In so-called ‘normal’ times, when people could leave their homes, interact with others, and go about their jobs and lives, my most stalwart, sturdiest rule when it came to my work and my creativity was this: good ideas are not discovered sitting behind a desk.
To find a good story or inspiration or get my mind whirring or opening up in other directions, Google and social media were categorically out of the question. I needed to leave the house. My best work – normally – comes from people whose off the cuff comment leads me down a path I don’t expect, or places whose streets, drenched in light and the orchestra of the city, tells me something I can only learn by being there. “I like the smell of the breezes”, pioneering World War Two correspondent Clare Hollingworth said about needing to be on the ground when doing her reporting.
But it’s not just journalism. For friends who are photographers, graphic designers, theatre and dance programmers, their creativity also feeds off being out in the world, finding things, discovering things, talking to others, being able to smell the breezes.
So where does that leave us now? Especially when, as freelancers, our backs are up against the wall, and we need to find work faster than ever?
It goes without saying that this is not an easy time. If you have children, it’s borderline impossible and I’m certainly not suggesting now is the time to write that novel. I hear anger and resentment online that this time could be used to be creative when there’s so much to be (rightly) anxious about. But I harbour a quiet belief that for creative people, especially those without kids, finding a moment, however small, to exercise that side of our brains, is actually deeply soothing. Getting lost in other people’s great ideas is healing, shushing away those worries about rent and bills, at least for the length of a podcast, an article, a few pages in bed before you fall asleep.
So where do we find inspiration if we can’t leave the house? I stand by the fact that refreshing Twitter and Instagram is not the answer, and indeed, taking proper periods of time out from the media is essential for unclogging a highly strung, and increasingly tangled, brain. Getting trapped in the endless anxiety that is richoteching across feeds is potentially paralyzing when it comes to being productive. But seeking out other corners of the internet, the ones you don’t normally go to, might be fertile grounds to find something that not only acts as a distraction but could lead to something more concrete, maybe even cash.
The first obvious resource out there is to take a virtual tour of as many galleries and archives that you can. Stop scrolling and watch the plays screened by the National Theatre and the Royal Court, or join a virtual book group. Listen to podcasts, watch videos, open newsletters you don’t normally bother to. The ICA’s new daily newsletter, THE ICA Daily, is a lucky dip of amazing links to music, art and film and conversation. Click on the links, spend the time, and know that this is like a creative piggy bank. Save up all this glorious, thought-provoking information and store it safely. When work starts being commissioned again, you will be rich with ideas.
But the best luck I’ve had so far has actually been in my own bookshelves. After tidy panicking up my desk, I stumbled across Christiane Ritter’s “A Woman in the Polar Night”. Written in 1933 but first published in 1938, Ritter’s account of a year on an arctic island off the coast of Norway is an exhilarating escape but also lyrical, beautiful and incredibly timely. Her observations of being shut off from society and facing seemingly insurmountable challenges read like a parable for our time. Witnessing a pioneering woman in the 1930s, exploring like only men did is illuminating enough, but the way she draws beauty from extremity is poetic and hopeful. I feel more alive than I have since the pandemic has arrived and my mind begins to whir and kick back into gear. My advice, look at what is around you, and then look again.
And of course, keep talking to people – and not just your mates on Houseparty but also people who might spark something, share an idea with, lead you to something interesting. My writing group is continuing to meet virtually during lockdown, and I am more grateful than ever to pour over their words and think about what makes a great sentence.
Finally, try and understand how to work better. Ask friends about their working processes; what works for them, what doesn’t. There’s amazing people out there offering tips on productivity, like coach Karen Eyre-White, who can help find ways to focus out all the noise and let your brain do what it does best.
Use the virus. This is not to underestimate or in anyway make light of the destruction it is causing but this virus is uniting a whole planet full of people; it is impacting millions of lives in millions of ways, from separated lovers to dreams on hold to IVF babies unborn to a sharp and stinging revelation of the haves and have nots in our society, to the way in which music and dance brings joy across culture, to the way our bodies need to move and fresh air makes us feel whole.
A billion new stories are currently unfolding as we understand more each day the infinite ways this virus has crept into the crevices of our lives and turned everything upside down. This is the story of now – and it is unfolding, shapeshifting and endless. What could be more thought provoking?
We have to be realistic about our output, not least because our usual sources of work have gone dry or because we’re not running at full capacity when we’re in a gardenless zone three flat, not seeing another soul for weeks, potentially months, on end. But my creativity has been a refuge, long before the arrival of COVID-19. Figuring out how to keep our creative brain alive right now, tending to it like a plant starved of light, feels essential for our bank accounts and our sanity.