How the pandemic destroyed my creativity and how I rebuilt it brick by brick.
At the start of the pandemic, I felt resentful towards anybody who proposed we might use this change of pace to learn a language, take up oil painting or write a novel.
“Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague!” Well, blow up my bloomers and stick a quill up my arse, Shakespeare didn’t have two small children at home and a business to run.
Like so many of us, my 2020 work time was squashed into tiny fragments of the day when I wasn’t being shouted at for snacks or answering endless demands from two feral beasts who were bouncing off the walls with frustration and boredom.
Leisure time, me-time, hobby-time and just-a-second-to-fucking-think-straight-time? All went up in smoke.
My own writing habit went in the bin. Every precious second had to be used for paid work. Plug In The Children! Work Shall Prevail!
And that worked, for a bit. But as the year went by, the initial adrenaline started to wear off. My cape-wearing Super Business Lady, watch-me-juggle-my-kids-as-I-run-this-online-workshop persona started glitching and eventually faded completely. Instead, I assumed a zombie state, shuffling through work assignments in a joyless trudge.
By January 2021, the third lockdown, I was a shell of my former self. And so were my kids. We were burned out after almost a year of shouting at each other to be left alone, numbed by boredom and proximity to each other.
We had no peers to contextualise ourselves with, no hobbies, no zest for life. We didn’t know who we were anymore. My eldest son, who had been merrily ploughing through Harry Potters pre-pandemic, was now refusing to read anything at all.
Snappy, vile and sick of each other’s shit, we were no longer living. Just surviving. And this situation was not going away.
I knew from mental health blips in the past that creative practice is a need I have. It’s how I manage to keep my brain balanced. If I take a break from it for an extended period, I get increasingly low.
For some reason I thought I could power through it this time because, I don’t know, we were living through a crisis. Because I had a responsibility to give my time to other humans, keep earning money, all that sensible grown-up stuff.
Clearly, I couldn’t. If I went on much longer, my ability to pay the bills was going to sink completely.
So on the 1st January this year, I started writing morning pages.
Anyone familiar with Julia Cameron’s moderate-to-high woo creative bible The Artist’s Way will already know that morning pages are a daily splurging of inner thoughts, in the hope of some creative self emerging from the mist.
It didn’t. Not at first. In fact it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I was writing CRAP that even my teenage diary-writing-self would be ashamed of. There were no lyrical sentences, no lovely words, just a lot of moaning, changing the subject by saying “aaanyway” and telling myself to take deep breaths and calm the fuck down.
I kept on writing them though, because I realised something was happening. I was venting, and feeling better for it. Then, out of the rants, I noticed some green shoots of common sense poking through.
I would complain that I wanted to create, but all my time was consumed with childcare, work and homeschooling. And now I had poor mental health and low energy to add to the pile.
But then I’d find myself replying with answers.
You could be creative, I would say. What if it only took a moment and you let everything count? Every idea, every time you pick up a guitar to play a couple of chords or write something helpful on Twitter? A doodle while your child draws? A new tune hummed as you walk down the stairs?
What if you could just squeeze it in wherever you spotted a gap?
A moment just for yourself, grabbed?
And so the ritual of writing morning pages paved the way for more tiny rituals. Acts of creative resistance, added day by day, one by one, like a string of beads. I started to prise open my over-packed day, just a crack, to allow the light in.
In those tiny spaces, I felt like me. Just for a second. It was enough to keep going.
As the creative muscle got stronger, I found myself embracing random impulses I might have dismissed a few months before as being silly, pointless or time consuming. Now I was used to saying “YES” to creative urges, I just rolled with whatever I felt like doing.
I serenaded my children with the entirety of No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom while they ate their tea. I drew in the back alley with pavement chalk. Having actively resisted cooking for a full year, I suddenly decided I needed to make a series of inventive dips. I signed up for guitar lessons. I borrowed a camera and learned how to use it (slowly). I allowed myself to be bad at things. I allowed myself to daydream.
It wasn’t the “I am now writing a great novel/rescuing my flailing copywriting business” creative panacea I had hoped for. It was a much smaller and weirder shift. But it was playful, unpredictable and delicious.
Suddenly, I felt like my life was interesting enough to start paying attention to. There was something to get up for. What would I make today?
Then, given fuel and a little space to breathe, these seedlings started sprouting in all sorts of unexpected directions.
I noticed that people I hadn’t spoken to in a long time were reaching out to ask me if I would collaborate with them on this or that. Had they been there before and I just hadn’t noticed? Hard to say, but these new distractions and projects began to form the bedrock of a new, more creative existence. One where I would grab a camera to catch the light, sprint upstairs to write down an idea or pace the floorboards singing into my phone.
On paper, you might say nothing much has changed. I’m more socially inept than ever, my business is making a fraction of what it was making last year. I’m still on the anxiety/depression roulette wheel I’ve been on for most of my life.
But a healing has started. A reordering of priorities. I’m starting to realise that if you want to keep your grip, you have to reach for the things that will fix you first.
Yes, my family need me and we do need me to earn enough money to pay the bills. But I can’t do those things well unless I give myself some attention and fill the source back up with things I love.
For someone else that might be seeing friends, playing sport, exploring somewhere new. For me, it’s all about making something lovely that didn’t exist in the world before.
I realise that by summing up the work of six months in several paragraphs, I may have made it sound simplistic. It hasn’t been easy. Creative practice is a stubborn mule that I’ve had to drag back to the drinking trough every day. And it hasn’t always been successful. My output is frequently mediocre, often bad, and sometimes non-existent. But the ritual of showing up has been the critical part. When something great decides to materialise (and the good stuff always feels like it’s been beamed down from outer space) I’m there, ready for it.
And it has been contagious. At the end of January, my son told me he wanted to buy a skateboard with his saved Christmas money. He started venturing outside, learning, refining, improving, finding new ways to move around the streets. Now I watch him sailing down paths and over ramps with ease. He looks free.
Last month he picked up a book and read it, start to finish.
It was like he’d never stopped.