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Why We're Not Writing

Recently, a March 25 LA TIMES article raised some eyebrows by claiming writers had nothing but time in social isolation to write, that the market would be flooded with new books in a few months, and that publishing would struggle as a business to keep up with the many new manuscripts. The #WritingCommunity wasn’t necessarily suprised that publishing might struggle as a business (because, let’s face it, just about every business except f$%king Amazon is struggling), but rather that anyone might think writers were home WRITING.

If you’ve found yourself completely unable to write these past weeks, you’re not alone. Twitter is flooded with writers consumed by other tasks: marathon parenting, fighting with roommates and spouses, raising sourdough, cleaning closets, lying around and eating Doritos…everything but, it seems, writing. As the primary caretaker of preschool triplets with a husband who has continued fulltime work, I haven’t found many moments of quiet in the last few weeks to write, read, or to think in full sentences. But, even if you are home alone, you may find the activity you once ran to for respite now feeling overbearing, impossible. Why?

Philosophers and psychologists have much to say on this topic, not specifically about writing in pandemic isolation (though Boccaccio did, in his DECAMERON), but about our roles as social beings, how the creative mind handles times of stress, and how we should behave in them.

When I read the LA TIMES article, my mind turned to A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN, in which Virginia Woolf explores the possibility that perhaps one reason more women didn’t publish in her day was because they had no rooms of their own in which to write. She meant not only physical spaces, separate from the homes they kept--retreats--but also invisible spaces, like permissions, foundations, institutions that perpetuated and allowed men's writing. One of the first to voice frustrations with not only the physical boundaries to creativity, but the invisible ones, as well, Woolf suggested that writing couldn’t always happen in the same mental or physical space as parenting, house managing, partnering, social contracting, etc. If she were alive today, in these pandemic moments, she might include in that list anxiety, specifically about the end of the world as we know it, about how it can take up our entire houses and apartments, leaving us no room for other endeavors.

Discussions about emotional tolls aren’t new to the pandemic. They’ve been cropping up in recent years in relation to those women carry in their separations of household labors. Coined “emotional labor,” by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983, these burdens first referenced the energy it took someone to regulate emotions in specific roles, like nursing or waitressing, to maintain calm and emotional distance required for the job. The concept widened to include the invisible labor women assumed in a household, such as planning, worrying, multitasking. Now, in its third iteration, we might call such burdening, “Corona-19 mental load,” as did Lucia Graves in her recent (March 16) ATLANTIC article, assuming we—people of any gender or sex—are now carrying anxiety over the corona virus and the isolation that comes with it.

Still, we might look for answers from Abraham Maslow, whose Hierarchy of Needs, defined in a 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation," suggests that perhaps we are unable to devote time and energy to self-actualization when more basic needs are not being met. Maslow communicated this theory as a hierarchical pyramid, at the bottom, the most basic, physiological needs, such as food, water, shelter; then, immediate above, safety; then love and belonging; then esteem; finally, the most rarely met need, self-actualization. By this theory, not being able to go to the grocery store and living off scarce canned goods might be destabilizing enough to be considered an unmet, basic need. Add to that people who might be isolating with emotionally unstable or abusive people, those who are caring for children, those who are immunocompromised or who worry about elderly loved ones, or who worry about the population as a whole, and you have left few people who are “free” to write, an entire population consumed by more immediate needs than writing.

Philosopher Emanuel Kant argued that man must act according to certain imperatives, namely that one must treat people as ends in themselves rather than means to an end; his is a modification of the golden rule, suggesting we should behave how we’d want humanity to behave as a collective. When that imperative includes social distancing—stopping our participation in community to behave as a community—I imagine our brains might cross wires. In fact, though many writers claim to be natural isolators or introverts, we are still by nature social beings. We get that socialization in less obvious ways, like by saying hello to our favorite barista or letting our dogs sniff other dogs’ butts. We sit in parks and watch others interact. We eavesdrop on conversations in coffee shops. We meet eyes with someone across the subway, and that is enough. Holing up in our houses or apartments with not even those interactions doesn’t only feel abnormal but dangerous, unnatural, risky. Just because we think of ourselves as natural isolators doesn’t mean we want others to stop socializing. We depend on their interaction; we feed on it.

In a recent BRAIN PICKINGS post, Maria Popova summarizes Erich Fromm’s philosophy from THE REVOLUTION OF HOPE (1968), in which, Popova says, Fromm examines the role of “hope—and the wise, effective action that can spring from it—[as the] counterweight to the heavy sense of our own fragility.” Because man’s decisions are not guided by infallible instinct, Fromm claims he is plagued by insecurity. Our decisions (in this scenario, just going out in public) might lead to risky outcomes, like infection; therefore, we essentially are choosing paths that could lead to death. And, yet, we must go out—some to work, others to buy groceries, everyone for fresh air and sunlight. These outcomes—these risk associations—become impossible for us to negotiate. We thus become plagued by uncertainty and anxiety. Fromm says when this happens our greatest danger becomes our own minds—going insane. To prevent this, we must find ways to explore our relationship with the world, our purpose in it. In productive methods, we explore our “greater strength, clarity, joy, independence” (Fromm). Perhaps this is the reason that personal journaling has surged, or why other artists have created with manic intensity. But it also might be why some of us feel paralyzed; every decision weighs on us with uncertainty.

Whatever our reasons for not creating, we might all agree that artistic expression is needed now more than ever. This is the paradox that we must negotiate. I found little motivation to write in the first weeks at home, though I’m beginning to return to it, slowly, as isolation becomes the new normal, as I find new ways of interacting and form different bonds. At our roots, we are adaptable, intelligent beings, and I believe we will all find our voices again.

I believe we must.


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