On the Creative Process During a Time of Crisis
From the WMFA Podcast with Courtney Balestier
Writing can be lonely work; WMFA counters that with conversation. It’s a show about creativity and craft, where writer and host Courtney Balestier talks shop with some of today’s best writers and examines the issues we face when we do creative work. The mission of WMFA is to explore why we writers do what we do, so that we can do it with more intention, and how we do what we do, so that we can do it better.
From the episode:
If you’re new to WMFA, these minisodes are usually brief meditations on an issue, often a psychological or emotional one that I’m facing in the work of writing. Before the events of the last few days, I was going to talk to you now about how I’ve been struggling with that model. How, though I love the way minisodes offers solace and community, I sometimes wonder if I’m doing us a disservice by focusing so much on what’s wrong in the creative process, on where it’s sticky, where it hurts, where it’s hard…
It’s not that I want to stop examining the process, including the more difficult aspects. It’s just that I want to leave room for everything else too. I’m already prone to anxiety and obsessing. I don’t want to deepen those pathways toward negative thoughts until they’re the only parts my mind can travel. Something I know I think about all the time as a person with anxiety is how easy it is to over-identify with the anxiety and how dangerous that can be to my actual sense of self. And then we entered a collective state of emergency. COVID-19, and quarantining, became pretty much all I could think about, and then I realized that actually what I wanted to talk to you about now hasn’t changed much at all.
I am very lucky and very grateful to be able to work from home, to have good health insurance, to be young and healthy and able-bodied. What this ordeal has made clear to me, though, is how deep my lack based thinking goes, how despite all of those things, I am fundamentally afraid of never having enough. How I can look at my fully stocked pantry and fixate on the fact that I didn’t buy an extra bag of rice. You see where I’m going with this, right? This is a moment when we are forced into stillness with everything, including our fears. But that means it can also be an excellent opportunity to learn how to take better care of ourselves and each other. And those are lessons that extend to our creative process.
The first thing I want to say about that is if you now find yourself at home with hours of time that could be spent writing, you do not have to write. I’m going to say that again, you do not have to write. If you want to, great. If it makes you feel good, do it. But if you’re too scattered or distracted or unfocused, as I am, give yourself a pass. Our foundations are being stress tested right now. Tending to them as tending to your writing.
We are all doing our best. That is an allowance I usually withhold from myself. I usually insist that my best to be the best, the most perfect, but that is unrealistic and unreasonable. At this moment, we are certainly not in a position to force ourselves into productive shapes. This is not a moment to withhold from ourselves. We do not have to create, to comfort ourselves with creativity. Read. Watch a movie. Consider what you want to be what you need. I say this is the queen of carrot-and-stick pleasure management, of you can read the new Hilary Mantel when you finish your invoices and write your next chapter and solve the global climate crisis. Because that’s another thing this experience has made clear to me that I keep myself busy, a superficial 0.5 percent of my brain kind of busy, as a way of withholding what I actually want to be doing until I literally run out of time. So then when I am less busy, as the world is right now, I spin out. Of course I do. I’m left with what I’ve been avoiding.
I pull a tarot card daily, and today I got the hanged man. Here’s a line from one of my tarot guides about that card. “Constant activity keeps the ego busy, but by practicing patients, you’re allowing other opportunities to unfold for you.” We’re all hanging in that hangmen spot for the moment. It is sticky and it hurts and it’s hard. But we can find space in it for more. We can read a book we love. We can check in on our elderly neighbors and bake a pie. We can donate to our community food bank and watch a whole season of reality television in an afternoon because it makes us laugh and that keeps us sane. We can use this moment if we are healthy and safe and secure and lucky enough to have all of those things. To get clear on what really feeds us. And then to give it to ourselves with no strings attached. Then later, whenever we’re ready, we can write.
To listen to the rest of the episode, as well as the whole archive of WMFA, subscribe and listen on iTunes or wherever else you find your favorite podcasts.