Creativity During Crisis: Free Time vs. Pandemic Time

by Michelle M. Johnson

So, we're in a crisis - a global crisis.

The entire world is having to deal with a terrifying upheaval to what we now all refer to wistfully as "normal life."

And, I don't know about you, but even after almost 5 weeks of COVID-19 and social distancing, I am *still* coming to terms with this new way of living and its effects on me.

Me.

 A person who:
  • has contentedly worked from home for the last 4 years.
  • is a deeply introverted person.
  • is not partial to eating out.
  • prefers long walks with an individual friend to parties, luncheons or "hangouts" with 2 or more people.
  • would almost always rather see a movie on THEIR couch with THEIR snacks and THEIR beverages on THEIR timetable.
  • consistently complains (albeit privately) about how obligations and responsibilities and people in general are a time-suck in their life, a distraction from getting work done in a timely fashion.
On paper, I seem to be uniquely designed to weather a season of social distance well, and I was pretty optimistic about how I was going to manage during this crisis. My thoughts about myself and my professional/personal life around mid March when social distancing measures were put into place here in Texas were as follows:
"I work from home mostly, and I'm still *always* looking for more time to devote to illustrating - a lock down from all social interaction will surely provide loads of extra drawing time. I already create tap dance video tutorials for my students now and then, so making them consistently each week isn't that much of a stretch - I may not be teaching in person, but at least my students will still be able to learn and I will still be able to dance while we wait this virus out. I got this!" 
But, as is usually the case, the reality of an experience varies greatly from one's theoretical plan. 

I've actually had a very difficult time processing that every morning we wake up to a radically different world from the one we fell asleep in, that mundane things we previously took for granted, like trips to the grocery store, are now monumentally important tasks that require strategy and a bit of courage, and that everywhere you go online, the topic of conversation is COVID-19 this and COVID-19 that (even here, on my blog, damn it!!). I now see that with my initial response I was pushing hard to view my glass as half full, I was forcing myself to bloom where I was planted, and I was leaning heavily upon my creative work to see me through my anxiety and fear. And, in my defense, these are mindsets that have held me together during many other previously emotionally and physically difficult situations. But, this isn't a "difficult situation." What we are all simultaneously going through right now is a slow moving, unpredictable, life-altering event, the likes of which we haven't seen in generations.

It wasn't until I happened upon this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education whilst stress-scrolling through my Facebook feed during the second or third week of the pandemic (honestly, time has lost a bit of its meaning for me lately) that I understood that I was trying to handle my stress and terror about these changes to our way of life in a slightly cockeyed way. Yes, hours and hours and hours of time has been handed over to us during the COVID19 season of social distancing, but, that windfall of time isn't free time. Free time is the something we have to work hard to receive and is, therefore, enjoyable, exciting, relaxing, and rejuvenating. This time we all have on our hands right now is pandemic time - time that is laced with a sense of dread for the future, fear of the present, and a longing for the past in a way most of us never thought possible. And, while it is admirable to want to put these unexpected hours, days, and months to "good use" and find some silver linings (and y'all know I love a good silver lining), a pandemic-time-brain is very different mental space to have to live in than a free-time-brain. 

Focus and emotional energy have been in short supply for me since around March 11th, and initially I found this quite personally disheartening. Before this pandemic you could give me a free day, and I would be lost in an idea or project instantly, never lifting my head from my task or goal, and probably protesting grumpily that I had to pause whatever I was doing to eat and hydrate. Give me the exact same gift of time now during this pandemic, and I can barely focus enough to read a much anticipated book while I eat lunch (and reading while eating lunch is my most treasured guilty pleasure). But, comparing the productivity of the person I am now, pandemic-time-Michelle, to the creative output of a previous "normal life" version of myself is a self-indulgent waste of time, I think. Pandemic-time-Michelle is frightened to leave her home, has a slow drip of fear in her heart for her many friends and family who are either at high risk for the virus or who have "essential jobs" and therefore are not granted the opportunity to work from home, and has to fight back daily panic attacks brought on by the news. Expecting the person I am right now - a human being 5 weeks into their first experience of a global pandemic and nation wide stay-at-home order - to be able to work, create and learn like the person I was before COVID19 is ludicrous. 

Pandemic time may indeed be a time to catch up on work or to learn something new, but I think we need to be gentle with ourselves as we go about trying to make some lemonade out of these incredibly sour lemons. My students past and present will be shocked to hear me say this, but I do believe that to stay creative and productive during pandemic times, we need to lower our expectations for ourselves and our output, at least for a while. What that looks like from one person to another will be very different, but here's a few examples of what gently acknowledging the abilities of my pandemic-time-brain looks like for me:


The only metric that matters in regards to my creativity during pandemic time is PROGRESS.
Last year it felt "extra" to be getting my beloved
his very own disc golf pro basket for Father's Day.
This year that over-the-top gift is providing both Steve
and our son, Sam, some much needed stress relief from our
current work-from-home pandemic time life, as well as a
fun visual distraction for me as I dream up new feminist
coloring pages:)
The extra time spent on my smart phone communicating with friends and family during this pandemic time has brought on painful swelling in my left wrist that requires me to wear a brace that is impossible to draw in. In order to keep up my illustrating schedule for my next coloring book, Feminism Is For Everyone: A Coloring BookI have had to create initial sketches for each illustration in a large, hardback sketchbook that I can prop and stabilize on my knees, leaving my left wrist free to rest off to the side (I never knew how much I used my left hand to draw until now). The paper of this sketchbook is inferior to the quality of paper I typically use to create initial illustrations, which means I will have to draw each new coloring page three times over rather than the typical two times of my "normal life" drawing process, taking days longer to finish a single illustration. But, I *am* still making progress on my next book, and that is the only metric that I am paying attention to on this project during pandemic time.

