When a writer can’t write, another art form satisfies the creative itch

To the left of my desk is a full-length window, with a partial view of the copper spire of Holy Cross Church, Kenmare, and Ballygriffin Townland; behind it is the hazy outline of Mucksna Mountain, part blue, part purple-yellow with its flecks of gorse and heather. Beyond which, a dusty late afternoon sky is smudged with the occasional cream or lilac cloud. 

My desk faces away from this view; it looks at a plain cream wall. This is the way I best focus my mind. It’s baffling how much the brain wants to be creative – everyone has that one novel they want to write – but when it comes to the actual business of doing it, the mind will go to extremes to distract itself from the task, and that includes gazing at a beautiful view.

I was never one of these students who could ‘study in the garden’. I’d simply sink into idleness. Really, if you can learn to be idle and not be riddled with guilt – listen to a robin in a nearby bush, smell honeysuckle, watch the light glisten on open water – it’s one of the pleasantest sensations you can experience. But then, of course, the end result is you’ve done absolutely nothing.  

Today, I’m on day eight of the Corvid-19 lockdown. On the desk sit proofs of the new Roddy Doyle, Love, and Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey. I’ve a diary open beside me with a to-do list mostly scratched out. There are some items still pending: Joe Wicks HITT YouTube workout (likely postponed again), art essay (has been pushed to the following day, each day this week, till now), and floss (something I put on my daily to-do list, as it’s the only way I can be sure I’ll actually do it). 

You’d think for an introverted writer-type, being locked up in the countryside for anything from a few weeks to many months, would hold out the opportunity to dive into a large creative endeavour. One would say, for my personality and occupation, it’d be quite easy to turn these corvid-19 ‘lemons’ into lemonade. The reality is, over the last eight days, I have found it near impossible to read for more than fifteen minutes at a time and my writing has gone to hell. 

I’d been mid-way through two brilliant books as this crisis hit, Okay, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea by Patrick Freyne (full of warmth and wit), and The School of Life by Alain De Botton (compassionate and wise) but since lockdown, I’ve made little headway. I keep rereading the same handful of pages because nothing sticks. Last Thursday, I was asked to read for a new online literary series, The Holding Cell, and as I prepared my reading, I likewise found it impossible to even find the flow in my own story, one that I worked on for over five years. 

For me, creativity comes when I ‘get out of the way’ of whatever the impulse is; I feel like a vessel through which ideas are channelled. It’s such a curious thing, this muse. Do I write my own stories at all? Sometimes, when I’m writing, my protagonist does or says something that surprises me. How is that even possible when it’s come from my own brain? The easiest comparison I can make to this experience is falling asleep – let it happen, and it happens, but if you try to force it, you’re a lost cause.

This week I can’t ‘get out of the way’. The dialogue about coronavirus echoes on in my head: Italian death counts, hand washing, Boris Johnson and the ladies on The View eviscerating Donald Trump. All these opinions, more and more ideas and words… my head is too cluttered up with them to come up with a few new ones.

However, in the absence of words, a different creativity has emerged. 

Something fortuitous happened in the new year. Outside my Dublin apartment there is a shared recycling outhouse, where residents separate out the various bottles, plastic and general waste and occasionally people leave aside things that they don’t want to throw away, mostly books and small electronics. After Christmas, someone had left an unopened painting kit, a small easel and a canvas. I took the set and it’s been sitting in my car boot since then. 

Till last week, I’d essentially forgotten about it. Yet, after staring at my laptop with my cluttered brain, I remembered the paints and canvas in the boot. Serendipity, it appeared.

So for the last few days, in the tangle of tweets and posts and articles, I’ve been painting a landscape from Reenagross Park in Kenmare, where a small stream snakes through meadow and gorse out to the Kenmare estuary. In a time when I’ve lost my ability to compose fiction, I’ve found that calm mental space that is creativity. Is the painting a work of any real merit? Probably not. I’m what my old school art teacher would’ve called a ‘Sunday afternoon painter’, a reasonable hobbyist, though I guess that’s not the point. 

I’m not alone in this. In a group chat on Whatsapp, I’ve discovered my closest friends (now scattered and closed-in around Europe) likewise turning to art in whatever way they can. One friend in a locked-down Paris sent on a video of her French husband playing the accordion on her balcony in Montmartre at dusk, to which those in invisible apartments up the street cheer; another friend (whom I’ve only ever known as a suited barrister) sent a video of him playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano perfectly. One of my work colleagues, in a Zoom call, showed up a completed cross stitch (now auctioned on Twitter for charity), another confessed to creating pottery. 

I’m glad I’ve found some way to be creative, a way to remain calm in the chaos. I’m glad my friends and colleagues have too. I’m reminded of a quote by George Bernard Shaw: ‘Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.’ At this moment in time, it feels more true than ever. 

Written by Jamie O'Connell. As published in The Irish Times.

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