What I’ll remember most about this coronavirus ordeal (I mean, besides the thrum of imminent disease and death) is not the bother of looking like an old-timey bandit every time I ventured out of the house or how my husband and I managed to survive three months (thus far) stuck with each other 24-7 without going homicidal. No, what I’ll remember about this chapter is: irony.
Alanis Morisette, I must add to your iconic, ironic list of black flies in your chardonnay: achieving your lifelong dream and then being unable to access it. My dream? Living in pajama pants and coffee-stained T-shirts, writing, writing, writing until cocktail hour, and then whittling away the remainder of the day on the patio under the shady albizia, with a fine glass of Napa Cab (dark, can’t see the flies), daydreaming about where the next day’s writing adventures will take me.
Turns out, I botched my “all the time in the world to write” fantasy because I was focusing on opportunity and neglected to include ability. And there it is. The irony.
Two things happened on my way to living my dream, one physical, the other psychological. First, just before the official Shelter in Place orders came down in California, I had shoulder surgery. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would take this much time and this much torture (physical therapy) to heal. And your body’s gonna take its damn sweet time to do so, and any time you challenge that timeline, it will remind you who’s in charge with stabbing, searing pain. While the fibers and nerves knit back together, you have no choice but to downgrade your expectations. My current big accomplishment this week was putting my own ponytail holder on all by myself.
Yay, me. You go, grrrrrl.
So, although our Shelter in Place lifestyle provides an abundance of time to do the things I’ve always wanted to around the house, like organizing my book shelves or planting rose bushes or digging through the layers of junk sediment I’ve squirreled away in the garage (it’s not hoarding if it’s in the garage) and clearing out some space for new stuff I don’t need, my shoulder vetoes everything. All the time in the world to do all the things I never had time for, and now I can’t do any of it.
Isn’t it ironic?
But wait, you say, if you can’t do all those projects and tasks, that means you have even more time to devote to writing, yes?
Turns out, nope.
While I’m physically able to sit at the keyboard and type… my words are gone. For weeks, the well was just dry. I recently wrote a couple columns (I still can’t bring myself to call them blogs… it feels so… dirty), and managed to disgorge one little feature story for Witches & Pagans magazine. After 26 years in journalism, I have an abundance of experience producing publishable writing, no matter what’s going on in my life, be it divorces, or teenagers, or funerals, or PMS. Because, in journalism, not writing isn’t an option.
The Deadline Dominatrix.
She Who Must Be Obeyed.
So, yes, I wrote some stuff. But columns and feature stories are one thing. Writing books is an entirely different experience. Columns and stories are crafted. Writing for books emerges. Ideas and words and sentences burble up from a magical well in my brain and flow through my fingers. But suddenly it’s as if a brick wall has gone up around the well, and the gate to that garden has been slammed shut and padlocked. And I don’t have the key.
Well, hello, writer’s block. I thought we’d already met, but apparently I was mistaken. You’re much uglier than you looked in the photos.
And, there’s the second irony. All this time to write, and I just… can’t. I am creatively paralyzed. A verbaplegic.
Alanis, this is so, so, so much worse than ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.
I see other writers on social media turning this pandemic plight into stunning productivity, churning out finished manuscripts like word machines, and I look at them like I would an Olympic gymnast flying and tumbling through the air on the parallel bars. I watch wide-eyed and think, “Fuck! I can’t do that!!” And at that precise moment, my old pal Anxiety steps in to confirm my fears.
Just give up. Stay in place. If you never try, you’ll never have to fail. Stay here with me and let the entropy and decay do its work.
Anxiety has been my lifelong nemesis. It freezes you in place like the proverbial deer in the headlights, but the oncoming vehicle never actually gets there. You just stand there, frozen, immobile, while your mind runs an endless tape “what if, what if, what if” that all lead to doom and disaster.
But… when I was writing my last book, I felt like I’d left anxiety in the rearview mirror! I was unstoppable. The Queen Fucking Bee of my own life. Nothing ahead but bright light and success. I was writing like a beast. What the hell happened!
Coronavirus, that’s what.
And institutionalized agoraphobia as a way of life: Leave the house and DIE.
These are fat times for my buddy Anxiety. There’s a brand new universe of fear to exploit, from touching another human to forgetting to wash your hands to venturing out to buy a loaf of bread. The entire world has become treacherous. Lethal even. It’s too overwhelming to think about. How ’bout we shove it all aside and pretend it’s not there.
It’s what Candy Crush was invented for.
I’m on, like, level 7,000.
But… how, and why, did all this coronavirus anxiety express itself in writer’s block? I have no fucking idea. So I presented the issue to the source of all knowledge: Facebook. I asked other writers if their fingers are flying over their keyboards or, like me, are they dead in the creative water. Turns out… I’m not alone. Others are stuck too. And some offered some really valuable insight, in particular, that anxiety neutralizes creativity. And also, that maybe I should give myself a break for having feelings about an actual crisis, rather than perpetually flogging myself for being a failure.
From this, I got clarity. First off, maybe I should turn some of that kindness and compassion I’m always yammering on about toward myself. What a concept. Second, stop fleeing from my worries and take some time to just look at them there, swirling round and round like leaves stuck in a swimming pool drain. See what’s actually there. See them for what they are, not what I imagine them to be.
As opposed to the anxiety that I self-generate about stupid, obscure shit, like the drive shaft on the steering wheel breaking off while I’m driving and hitting the asphalt and impaling me, the corona virus anxieties are actually possible: “Will I ever see my children again?” “Will people I love die?” or “Will my life end alone, on a respirator, with no one there?” I don’t even have to use my imagination to envision gruesome, horrifying scenarios anymore. They’re happening all over the world, to tens of thousands of people.
“Will I be one of them???”
It’s too overwhelming to think about, and it all came upon us so suddenly, we didn’t even have time to process it beyond “Be afraid! Be very, very afraid!” Me, I couldn’t deal. So I Scarlet O’Hara’ed it: I’ll think about that tomorrow. Shoved it all into the back of my brain and tried to convince myself that this is just a long, weird holiday.
But my brain is not so easily fooled by the likes of me.
“Ha! You think you’re not thinking about those things, but I’m gonna run those little motherfuckers on a subconscious endless loop in the back of your mind like too many programs running in the background on your computer, and use up all your RAM, and shut you down.” And, there you have it: writer’s block. Anxiety, albeit subconscious, hijacked my brain.
“Outta the way, bitch, I’m driving now!”
However, funny thing about subconscious stuff. Shining a light on it and examining what’s festering and fermenting there is what helps you to conquer it, and anxiety too. Awareness is the mental Raid you can spray on all those cockroaches.
So, what’s there, really.
Yes, I could catch the coronavirus. I could die. However, I could also die in a car crash, and I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about that when I get in the car. Ditto for riding my horse. I know that every time I ride, I could be hurt or killed. But the joy of riding my horse overrides the threat. So, I mentally slided the coronavirus fear into the driving and riding category, and that made it conquerable. I can acknowledge the fear and continue to live my life anyway, whether it’s cars or horses or viruses.
That little epiphany was the key to that locked gate. Click! I can step inside again. I can hear the babbling well. Words and sentences are bubbling up again. I just need to capture them on the keyboard.
I’m not giving my creativity to anxiety anymore. I’ll spend my mental capital on things I actually can control, and coronavirus ain’t one of them. Yes, it’s there, and yes, I must do everything I can to stay safe, and honor the safety of others. But I’m not going to let it consume all my creative bandwidth.
But I’ll probably still worry about the drive shaft from time to time. Because, virus or no virus, I’m still me.