Why You Did—Or Did Not—Paint Your Masterpiece During the Pandemic
Social media seems to have two divergent views on the pandemic. One is—if Isaac Newton could invent calculus during a plague you should be able to at least learn Urdu.
The other is—stressed, suffering, and sad people are not creative.
Both of these views are so extreme as to seem silly to me.
On the one hand, Malcolm X learned to read and write in prison, by copying the dictionary. Dissident Irina Ratushinskaya wrote poems she smuggled out on soap—from a Small Zone camp for religious prisoners within a Soviet gulag.
On the other, a bunch of rowdy children is a notorious creativity drain. The critic Helen Vendler, when asked if the flowering of women poets from the mid-20th century was due to feminism, said. “No. Birth Control.”
So, let’s take a look.
Some memes tell you not to berate yourself for lack of productivity—going so far as to equate creative effort with the values of capitalism. I don’t know what non-Marxist doofus invented this idea. Here’s my take.
- An emergency is not the best time to create good creative habits. Hopefully you already have them in place. If you started to develop such habits during the pandemic, you are not yet ready to judge. It will take more than a year.
- Creativity is not particularly special—everyone has it. Therefore, it does not need a hothouse circumstance to thrive. I like a peaceful writer’s retreat as much as anyone, but let me emphasize—it is in no way a necessity. The idea that a chunk of free time will yield art is erroneous. Only practice can yield that.
- A relationship with your Muse is like any other. Maybe you got divorced during the pandemic—from a real person or an imaginary friend. Maybe you fell more in love. As a rule, we don’t assume tragedy will divide us from others, or make us love them more. Maybe both things will happen, or neither.
PS. The Muse does not care if you berate yourself or not, have healthy emotions, smoke, or eat cheese doodles. All the Muse wants is your attention. The Muse does not care about your self-care any more than a toddler does. These are two separate issues.
The pandemic has been a crisis, a tragedy, a disruption. So is everything from war to serious illness to economic breakdown. We, as human beings, are designed to function through and with these darker experiences. Why should the pandemic impact our creativity differently?
Antonio Machado fled Franco and died of TB as a refugee. In his overcoat pocket was the fragment of a poem. He had enough poetic juice to write it, but not enough energy to complete it. That seems contiguous with his life experience and personality.
I can wish no more for all of us.