How has the pandemic and its isolation affected people whose primary pursuits are creative – writers, artists, composers? Has it resulted in an absence of distractions that have heightened and amplified the creative process? Or has the resulting silence instead silenced the muse? Author Pat Spears shares her thoughts on writing during the pandemic.
Where the Proverbial Rubber Meets the Road
Mary L. Bailey
As the death toll rose in ever more tragic numbers, and we as a nation were advised to drink bleach, a frightened and confused citizenry was left to discover its own new normal within the context of a dysfunctional government. We were no longer able to turn to the familiar comforts of family and friends for fear of infecting or being infected by those we loved. Our human contacts were shut down to as few as possible, and those of us who were privileged to possess the necessary resources turned to online shopping and delivery to our doors.
In an absence of the familiar in my small universe, I turned my attention to a three-decade old practice of butt-in-chair, fingers-on-keyboard diligence, the mainstay of my approach to productive writing. But this time it was not enough, and I experienced a rash of debilitating self-doubt, and my fair share of self-pity. I kept at it, but largely failed to reengage that magical psychic space where the words seem to find their own way onto the page, and I feel as though I am simply along for the ride.
Instead, my writing was stiff, forced, flat on the page, though my stubbornness turned out page after page filled with words but not the right words. I had lost my sense of connectedness to my fictional characters. Their unique voices were drowned out by the extraneous noise and chaos that filled my head. I believed that I had lost the ability to honestly tell their stories.
In my funk, I shared a few beers with my most trusted, though masked and distanced, writer-friend. She listened while I ran a one-sided litany of possible causes. Was it the stress of the pandemic, prolonged isolation, or simply a creative slowdown? She smiled and answered that I had a condition she had named writer’s palsy. She recommended that I give my sore brain a busman’s holiday. Her suggestion was that I open a new document and begin a new, for-my-eyes-only piece, drawn from my memories. Forget universal and go personal.
Okay, I was desperate, so I was willing to try anything. I began a piece I thought of as a snippet and it grew into a number of short pieces from my best childhood memories. Many of these were centered around stories my sister and I had heard from our grandma during our two-week summer vacations. In the time we spent with her, alone, without our parents, she told spell-binding thrillers full of family, love, violence, wild animals, and ghostly creatures from the swamp behind her country trailer. Stories I believe to this day were her original creations. If there are genes for storytelling that are passed from one generation to the next, mine came from her, and, as I learned later, from my dad.
In my memories, my sister and I, along with a few other motley stray kids from around the neighborhood, perched on the wobbly steps to Grandma’s makeshift porch. The porch itself held barely room enough for Grandma to settle into her newly acquired second- or third-hand platform rocker, leaving a bit of space for her nearly rusted-out refrigerator. A gossipy neighbor woman had dared to tell a big fat fib as to how Grandma had come by the new rocker. Grandma countered that she had traded three of her best laying hens for the damned rocker and the woman should take a hike until her hat floated. Although that damned rocker was clearly not worth any three of her hens,
I totally believed Grandma, though the hens in question never left their nest until age and low production caught up to them and they graced her Sunday table, floating in a pot of her famous dumplings. Then, I was the same kid who believed Grandma when she had said my walking barefoot in the chicken yard explained my being the tallest fifth grader in my elementary school. I started wearing my shoes on future visits, and sure enough, by seventh grade a boy or two had overtaken my height. Still, I remained the tallest girl straight through high school graduation, so I figured Grandma was at least half right.
A few days ago, at a gathering of a small group of writers for our first lunch—outdoors—since the onset of Covid 19, one woman asked if I had written during the isolation of the pandemic. A second replied that her question was tantamount to asking if I continued to breathe through that time. I replied that except for time spent healing from a total knee replacement, a broken arm, and back surgery (which I had forgotten to mention earlier), I had.
I now have placed a complete manuscript for my proposed novel titled Hotel Impala into the wonderfully capable hands of my editor. I understand that book dedications are considered by some to be old fashioned, but I think I’ll dedicate this book to my grandma, Mary L. Bailey, who introduced me to oral stories, and my best friend who honestly saved my … bacon.
Learn more about Pat’s writing here
Buy a copy of her novel It’s Not Like I Knew Her here.