The COVID-19 crisis has hit hard on the creative world in ways that are more than financial. As writerly friends and colleagues worry about abandoned events, small book sales, shoved out book releases… there’s yet another panic: facing the blank page.
Trauma in whichever form may have one of two effects on a writer: impetus or stifle. Impetus gives you the momentum to write—almost feverish, an ardent desire to find expression in text. Language that shapes, and perhaps finds meaning (or therapy) in turmoil. Stifle coagulates your thinking and words harden into graphene, and nothing rouses you to write.
As once prolific writers face a certain bleakness, a helplessness to create, one could sit and let it pass, if it passes—that loss of exhilaration to compose, improvise, arrange. But one could also remember, and try out, life’s tiny things that awaken your muse, your passion, your nose for a good story.
It may be a dream that sits you up at stupid o’clock and you type it into your phone, fragments you will later retrieve to punch out a story of science and fantasies. It may be a book in your hand, perhaps about a dead singer, and the simple act of turning a page triggers in your mind an elaborate story of time travel and piracy. It may be an illness—the virus too close for comfort, and you’ve survived it, or a friend has survived it, or someone you know or don’t know has died from it, and the horror of the everyday is stranger than fiction, and suddenly you have the words to write it into a story. It may be a movie—so immersive, a lyric—most alluring, a song—how tragic. It may be something in the news, a dodo in an ad between TV episodes, the expression on a toddler as they press buttons in the lift.
Muses are around you. Now find the discipline or curiosity to see them, to listen for them. Stephen King in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000) sees stories as relics, parts of an undiscovered world for writers to excavate. Look, feel, smell—ideas float everywhere. Stories cartwheel in little word associations in your vocabulary. Unfound plots flirt every which way: in the rubicund bell innocently dangling on a child’s bicycle in your unswept balcony; in the bald young man with honey-brown eyes who beams at you at the supermarket as you push through your 3-pack kitchen towel set, 3 ply softness double-length toilet paper, 185g cans of tuna, whole cherry tomato pasta sauce, 1 kilo bag of Jasmin rice and a dozen large free barn laid eggs at the checkout; in the ash-eyed tramp by the wayside who holds your gaze a particular way and asks for nothing; in the tarmac-black pebble that a little girl with braids throws onto a chalked out square on the gravel, she’s safely six feet from passers-by, and you see nothing but the blackness of the stone as the child hops on one foot, square after square, humming a nursery rhyme…
It may just be a text or a chat or a Zoom call to socialise with a likeminded peer, a connection that nudges you out of pyjamas and the direness of lockdown. Find what works for you, the joys and poignancies of life. Study them curiously and let them guide you into creating a narrative’s direction, your character’s choices, their adventures, your story’s twists, because—by this time—a robust story or poem or illustration, one with clarity on what drives or shapes your world, is germinating in your mind.
And before you know it, the blank page, as the cursor tick tick ticks on your screen, will induce enthralment, not dread. When you look back years in, you’ll understand of this as a time of reaching and avoiding, solidarity and aloneness, of learning to feel with strangers and distancing from dear ones. You’ll remember how you were sure it was the end of the world, yet in the morning there was another day. You’ll study unborn stories cartwheeling along the margins of graveyards. Mostly, you’ll find words of loss, courage, despair. Spheres of memory reflecting the world, tying up frayed and drifted loose ends whose intercourse begets vowels, consonants, parables and allegories.