The mental part is the hardest part, and I think that’s what separates the good players from the great players.—Michael Jordan
No, I haven’t been watching The Last Dance on Netflix. I just wanted to say, you know, that, in pretty much those words. Being an intellectual coward, I decided you’d be more likely to listen to me if they came from someone famous. So I Googled the words I wanted to say and found that Michael Jordan completely agrees with me. Serendipity!
This thing about the mental part applies to writers as much as it does to athletes. Writing skills aren’t all that important beyond a certain minimum—a bar plenty of famous and wealthy writers don’t meet, trust me. But to sit and write, hour after hour, day after day, through everything life can throw at you takes astonishing mental fortitude. I write professionally and I still feel like I’m holding on by my fingernails, that if my mindset slips by an inch, I’ll lose an entire day of productivity. And that’s in an ordinary time.
A pandemic delivers a punishing allostatic load: “the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to fluctuating or heightened neural or neuroendocrine response which results from repeated or prolonged chronic stress.” That weight on your chest and that ache behind your eyes and that mist clouding your thoughts = allostatic load. A big chunk of your think-loaf is just plain occupied by all this. It’s busy worrying. As a result, you’re operating at reduced capacity. You have less bandwidth to devote to everything else, and above all writing requires bandwidth, elbow room in your head.
If I’m honest with myself, I’ve been operating at reduced capacity since November 2016. The moment I saw those Electoral College results turn red at the Times website I could feel a fog descending. Putting together a coherent thought suddenly became more difficult. Now, however, my allostatic load has grown Mountain-sized. For a writer, this is a serious obstacle.
On the bright side, when all this is over, our average IQ as a nation will bounce back at least ten points. Sort of like when everyone swapped beer for coffee and began the Enlightenment. It’ll be a global Flowers for Algernon—culminating in the moment we realize that climate change is still a thing and our brains stop working again for good.
Early on in all this, I’d assumed that we’d see a great flowering of creativity from our great artists. Not the manufactured pop stars and big action movie stars, but from the folks who clearly love to make stuff whether or not there’s a big budget attached. They’re all trapped at home with nothing to do, right? Sure, the second SNL from home was decent, and it’s been interesting to watch Jimmy Fallon cobble together The Tonight Show everyday with his daughters running around in the background, but generally speaking, bubkis. The highlight for me has been David Lynch doing his daily weather reports again. Not much of a highlight.
Take a look at this 2014 article in The Atlantic (which, contributing to the allostatic load of journalists everywhere, just laid off a fifth of its staff). It’s about how creative brains work. Or don’t:
When the psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison looked at 47 famous writers and artists in Great Britain, she found that more than 38 percent had been treated for a mood disorder; the highest rates occurred among playwrights, and the second-highest among poets.
As a one-time would-be playwright, it comes as no surprise they’d come in at number one. You really would have to be crazy. But the whole article is worth a read. Creativity and mental illness are connected in ways we don’t understand yet. It’s no surprise that mental trauma like the kind we’re all experiencing now should have a profound, mostly negative effect on our creativity. Doesn’t mean we’re broken. It’s a natural response. Damage is damage.
As the first weeks of lockdown blurred together, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Russian Doll, the excellent Netflix series (written by a playwright!) featuring Natasha Lyonne as a woman trapped in a repeating loop of time that gradually decayed: objects and then people gradually disappearing with each repetition of her day.
As the weeks have dragged into months, I’ve tried to reframe the situation as something closer to Groundhog Day, one of my favorite movies and a source of spiritual inspiration for all religions. Sheltering in place should be an opportunity to better myself, to cultivate stronger family bonds, to sharpen my skill-set, and, of course, to finally get that beach body.
Let’s call these aspirational goals. Most days, I feel like Natasha Lyonne, but every now and then, I get a flash of Bill Murray.
I’ve always loved stories of the bad old days of New York City, when the lawlessness and chaos in the streets made it possible for young artists to secure huge lofts in Soho and make groundbreaking work. Despite the crime and rats and roaches, people got a lot of stuff made. Maybe it was the drugs. More likely, however, it was the fact that they could be with each other. Even for solitary writers, creativity is something we do together, in the way we discuss our ideas and inspire each other and give each other a first audience. In the absence of proximity, we’re going to have to find new ways to bring out the best in each other.