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Non-Productivity in the Time of Coronoavirus

I keep coming across the idea with friends and in my social media circle that as writers and artists, or introverts even, we’ve been given our dream scenario—weeks on end without needing to leave the house, lots of quiet time, zero social obligations. Now is the time to get through the pile of books and magazines on the nightstand, to pick up running, to clean out the closet, to write the Great American Novel.

Except it’s not. Because this isn’t our dream scenario. Far from it. There is a deadly virus circulating everywhere. We are in continuous fear of our loved ones contracting it, of losing our jobs (if we still have them), of running out of food and medicine and money.

I’m not sleeping through the night, and often my days are spent wandering around my house in a fog, interrupted only by talking to friends on the phone and answering work emails. I am either anxiety-ridden, tired from all of the anxiety, or trying to decide if the sickness I feel is coronavirus or allergies. When I do pick up a book or sit down to write, I can’t focus for more than a few minutes at a time.

This is not the ideal scenario for creating, even if some people are doing so. Take the writer Leslie Jamison for instance. Last week she published an essay about being a single mom of a toddler WHILE SICK WITH CORONAVIRUS. I’m not going to lie, this made me hate her a little bit. I thought, if Leslie Jamison can write and publish while chasing around a toddler and being deathly ill, then what’s my excuse? Certainly I can use my child-free, perfectly healthy hours to contribute something to society. In fact, I must, or am I even a writer? Am I even a person?

I think many of us are feeling similarly, whether we think we need to be putting gourmet meals on the table every evening or training to run a marathon. I’ve talked with many people this week who are also frustrated with themselves. Collectively, we seem to be asking, why we don’t have our shit more together, why we aren’t using the time we’ve been given, why we aren’t improving ourselves into perfection?

You guys. It’s because we are in the middle of a freaking pandemic. There’s a meme going around Twitter about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the Plague. I don’t know if that’s true, but so what if it is? I am not Shakespeare. I am not Leslie Jamison. Right now I’m doing everything I can not to fall into a pit of despair. That is the only thing I am focused on. Every day.

Others have written at length in recent weeks about this very American problem of productivity equaling worth. It’s hard to divorce the two—I know because I am intimately married to the idea that my value depends on my ability to be useful in some way.

But what if we redefine being useful? What if being useful means getting a lot of rest, gently moving our bodies, and thinking about what we want to keep from the time before and what we want to let go? What if we start meditating more or calling our loved ones more often? What if we watch a lot of movies and just give our brains a break? What if we give ourselves a break? What if we spend this time imagining the world we want to go back to, and dreaming up ways to make it so?

There’s a lot of “we are caterpillars transforming into a butterflies” metaphors going around right now too—the idea being that we are currently in the chrysalis stage, waiting to emerge anew. If that’s true, do you think the caterpillar is in its cocoon with a typewriter and running shoes? It’s not. It’s a pile of goo.

I am also a pile of goo. And trying not to be is taking a lot of energy. We are being rearranged internally while our external lives are also shifting. Now is not the time for crossing the finish line. Now is the time for kindness—with ourselves and each other. It is a time for reflection, for taking stock.

Nick Cave’s missive from the Red Hand Files this week says it better than I do, so I leave you to ponder his words. They are specifically about creating, but I think you can apply them to anything. Click the link to read the whole thing.

Why is this the time to get creative?

Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime. Every day the news provides us with dizzying information that a few weeks before would have been unthinkable. What deranged and divided us a month ago seems, at best, an embarrassment from an idle and privileged time. We have become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out. We are forced to isolate — to be vigilant, to be quiet, to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilisation in real time. When we eventually step clear of this moment we will have discovered things about our leaders, our societal systems, our friends, our enemies and most of all, ourselves. We will know something of our resilience, our capacity for forgiveness, and our mutual vulnerability. Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant.

As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is — what we, as artists, are for.

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