A global pandemic was a daunting and unsettling thing, unprecedented in the lifetimes of the vast majority of us. But like just about every writer I’ve spoken to, heard about, or read statements from I couldn’t help but reflexively rub my hands together in optimistic anticipation at the prospect of eight or more weeks of mandatory isolation at home.
As writers with other obligations or employment beyond writing we do our best to seek out any time to write where we can find it, often resorting to ‘writing vacations’ to free up more than a few hours in a row to write. And suddenly we were being faced with the prospect of multiple weeks emptied of virtually all those other concerns and confined to our homes.
At the risk of tooting my own laurels my personal record for when the writing engines are firing at maximum with several days in a row to keep them freely churning is 20K words in four days, a particularly productive Christmas vacation year before last. Approaching the prospect of several weeks of shutdown mandated isolation my writer’s instincts reflexively started doing the math and mapping out projections for just how much I might be able to accomplish with all that time.
I set aside the multi-book project I have been editing in fits and burst over the past couple of years, the one which had reaped the benefits of those extremely productive four days, and turned my creative engines towards an idea for a new standalone novel which could have potential for being a better pitching vehicle.
I spread several fresh sheets of paper across my desk and began scribbling. World building, fleshing out characters, overall time lines and story boards, specific key scenes which were already formed in my mind, back to more world building to fill in the gaps and clarify the rules. The first round took me the better part of a week.
As someone who writes fantasy almost exclusively when writing in novel form this one was much more science fiction than my usual fair, a post-apocalyptic setting with just enough otherness to its sci-fi elements to tempt a branding of ‘fantastical science fiction’.
A major aspect of the main character’s journey was something I am familiar with but have not had extensive personal experience of so I wanted to reach out, not only seeking deeper understanding but also to ensure I handled such a personal and complicated issue accurately and well. I sent outlines and specific questions to those I know who have dealt more directly with such struggles along with open invitations for critiques, comments, or requests.
I got responses back within a couple of weeks, one of my friends even bounced the whole package along to a professional who specializes in that very subject which lead to some amazing conversations I am immensely grateful for. I took all the feedback and returned to my scribbling making adjustments to ensure the story, characters, and representations were on track. All in by the end of my first month of staying home I was ready to fully start the engines.
That was the beginning of May, and as of the writing of this I have yet to finish the first chapter.
All writers have their own processes and methods. Ask a dozen different writers you will get a dozen different answers, unified only by our mystified inability to explain a virtually genetic compulsion towards procrastination. I am one form whom when it goes it goes and when it doesn’t it can be like trying to start a car which has a dead battery.
Since writing is not my primary employment and I am thus, as yet, unburdened by such trifling things as publishing deadlines and my writing productivity has so far remained at the mercy of the ebbs and flows of my motivations and access to quality writing time.
The new idea had me fired up, the images were vivid and fresh in my mind, and I had more open time on my hands than ever before so what was the problem?
Like everyone else I had to acknowledge the truth that all this open time was not actually ‘time off’. We weren’t able to go in to work and beyond groceries and essential errands we were staying at home but it wasn’t a vacation or a ‘stay-cation’. It was a new kind of job. We were now working full-time on coping and adjusting to an ever shifting world.
One of the key ingredients to motivation is the ability to project goals and targets out into our foreseeable futures and that is one of the most immediate and profound impacts the pandemic had on all of us.
In the blink of an eye all the plans we had made for the rest of this year, and the beginning of the next, were gone. Events both personal and grandly public were cancelled. Quarterly and yearly projections were completely upended. We didn’t know when we would be able to return to our jobs, what they might look like when we did, and for a great many whether our job would still be there to return to at all.
And at a more primal level there was, and is, an existential threat to our health and very lives. A virus we are all vulnerable to which doesn’t care about your age, height, weight, political affiliations, religious beliefs, bank balance, or anything else. The good news is most people who contract the virus experience mild to no symptoms. The bad news is regardless of the mildness or lack of symptoms anyone infected is highly contagious.
