It’s often easy to forget that I can aim for something more than simply existing during the pandemic, for something as lofty and non-apocalyptic as creative growth. The pandemic seems like it should override just about everything in life. Even the activities I’ve always loved to do, like cooking, creative writing and talking to my loved ones, have now reemerged as coping mechanisms. The pandemic has occupied their negative space, pushing right against them and attempting to take them over, too.
Admittedly, cooking, writing and talking to loved ones are doing a lot to keep me sane, and I’m all for self-care and healthy coping mechanisms. But at the same time, I feel like I eventually hit a point where I lost the ability to love the things I love and do them for the sake of doing them. If you put too much pressure on the idea of a certain activity serving as a reprieve, it becomes difficult to find much joy in it at all. Whatever you’re trying to escape is still looking over your shoulder.
In particular, I found that this happened with my writing. Whether fiction, poetry or nonfiction like this, we often push writing as a means of self-expression and vulnerability, which definitely makes it a good coping mechanism. And if that’s just what writing is for you, that’s valid! Not trying to shame that. That’s not to dismiss self-expression and vulnerability or to say they aren’t important to good creative writing. I believe they’re the bedrock of good creative writing.
But it added a lot of pressure and constraint, turning everything I wrote into only an act of survival. And I think that in turn led me to undervalue my writing as an artistic pursuit and to undervalue myself as an artist (or at least an aspiring one).
But thankfully I think I’ve started to come back from that. I’ve begun to push my craft and creativity, to enjoy writing just because it feels like my calling, to feel something like an artist again. That happened in two very different ways.
The first was about a week and a half ago, when I had to turn in a short story for a workshop in one of my classes. The story wound up going in a more intense direction than I had planned, and suddenly I was writing a scene that depicted gender violence and homophobia. I had never really written a scene like this before, nor have I been in a situation close to the one I wrote, so I couldn’t lean on prior writing experience or life experience to guide me.
I really had to focus on technical craft elements like perspective, word choice and sensory detail to make sure I was handling it in a way that felt realistic, sensitive and appropriate to me. I’ve often felt frustrated and uncomfortable with writing that, to me, mishandled the portrayal of serious topics like these ones. I would’ve hated to be guilty of the same thing, to make someone upset or uncomfortable with how I approached this scene.
While I wasn’t fully confident that I had succeeded, it felt good to try, to get out of my writing comfort zone and stretch my craft muscles more than I had in a while. My workshop wound up going well, and I’m still proud of my effort.
The next day my friend Sara and I spent the night writing a short play for Witness Theater’s Halloween 24-Hour Show. Our other friend Apara has tried no less than six times (bless her) to get me to write for Witness — she’s really involved in it, and I’m her token Writing Sems friend, so it makes sense for her to target me.
This time she succeeded, and Sara and I had a blast writing our play. It was chaotic, funny (hopefully) and not at all profound, which tends to be the vibe of 24-hour shows. And it was fun not just because I did it with one of my best friends but because we embraced absurdity and unrestrained creativity in the process. If we thought of something, and we wanted it, then we put it in, even if it didn’t make much sense or other people weren’t going to find it super funny.
Both of those writing experiences were really positive. It was so nice to get caught up in craft and creativity, to feel like I was writing to be artistic again and not just to cope.
But those experiences also reminded me of another hurdle that has often kept me from feeling fully absorbed in my writing: whether other people will take me seriously as a writer. After I finished my short story, I was super nervous for my class to workshop it. I knew that I had taken it seriously — more seriously than most other things I’ve written. But what if they felt I had gotten it wrong and hadn’t been thoughtful and serious enough about it? Would that mean I wasn’t actually a serious enough writer?
Conversely, after we finished our play, I was worried that people would only find it cringey, not funny. I was even more worried that they would think I only ever wrote for shits and giggles and wasn’t good at it (but again, very valid if that’s your approach to writing). All that, despite how much fun I had had while writing it. Essentially — and I know that this is silly — I was worried that people wouldn’t take my writing seriously... after I had deliberately and joyfully let myself not take it seriously.
Genuinely, why was I worried about that?
Thankfully, now I’ve realized that that was irrational. Both times, I knew what my intentions were as a person, as a writer, as an artist: One was to be serious and to hone craft, and the other was to have fun and be unabashedly creative. And that’s what I got out of those experiences. People will think what they’ll think, and I’ll get the grades I’ll get, but why should that or even a pandemic stop me from loving what I do and doing what I love just for the sake of it?
Hopefully I haven’t sounded pretentious throughout this (many writers do, I know... and I’m still scared of that). But if I have, then I just want to give this article a TL;DR: Don’t let the pandemic or any other stressor define you or what you do. Get lost in what you love, and then find yourself there.
Sophia Lola is a junior from Brooklyn, N.Y. majoring in Writing Seminars. She is a Magazine Editor and Assistant Copy Editor for The News-Letter. Her column “Inch by Inch” explores personal growth, whether it comes an inch or a mile at a time.