During the all-clear window in summer, I figured I’d go have my first great COVID-19 artistic experience – see Tenet in IMAX.
Tenet is like all Christopher Nolan movies – a high-gloss stupidity multiplier. It’s a stupid thing that seems smart, making everyone who was exposed to it feel stupid for not understanding it. Thus, one stupid thing becomes several.
It still got debated in our house for a week. Mediocre art was multiplying rapidly, but this was at least mediocre art we had experienced together. None of the rest of it penetrated that far.
At the outset of the pandemic, there’d been a lot of psyching up for the desolation to come, but in that very 21st-century way. This didn’t have to be a plague, man. It could be an experience. Shakespeare, King Lear, yadda yadda.
Eight months in, it hasn’t turned out that way. The quickie albums recorded in bedrooms sound like it. The novels are out of sync with the moment. TV somehow got worse.
All that undistracted time and enforced solitude didn’t free the overscheduled genius within. It’s had the opposite effect, because the pandemic is a book leave.
Book leaves are terrible for a lot of reasons, but mostly they’re bad for writing books.
I took one a couple of years ago. Had a whole plan. A rough outline of what ought to be done in what order. A quite manageable daily word-count target (1,000). A rise-very-early, finish-early schedule. A place away from home in which to work.
On the first Monday, I banged out 5,000 words.
Because I’d got so much done on Monday, I took Tuesday off.
On Wednesday, it seemed pointless to restart work with the week half gone.
The following Monday, someone invited me to lunch. (Didn’t write.)
On Tuesday, I slept in. (Couldn’t write.)
Wednesday, it was a bit too cold to go outside. (Had by now lost the ability to put fingers on a keyboard and press down.)
And that is how I ended up watching all nine seasons of The Office.
But that was better than the alternative – lying poleaxed in bed, paralyzed by lassitude, staring out the window and doing the math about how many words I would now have to write each day if I was going to get this wretched, wretched book finished on deadline.
I had far too much time and nowhere near enough of it. As such, time lost all meaning.
For the next while, I reduced my life to one core essential: avoiding people whose opening conversational gambit was “How’s the book going?”
Bad. It was going real bad.
Geoff Dyer wrote a book (Out of Sheer Rage) about not being able to write a book. I began highlighting passages in it, looking for the code. My hermitic side and my losing-the-plot side were becoming one giant blob on the Venn diagram.
It wasn’t that long ago, but that period is a blank spot in my memory. I must have done some things, but I recorded almost none of them.
Book leave is for the creative class what the pandemic is for the stay-at-home worker. You start out full of good intentions about all the projects you’re finally going to get to and end up getting to none of them.
After a couple of weeks, the brain fog had drifted in and you had just enough cerebral function left to sign up for New York Times Cooking.
You may have had a lot to do, but you weren’t rushing because you didn’t go anywhere any more.
“Only busy people find time,” Karl Lagerfeld once said. You were no longer a busy person.
By Week 4, talking to anyone you did not live with had become difficult bordering on impossible. You’ve lost the rhythms of speech or any recognition of the small cues of body language. You were still seeing some people, but you were no longer forced to interact with casual acquaintances or strangers. So you didn’t.
Unfortunately, those are the people who keep you in practice at being human. Those conversations are exercise – the cognitive equivalent of a brisk walk. Once you stop having them, the mind gets flabby.
This, of course, excepts everyone who doesn’t have the luxury of being paid to stay home. But those people are too busy doing real work to write books or record albums. It was once the case that appreciating art was a privilege of the wealthy, and making it was for the aspirational poor. We’ve flipped that relationship upside down.
Inside people or outside people, have you noticed that people in general aren’t as nice during COVID? They may have been during the early ‘in this together’ phase, but that’s over now. It isn’t bad manners. It’s lack of practice.
I can’t speak for other disciplines, but you can’t write if you’re not talking to lots of people or, even better, eavesdropping on many conversations. Nobody who’s any good at this makes these voices up in their heads. They’re writing down a stylized version of what they’ve heard.
If extreme solitude was good for the creative process, more convicted murderers would win the Giller.
I did eventually finish that book. I rediscovered the magic by making two simple changes: First, I went back to work; second, I got right up against the deadline after having already spent every nickel of the advance.
It may be that a room of one’s own is necessary to kick-start the act of creation. But I’ve found that fear of ruin is a more reliable motivator.
At the beginning of COVID and like lots of people, I thought I might take the time I used to spend out and about to try another book. And I may. I just haven’t actually got around to writing any of it yet.
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