When the first case of COVID-19 arrived on Canadian soil in January 2020, I had a sinking feeling in my gut.
I knew immediately that this novel coronavirus wasn’t going to be something that would only impact a few incoming travellers—not with the rate at which it was spreading across the world. Eventually, someone would slip between the cracks, and the virus would hopscotch from one person to the next until we’d get community spread.
Less than two months later, I put myself in lockdown. I was working primarily from home, so I didn’t need to go anywhere for the most part. This was still 2-3 weeks before lockdown was officially mandated, but I didn’t want to wait that long because of my chronic illness, which puts me in a high-risk category.
That was in February of 2020. For the past eleven months, I have spent 90% of my time between three rooms: my bedroom, my living room/kitchen, and my office. I go grocery shopping once every 3-4 weeks and will step out to the drug store once every 2 or so weeks for anything I desperately need. Besides that, my days are entirely the same, though I’m fortunate to live with my partner and two cats who keep me company.
When lockdown first started, I struggled with feeling unproductive, even though I was, in fact, incredibly productive. I finished my second book during the first three months of quarantine. It had taken me over a year and a half to write the first 60% of the book, and then I plowed through the last 40% in three months! Even though I felt utterly unsatisfied during those three months and beat myself up constantly for not working enough, I had actually done more writing during those 90 days than I’d managed in over a year. The pressure to be productive came from the intense awareness of being at home 24/7, and because I had no other obligations due to lockdown, I constantly felt like I had to make up for it somehow.
I know that for some people, these early months of quarantine made them feel as though their personal projects weren’t worthwhile. The world was on fire, so why would passion projects matter when there was a global pandemic raging on? For me, however, the fact that the world’s problems were completely out of my control bolstered my commitment to finishing creative projects. For me, a near-apocalypse was the best time to focus on passion projects, because what else was there to care about? I had no control over the state of the world, and the enormity of the pandemic showed me that none of the things I thought were important—my job, my dissertation, etc.—seemed to matter in the face of such a universal threat. All I had was my interiority and the one tool I’d developed to express it: writing stories.
However, once I hit month 11 of lockdown, I found tapping into my creativity to be far more difficult. To be clear, I never left my quarantine mode, even when the first wave died down here in Ontario. Because I’m in a high-risk population, I couldn’t afford to take any chances. So, while others were going out to bars and patios during the quiet summer months, I still stayed at home with nothing but four walls to stare at. I still struggled with feeling the need to be productive from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed, but the guilt felt even more disproportionate than it had during the early months of the pandemic.
You see, I’d underestimated just how much daily life fuelled my creativity before the pandemic. A fleeting conversation on the subway, a walk through an unfamiliar neighbourhood, a night at the bar, and even the daily bustle of human activity drip fed me with creative material and inspiration. We take it for granted, but quotidian is possibly one of the most profound and consistent sources of creative inspiration. I’d simply never realized it. Now, with my entire day spent in the same environment—800 square feet—I have absolutely nothing to stimulate me.
All of the metaphors and imagery I use to make my writing emotionally impactful comes from life experience…in the world out there. Now, suddenly, I’ve found myself deprived of that world for almost a year. I’d noticed that my writing had become more literal, with dryer descriptions and less experimentation. Words come with greater difficulty, and often find myself rewriting paragraphs over and over again or asking my partner for help thinking of metaphors. To be clear—there is always a degree of collaboration in creative projects. I may write 90,000 words, but at least some those words came to me with the help of others who acted as sounding boards. Yet I find myself less and less able to draw from my own reservoir of cultural knowledge. Am I forgetting what it’s like to live outside? To be connected to a society with collective knowledge? Sometimes, it feels that way.
I’ve tried reading more for inspiration, yet it never quite feels the same. The beauty of other people’s words can be moving, but when it comes to creative endeavours, another person’s creation feels less authentic of a source for inspiration than my own lived reality.
I haven’t yet found a way around this. In part, I don’t think there is a solution but perhaps to look inward and explore the experience of isolation, of lack of connection to something out there. How deep does the soul run? It’s a test to be sure, but one I continue to take willingly.
If art is expression, then surely there are things that ought to be expressed even when we are locked away from the very world that that acts as our muse.