Gretchen L. Kelly, Author

Creativity In the Time of COVID (from the blog formerly known as Drifting Through)

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I started blogging in 2014, back when it was cool to come up with cute or pithy names for your blog. “Mommy blogs” dotted the landscape, which was growing increasingly more crowded by the day. Women and caregivers built the platforms that many of us later jumped on to hone our craft and build our own spaces. I knew what I wanted to do with my little corner of the internet. I wanted to write about social justice, pop culture, music, stories from my past, current events… my writing would be random and free wheeling. I cringe now, thinking of the manic pixie dream of it all. But there were seeds there of what I wanted this to become. And as the years went by, my writing changed. The world changed – scratch that – more of us woke up to the world we’d been blissfully ignoring.

All I knew is I wanted to write. I needed to write. Writing is not a hobby or a side hustle, it’s who I am. More than my identity, it’s in my marrow. Baked in. If I’m not writing, I’m not breathing. If I’m not writing, I’m not fully me. It’s impossible for me to imagine a life where I’m not constantly narrating, composing in my head. It’s impossible for me to imagine what it’s like to not feel the pull. Before I get too romantic about it, let me clarify. That pull is not always a gentle tug to attend to my art. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s effortless, a possession of sorts. The words flow, the meaning clear, the feeling euphoric. Like sex. Or a drug. Like floating on a wave. I think science calls it dopamine. But more often it’s ugly. A battle. Words and thoughts tease me with their presence, letting me know they’re there. Darting just out of reach, then disappearing like smoke. The frustration is painful. It curdles inside me until I feel sour and bent. I have wished to be rid of the need to write countless times in the last few years. I have spilled bitter tears of resentment and angry tears of contempt over this thing I love. I have cursed the cliche I’ve become. My career was never worthy of such torture, so my despair deserves scorn as well. Worse than the writer’s abyss that claims so many greats, I’ve been hanging out in the purgatory of not quite good enough to deserve to wallow. The Mel Brooks version of a wanna-be writer. A parody of a bad parody. Hell, my love of bourbon completes the tortured writer bingo card.

But life, being life, happened. As life does. One of my children was diagnosed with a debilitating and perplexing, hard – to – treat chronic illness. My other kids had needs that I’m sure were amplified by what a devastating diagnosis does to a family. My family, always my priority, became my only priority. Things that were far more important than my passion for writing took over. Stressful all-encompassing things. Sure, I could have written instead of surfing twitter or going down various internet rabbit holes. I could have churned out some blog posts in between crises. But a funny thing happens when you are going through great stress. Your brain goes into survival mode. On the hierarchy of needs, writing doesn’t rank very high when there are health issues and someone you love is struggling. My brain could not do the thing I’ve always done as a default. I couldn’t even narrate coherent thoughts. My natural state of being, of internal writing, was on pause while my brain hyper-focused on the crisis at hand. Instead of narration of stories and pretty words, my brain was a running ticker of medical terms. Creativity is collateral damage when prolonged stressful events happen. This is not a universal truth, of course. Some people write through their struggles. And I’ve written through my own many times and have found healing and catharsis in it. But this time was different. And the worst part is I still felt the tug, the desire to write – but my brain felt broken. Unable to perform the thing it always did naturally.

I don’t think I’m alone. There is something that happens to your creativity when you’re a caregiver in an ongoing crisis, when the people you love and are responsible for need you in intense ways. The caregiving crisis (caregiving chaos?) engulfs you in ways you can not prepare for. It makes everything else background noise. It’s different from the Flight/Freeze response when faced with an immediate fear or threat. It’s something more like a hyper-attentiveness to the needs of the person relying on you. It’s action, it’s task oriented, it’s laser-like focus. A carnival could be on your front lawn and you’ll see it, give it a nod, and go back to doing what you need to do for the person in your care. Parents of kids with severe illness, adult children taking care of their ailing parents, people taking care of a terminally ill partner… this is nothing new. And the pandemic has brought this state of being to parents and primary caregivers and people in care-taking roles en masse. Caretakers are putting themselves on pause, not as martyrs, but out of necessity. There is no room for “self care” when you’re every day is thrown into caregiver chaos. Yes, there is a necessity for breathing and sleeping and eating for nourishment, but even these things are burdensome tasks when you’re in this space. Not something you’re going to savor and call a treat. Getting lost in a book or a hobby feels like a vague memory, not an option. There may be moments of laughter and fun and savoring slices of good, but even that is usually born of effort. Sheer, stubborn determination, a subset of care-taking, the emotional labor of it all. Making sure those in our care remember to also laugh and savor moments of fun. I see it all around me. The exhaustion, the fear, the not knowing when this will end, will things ever be “normal,” the unknowing of how this will turn out. The love for those we care for becoming our driving force, our singular motivation. And in the process, it feels like a part of us slips away. Oh, and there’s guilt for even caring about the “old you” and your loss of creativity. You feel self indulgent for mourning it. This was my last few years, before COVID. So I didn’t write. Or, I barely wrote.

