-hour-news stories about how we’re going to hell in a bucket PROBABLY ANY MINUTE NOW!
It reminds me of the fabulous line from The Oatmeal strip “Making Things” — “Art is not born in a vacuum but it’s not born inside a tornado full of shrieking trolls, either.”
As this goes on, and the weird future ahead of us starts to calm down, or at least become a “new normal” for a time, it’s difficult to ignore the storm. We can focus on getting the stuff we need to finish out the door, but self-directed creation often requires more of our focus.
A Roadmap for Getting Back on the Road
So, what to do? I’m no expert, but the following steps seem correct to me:
- Know You’re Not Alone — If you’re having problems getting the fire started, or it feels like your creative pilot light has gone out, it might help to know that you’re not alone in this feeling. You’re not a freak. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just reacting to the collective doldrums that we’re all facing.
- Recognize the Why in What You’re Doing — If you find yourself stuck watching television, playing video games or other activity that’s not requiring you to engage your creative self, understand that you’re in a passive state rather than an active one. It’s easier to have someone else tell you a story rather than making one up for yourself — and it’s necessary at times because we can’t live in a vacuum. (I’d consider reading, by the way, as an active pursuit; you’re having to engage your imagination and mental energies.) Your timeline is your own, but just understand that to get going again, you’re going to have to get going.
- Know When to Make Your Move —Putting pressure on yourself can sometimes be just the thing to get moving again. Other times, it can be the exact wrong thing to do and will set you back days, weeks or even months until you can get your act together. Think of it this way: Do you have a cramp or a broken leg? If it’s a cramp, massage it out and get back on the field. If it’s a broken leg, you’re going to need some downtime, and putting stress on it isn’t going to help.
- Take Small Steps — Even if you feel the creative spark flick in your mind, you’re not going to write the Great American Novel in the next two weeks. Going from zero to burnout isn’t going to help. Small, consistent steps are crucial to getting the ball rolling again.
- Action Begets Action —And when the ball gets rolling, keep it rolling. If you’re starting from pretty much a dead stop, like I am, it’ll take some time to get the creative machinery in your head moving again. You’re rusty, which means you’ll have to lubricate some parts, and it’s going to make a terrible screeching sound at first. Fight through it, get the horrible writing/music/art/etc. “test pancakes” out of the way, and get back on the path. “Inertia” sounds an awful lot like “being stuck,” the flip side of “an object at rest tends to stay at rest” is “an object in motion tends to stay in motion.” When you’re ready, get in motion and stay there.
I’m writing this as a list to myself more than anything, but I hope that it’s right for you, as well.
Is Everyone Having the Same Problem? Nah.
I’ve found there are exceptions to the doldrum rule in my circle.
- One of my best friends has always wanted to try his hand at painting and taken this time to explore that field. Turns out, he’s quite good at it. He’s amazing at it, to be honest, and I’m only a little jealous that he’s found a rewarding creative outlet. Just a little, tiny bit.
- My other best friend, who actually has started writing a book, has found himself in the opposite situation as most do. He works part-time at a company that furloughed most of its full-time staff, and he’s now snowed under with their His book is there waiting for him when he gets some free time, which for him is in an ever-shrinking supply.
- My wife, a talented ceramicist, recently got a large commission that’s occupying her creative bandwidth. It’s a big enough job that I’m learning how to cut clay tiles, as well, which is a nice break from the “You’re Wasting Your Life” self-abuse that my brain specializes in dishing out. Her dance card is full for the foreseeable future.
So, it can be done. It’s easy to say, “Well, good for them, but I’m blocked.” (Please add a whiney tone to that last sentence for effect.) It is good for them, and it can be good for us to get out of our own way when we’re ready.
Besides writing this ever-expanding post, I’m currently reading The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill Therefore I Am (I’m transitioning from passive watching to active reading). The gears are groaning into motion and making a lovely metal-on-metal sound.
I trust this stage will pass — quickly, I hope — because I’ve got things to do. I’ll see you on that creative road again soon. Let’s get going!