"Business as usual" may not be possible in pandemic time, but that also means "unusual business" opportunity may pop up in its place.

I am most definitely *not* a watercolor expert...so of
course that's the medium I chose to use when my friend
commissioned an anniversary card. My feelings of being an
impostor artist flowed throughout the creation process
of this card, but the end results (I had to create multiple
cards before I made anything I felt worthy of a 20th anniversary)
were rather lovely, if I do say so myself:)
Orders for colorable cards, bookmarks, books and coloring & creativity workshops have been (understandably) non-existent...and I have never felt more "non-essential" in my life.
But, I *have* had two custom orders that use my work in exciting ways that I had yet to discover as income streams: 
  1. My colorable bookmarks and digital downloads were ordered as part of an online youth ministry curriculum early on in the pandemic (a youth minister in my area is continuing to lead their youth via "happy mail" snail mail packages,so they purchased coloring adventures that matched themes they planned to teach if the social distancing season went on)
  2. Not having the ability to shop for greeting cards, a friend of mine commissioned me to create a one-of-a-kind a 20th anniversary card for her husband; it was a stressful-in-a-good-way creative challenge that required multiple passes before I felt I had created something worthy of monetary compensation, but it was an incredibly satisfying experience that also had the happy side-effect of distracting me from the scary real-life situation that brought about the commission in the first place!
I'm not exactly sure how to expand my business further into areas like these two commissions, but each reaffirmed my faith in the importance of art and creativity during desperate times.

If I can't laugh at myself, my tech trouble, and my circumstances during pandemic time, then I'm never gonna find my stride with this "new normal" life.

This brief clip from an online tap dance education video I made this week for my students at Suzi Hughson's School of Dance in Seguin, Texas, speaks for itself: my cat, Merry, wants me to stop tap dancing and yelling at my phone at home, and 21 minutes into a 30 min video lesson, the audio & visual completely go out of sync, something I did not discover until AFTER I had run out of time to re-shoot the lesson (bonus: this problem affected ALL the
tap education videos I made for this week)! There was nothing left to do about this pandemic time work situation but laug(after crying just a little bit) and perhaps try to put the footage to good use as an object lesson of what NOT to do while teaching from home (pro tip:  put all your animals - even the sleeping ones - behind closed doors before beginning a video lesson, and be sure your memory card has plenty of space for the work you plan to do). Thankfully, my partner, Steve, found a hack last night to help me mostly re-sync the audio with the visual on all affected lessons I filmed, so my students will NOT have to plow through out of sync video as they go to tap class from home next week:)

Over time, it is quite possible that my pandemic-time-brain may learn to tune out the fear and anxiety that are the natural companions to any crisis, but I'm not going to hold my breath. Today, I was able to be patient rather than petulantly anxious while waiting for my tap tutorials to upload to YouTube and I even had the mental energy and focus to finish this blog post. But, today is a "good day" - the sun is shining, my family and friends are healthy, my cats are happy I am spending the day writing, we have my favorite foods in the fridge, and I feel pretty good about my creative output for the week. We have more "bad days" in front of us, I'm sure, but going forward, the bar I am setting for what makes a good "bad day" is going to stay very low. During pandemic time, I am going to strive to measure my creative output by my answers to the following questions:
  • Was I kind to myself and those around me...eventually? 
  • Did I tend to my basic human needs (food, water, rest)...eventually? 
  • Did I allow myself to feel my feelings rather than obsessively try to fight my way through them to "get things done?" 
  • Did I remember to breathe and sit in outside in nature for a little while rather than let my imagination run away with "what ifs?" brought on by too much attention paid to the news and social media? 
If I can answer 'yes' to even one of those questions during pandemic time, I am going to encourage myself to call a "bad day" a success.


I have been sitting at my computer for over an hour now trying to pull together some sort of conclusion to the above ruminations about creating during a time of crisis...but my eyes keep wandering to my window's view of our brilliantly green backyard, my right hand keeps leaving my computer's mouse to reach to my phone to check how far my latest YouTube tap tutorial upload is along (it's only at 46% - still have two more hours to go before I can use my device to film the rest of next week's tap lessons...), and rather than use my fingers to type, I am obsessively cracking my knuckles. My pandemic-time-brain has maxed out its focus for words today, it seems, and rather than spend another anxious minute in the pursuit of a well completed blog post, I am going to take my own damn good advice, advice that I *just* wrote hundreds of words about, and call this post done. In pandemic time, this has already been quite a good, creatively successful day, and it is time for me to move on.

PS - I rarely link to the articles of others in my blog, but this one from the Chronicle of Higher Education that I mentioned above is a real gem. I encourage y'all to read it, whether you feel professorial or not, especially if you are like myself - a type A, perfectionist with control issues who is prone to anxiety and depression. Reading this and referring back to it has been a source of emotional and psychological comfort throughout this last month:)

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