Last month, I was not ready to talk about the pandemic and quarantine, except to offer artistic escapism in the form of two very good art/film documentaries. I don’t know if I’m really ready now, a month later, on <checks notes> Day 69 of being quarantined in New York City, but I wanted to write about something I’ve seen a lot of folks struggle with (including myself) — and doubly so for every artist, author, and professionally creative person I know: the phenomena of Pandemic Productivity, and the guilt that hits when we feel like we’re not being productive enough, especially during this time stuck at home.
If you look at social media there seems to be two polar opposite camps: the bakers, crafters, virtual-class-takers, self-improvers, sourdough-starters on one side, determined to not waste this time dropped in their laps. They refuse to succumb to despair through the sheer force of motion. They shame us with their instagram photos of sketchbooks filling, word counts piling up, new paintings varnished. Why aren’t we doing more?! Getting something done will make you feel better! Don’t waste this opportunity to do that passion project!
On the other side there’s the folks who are having trouble focusing, the ones struggling with depression or anxiety (or both), the ones who are sick of being told that we should just carry on like nothing is wrong and we’ve all been given a vacation instead of a pandemic. They counter with arguments like This is not normal, and we shouldn’t pretend it is! Just getting through the day is a victory. Don’t be so hard on yourself! It’s Ok not to be at your most productive during a f**king global pandemic!
[And for the record, these two camps leave out the most stressed: people who don’t have the luxury of time to worry about being productive or not because they are essential workers, parents, caretakers, or sick or recovering themselves. You folks get a pass for as long as you need, with many virtual hugs from me. Don’t you dare feel any kind of guilt at all because you haven’t had a chance to write that novel or draw or do anything but keep yourself afloat, ok?]
So who’s right? Are we pushing ourselves or should we be cutting ourselves some slack? I spent much of the last 69 days ping-ponging between the two, and feeling an intense amount of guilt on both sides. I was super productive at the beginning of the pandemic, because I needed to be — there was an Art Department to transition to working from home, there was making sure I was keeping as many bookcovers as possible going out to my freelance artists, there was the Spectrum Awards to pull off virtually, and there was making sure that Drawn + Drafted was making our resources as accessible to people as possible during this time. That “high gear” crisis stage got me thru the first 6 weeks of quarantine…and then it hit me that this wasn’t going to be a “hold on it’ll be over soon” crisis, this was going to be the new normal for a while. And when I tried to shift down a gear or two before I burnt myself completely out—the transmission dropped right out of the car onto the highway and I crashed hard. For like 2 weeks.
You know what pulled me out of it? Both letting myself not be productive, then being productive, then not productive again, then maybe a little bit productive. And finally learning not to feel guilty about whichever one I was doing (this is still a struggle, trust me, but I’m trying). I did a lot of laying around on the couch doing crosswords and watching comfort movies, and then I also cleaned out & reorganized my kitchen and baked a cake from scratch. The truth is, we need both productivity and idleness to not only remain sane, but also to make the best work. I was reminded of a quote I keep in my sketchbook:
“To do great work, a man must be very idle as well as very industrious.” —Samuel Butler
So I have resolved, not just for quarantine, but hopefully once and for all, to hopefully learn the lesson of not feeling guilty over not being more productive, ad infinitum. I think this quarantine period has finally made a serious dent in the culture of busyness we have existed in for too long, and I do not look to pick it right back up where we left off once we’re out of the house and creeping back to normal. I think the healthiest stance is to realize that being productive can be very healing and feel good (see articles below), and being idle can be just as healing and just as good. We are not more praiseworthy or better people because we work more than we are idle. It’s the balance that’s important.
That’s really the point of my post, but I’m going to also put some articles and quotes below that have been helpful to me the past few weeks. I hope you are staying as healthy and sane as you are able to, and I look forward to things going mostly back to some kind of normal eventually, but maybe with a few improvements from all this introspection time in quarantine.
The Science -Backed Answer of How to Be Happy in Quarantine (spoiler, it’s one all of us artists already know)