With nearly a year of lockdown in the rear view, many of us have adjusted to our new normal. Or have we? Working from home has blurred the lines between our personal and professional lives, making boundaries more challenging than ever. Chances are if you’re anything like me, you’re battling burnout, isolation and just plain boredom. So how do you stay productive in a pandemic? Can quarantine actually be good for creativity? Here’s how to conquer writer’s block (or any other kind of creative stagnation) in a pandemic.
Put Your Mental Health First
At first, lockdown seemed like a golden opportunity to shut the world out and focus on my craft. “Didn’t Shakespeare write King Lear while in isolation from the plague?” I’d ask myself as I stared at a blank computer screen, trying to block out the endless loop of depressing news reeling through my head. As my novel sat collecting virtual dust on a hard drive, I’d scroll Twitter and curse all those other writers announcing pandemic book deals. Why was I so lazy? If I really deserve to be a writer I’d be writing up a storm while cowering in my family home, afraid to so much as make eye-contact with the guy that delivered our groceries every other week. Okay, okay, so maybe I was feeling a little depressed. But still, that wasn’t a good enough excuse. I should have transformed myself into one of those writers who uses their raging depression to fuel their creativity! That always works out so well!
I’m just gonna take a time out here and tell you that if that little voice in your head is telling you depression isn’t an excuse, tell it science says bug off! It’s now been proven that depression can impair your cognitive ability including memory and attention. Don’t believe me? Read this and stop being so dang hard on yourself.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, powering through my depression and anxiety didn’t end up to be a winning strategy for anything in my life, let alone my writing. People, it was grim. I was fortunate to have my physical health, but for a while it felt like the pandemic took everything else from me, my livelihood, my independence, my social life, my joy. It took getting myself into a truly dark place to realize that I needed to put my mental health first. I got help. I decided to prioritize going for a walk every day regardless of the weather. I prioritized eating healthy, getting enough rest and getting into one of those regular sleep/waking schedules we creatives are so resentful of. I put my social media accounts on ice and focused on what I could control. It took time, but things slowly but surely started getting better.
I recognize that my ability to put myself first is in and of itself a privilege. I had a roof over my head and plenty of food. I didn’t have other humans to take care of or a job that was forcing me to put in overtime. For others, the self care piece of the puzzle is much trickier. I’ve been there at other parts of my life and my advice is to start small, maybe with ten deep breaths at a time or five minutes of fresh air when you can get it. It’s hard to see it when you’re depressed, but every little bit helps and adds up.
Now that I’m finally feeling well enough to write again? Guess what? Mental health still comes first. Without it I have nothing.
Change Your Focus
My pre-pandemic goal for 2020 was to edit, query and sell the novel I worked on in my master’s program. I had the letter and the synopsis ready to go and pile of agent feedback to work with, but for most of lockdown my novel was like a plate of unappetizing food I couldn’t bare to look at. I was so close to having it polished and ready to go. I’d worked so hard. But I just couldn’t bring myself to go the extra mile.
Instead of chocking down the novel revisions and tying to sell a book with a smile on my face when I felt like I was dying inside, I changed projects. I decided the novel would still be there when I was ready to work on it again. But I wasn’t in the mindset to do anything to it except pick it apart and be hyper critical. Instead, I focused on new projects. I wrote essays and short stories, wrote and directed my first play for Zoom, submitted my work and entered contests. If you’re struggling to bring that passion project to the finish line, put the guilt aside and work on something else. Enter a few contests. Do some writing prompts. Try something new. It will re-energize you.
Read, Read, Read, Read
I once had a professor tell me she could always tell when she was reading the work of a writer who never reads. She did not mean it as a compliment. I never forgot that idea. The great thing about being a writer is that reading books isn’t just a hobby, it’ actually part of your process. If you’re writing, don’t stop reading. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read stuff that’s massively different than your own work. Read stuff that’s similar. Read classics. Read contemporary. Heck, go ahead and read some crap. It will help, I promise.
Connect With Community
The times my writing was in the most trouble I was lacking two vital things, structure and support. Fortunately, Zoom came to the rescue. I joined an online coffee shop for writers, which gave me an opportunity to join with others (and a brew!) to re-create the cafe-like environment I was missing, no pricy avocado-toasts required! I also joined a writer’s club I was connected to through my uni. They introduced me to working with the Pomodoro Method, which combines spurts of focused productivity with a much needed social outlet. It has given me a set time to do work while also networking with other folks in academia.
The great thing about a world pandemic is we’re all in the same boat so there are tons of other people out there on the internet looking for the same thing. I know other people who have had great success joining Facebook support groups too. Why not try a few things and figure out what works for you?
Manage Your Expectations
Pre-pandemic I was a sucker for word count goals. Marathon writing sessions fueled by cappuccino and cakes in my local cafe were my strategy for hitting every deadline. And hit them I did. I was relentless. I was annoying. Procrastination was a problem for other writers. “I just force myself to sit down and write for a set period of time and the words just come out,” I’d say with a shrug when writer friends asked how I stayed so motivated.
Whelp. There’s nothing like humanity facing an extinction event to make your resolve collapse like a flan in a cupboard (thank you, Eddie Izzard). On top of that, where was I supposed to write when all the cafes were closed? Little Miss 1K A Day was not getting the last laugh.
In order to get any work done at all, I had to seriously humble myself. To make room for mental health, I couldn’t chain myself to a desk all day and write. Instead I would go for my daily walk or yoga then sit down and commit to just one hour a day of writing. Just one. Slowly but surely, ideas began to trickle out. As my work began to pick up steam again I reigned myself in a bit so as to nurture enough energy to keep my mental health on an even keel. Now I’m at a point where spending several hours a day writing doesn’t feel so taxing anymore.
Create Your Own New Normal
Although I’m learning to hate the expression, “new normal” it is worth thinking about. Was my pre-pandemic writing habit ever sustainable? How do I want my life as a writer to look long term? What I know for sure is I want to live a life where I’ve got enough energy for my writing and my day job while still nurturing my mental and physical health. Although I’ve begun to allow myself more than one hour a day to write, I’m still focusing on balance, quality and longevity over sheer quantity. I’ve also began to think about how I’ll simplify my post pandemic life. Are there things that I can let go of or change my outlook on in order to feel like I’m getting what I need out of life?
Let Life Surprise You
A year ago if you’d told me right now I’d be writing and producing theater online and working on a completely new novel that has nothing to do with the one I planned to sell in 2020 I’d have laughed at you. And been disappointed in myself. But I’m feeling more vibrant creative and hopeful about my future as a writer than I have in a long time. The pandemic has reintroduced me to the notion of how important it is to ride the waves instead of fighting the tide.
What’s your strategy for staying creative in a pandemic?