Just going to the grocery story became a serious risk and every throat tickle or allergic sniffle conjured full blown worries we might be about the become another addition to the unsettling and mounting totals being broadcast in every medium.
It was a lot. It was daunting and frightening and the uncertainty of it all exacerbated it exponentially. With no idea how long it might last, whether it will get better or worse or the likely intensely of either. Trying to spark motivation in the face of it all proved confusingly difficult because the weight of it all began having an impact well before we were fully aware of it. Some days we would feel ready to leap tall buildings in a single bound and others simply getting out from under the covers was about all we had in us, if that.
This is not to say I wasn’t able to accomplish anything during the lockdown period. Aside from laying the foundation for the new book I was able to maintain a tempo of two or three articles per week on Medium many of which were curated and some of which were published in ‘Age of Awareness’ and ‘The Startup’, I got into an expanded daily workout regimen, I maintained weekly dance training sessions for the teachers at the studio, and each week I filmed and posted half a dozen eight to ten minute tutorial videos on various dance techniques and topics for the students of our studio as well as overseeing the filming of a half dozen more by the other teachers.
I have always been the kind of person with fingers in about a dozen pies at any given time. Whenever anyone asks what I have been up to over the past month or two my rattled off list invariably provokes the same question.
“Do you ever sleep, or did you somehow have that removed?”
So for me to suddenly find myself unable to throttle up the engines, even in creative spaces, was at first incredibly disorienting. There were times when my lockdown list of things felt like nothing at all and there were times when it was everything I could do just to get them finished. There were days when I had energy and motivation to spare and there were days where bingeing episodes of a series on Netflix was all I had in me.
What I had to force myself to understand, acknowledge, and accept was that all of it was perfectly okay. The world around me might have been anything but ‘normal’ but my reaction(s) to it were exactly that, natural and normal.
I was very happy to see a whole host of therapists and social workers chiming in right at the outset to push back against the initial waves of productivity pressuring. Pithy quotes about making sure not waste all this sudden free time and pre-emptive threats about being judged if you came out of quarantine without having learned a new language or written your first screenplay.
The situation we were in was sudden, confusing, terrifying, and the last thing any of us needed was a sense of added pressure to ‘achieve great things’ while our world was being upended all around us and yanked from under our feet. Thankfully we got it and the wave of ‘competitive quarantining’ fizzled out.
It is vitally important to note, however, that as many of us start heading back to work much of the uncertainty is still with us. Can our places of business function sustainably while also maintaining safety measures limiting numbers of bodies and distances between them? The doors might be opening but will people actually come to walk through them? Will we need to keep functioning with these new protocols for a couple more months, the rest of the year, into the beginning of the new year, the better part or entirety of next year? Will a partial dose of normalcy be better or worse than no normalcy at all?
Being back at work has certainly started to rekindle a sense of Monday-to-Friday routine. Though there are new safety, distancing, and cleaning protocols to adapt to and we have yet to return to a pre-pandemic pace of client traffic the rhythms of day-to-day productivity engenders a sense of being able to put one foot in front of the other and actually knowing which day of the week it is comes far more easily.
Returning to work is giving us something to do but the uncertainty of our situation is still with us. We still don’t know how long this is all going to take, what exactly it will look like in the meantime, or what it is going to look like afterwards. A great many of those answers will depend on how long it takes us to reach the other side of this, something we have no concrete way of knowing.
This means the mental and emotional cost of simply coping and continuing is going to be with us for a while. We will continue to have days where we are ready to leap those tall buildings and those where the covers are our kryptonite.
And that is all perfectly okay. It’s not ideal, it’s not what we want, it’s not pleasant but the fact we are going to have times where we feel completely unable to surge up defiantly in the face of adversity is absolutely okay. Things might be starting to move forward but it is all still a lot.
So, for me, I am pouncing on those moments of motivation whenever they occur and simply taking deep breaths and silencing my inner scolding voice on the days the fires are without spark. By the end of this week that first chapter will actually be finished and next week, if the winds fill my sails, I will start on chapter two. I might manage to finish the first draft of the whole book by the end of the year, I might not.
And that is perfectly okay.