Making Art in a Crisis
Hopefully, you’re home social distancing yourself.* A nice euphemism for quarantine. In New York city we’re under a “pause” order which strongly encourages us to stay at home and all non-essential businesses have been shut down.
Here’s what I’m going to tell you about making art in these difficult times: it’s okay if you don’t. It’s okay if you don’t have the energy. It’s okay if you can’t think of good ideas. It’s okay if you can’t string words together. It’s okay if you feel bad about your work right now.
I see over and over again, folks on twitter and instagram saying “I finally have time to write!” or “I’ll get so much work done!” But I firmly believe this is a vocal minority or folks talking about their aspiration rather than their reality. Sure, some are clearly able to use writing to channel their anxiety or to sit down and work under any conditions. This doesn’t have to be you.
This pandemic is hugely taxing on our brains and our hearts. We only have so much executive function available to us every day. That’s usually taken up by work, conversation, and so on, but also it’s supported and bolstered by routine. The daily rhythms of our lives channels our decision making and frees up space for creative thought, for deeper work.
But now, not only is everything disrupted, but every choice is freighted with a risk analysis. Going to the store becomes a harrowing balance between two kinds of safety — enough supplies and risk of exposure. Every package delivery requires you to consider how important it is to open that box, possibly contaminating yourself in the process. Laundromats are shutting down and were probably vectors for transmission in the first place. Going for a walk has become a game of frogger, dodging joggers, fleeing from off-leash dogs, and trying to keep six feet from all other humans.
And that’s just taking care of myself. If you have a family, children, elderly parents. If you’re a caregiver or responsible for the health and safety of others, then this stress is exponentially worse.
So what if Shakespeare wrote Lear while secluded in his cottage in Stratford-upon-shut-the-fuck-up-and-let-people-live. The modern world is not Shakespeare’s world. The novel coronavirus is not the black plague. You are not Shakespeare. You’re you. And you might be just as brilliant but the expectation that you can put out your magnum opus right now is patently absurd and harmful.
Moments like this require great art. Require stories and narratives that help us parse the trauma, the tragedy, and the horror of this time. To tell us what it was like so we can remember for ourselves. But art takes time and space. It takes a critical distance from the moment you need to bring to light. Some will write now and write brilliant things about the pandemic, but you don’t have to be that person.
If you give yourself permission to not work, to not think about stories right now, to just take care of yourself and those you love as best you can, then that’s enough. And maybe, if you give yourself permission not to work, you’ll find yourself doing a little bit here and there. Maybe if you refuse to sit down in front of a blank page, you’ll find snippets of sentences floating into your mind. Characters stomping around waiting to be heard.
Or maybe not. Survival is the work we need to be doing. Stay safe out there.
*And if you have a job at an essential business, if you’re still commuting, or delivering groceries, or work at a hospital then all of this applies a hundred fold. Thank you for doing the work and I am deeply grateful for what you are doing to keep our society running and save lives by making this distancing possible.