“Everything you’re going through now will inform your writing later. It will make you better at what you do.” My mom, ever patient with my tearful moments, reminded me of this many times. I dismissed it and clung to it all at the same time. I wanted to believe her, but I was too deep in the muck to even see how it was possible. I hoped she was right, but I saw no evidence of it for many years. Now I see it, what she knew and I was too afraid to believe. I’m still here, I’m still a writer. Creativity has been fickle, unreliable, but now I’m realizing it’s not meant to be constant. That would mean creating art in a vacuum and that’s not how great art, or even okay art, happens. We’re so demanding of our art, and for good reason. It gives us solace and comfort and makes us feel alive when we create it, but we need to treat it gently. Allow it to take leave while we take care of things and people that need caring. Be gentle with ourselves when we don’t have the emotional energy to create it. Trust the process, even when that means taking a break from the process. I see writers and artists struggling with this now, caretakers who are lost in the caretaker chaos of COVID. Their fear is evident, familiar to me. I’ve repeated my mom’s words to countless friends. They too dismiss it, yet maybe? Maybe it’s true? I see them wanting to believe, but fear blots out hope. And right now fear is winning on many fronts. But logic tells us that it’s true, that who we are doesn’t completely disappear. Yes, we can be changed by the things we go through, but the core of who we are? That rarely changes. The talents and the beautiful and the strange and the magic that lives in all of us, it doesn’t disappear forever. Change? Evolve? Maybe. But snuffed out forever? I refuse to believe that.

I finally can see my way to writing again. I feel the old me returning. My personal crisis has abated enough to give my brain space to string words together. To turn them over, to play with them and marvel at the genius of words. Words are meaning, instruction, emotion, memory, beauty, pain, and sometimes they just sound good. And I feel a glimmer of the child-like fascination with them again. The dopamine that has been napping for the last few years is yawning awake. Same, but different. Stuff has happened in the last few years and I thought I was lost forever when it comes to writing. But it is here. Some days it’s flowing, others I’m impatiently and clumsily bullying it out of the recesses of my mind.

So here I am, same person, informed with different stuff. I’m writing again, but my old corner of the internet doesn’t fit any more. Blogs are coming back (have you seen Medium and Substack?) but my old blog is no longer me. This will now be the place where I write about random stuff. Music will still be the thing that inspires me, I’ll always sneak music and lyrics into my writing (manic pixie dreams die hard.) I will look back on what I wrote today or next week and I will recoil in embarrassment, but I’m going to try my best to get used to being vulnerable enough to not write good sometimes. And hope that I get that sweet hit of effortless flow every once in a while. But I will never take it for granted again. I’ll be damned if I’m going to fall into the fear trap of is it good enough am I a fraud what will people think that used to make me hesitate to hit publish. This is the same blog, different name. I’m not longer the 2014 writer who plucked my blog name from a Beatles lyric, I’m me. My name is on the header and I really hope you stick around. There will be some cringe-inducing second-hand embarrassment to come on these pages, I’m sure. I’m ok with that if you are.

One Response

  1. As always, perfectly put. I never wanted you to experience the pain, chaos & fear of caregiving but you handle it with grace, strength & a fierce ongoing determination to advocate for your girl & others. In this piece you captured so much of how I felt 20 plus years ago caring for your brother. The process strengthens some parts of us & reduces others but I see, in you & your writing a depth & vulnerability that is powerful.

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