While in quarantine for the plague, Shakespeare not only wrote King Lear but, according to some sources, also Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. Meanwhile, Isaac Newton, forced into isolation to avoid the same disease, used his time to hone the theory of relativity (or something). Obviously, neither of them had kids. But even if I didn’t have children, even if I was a playwright or mathematician, I wouldn’t have done either of these things.
I’m the sort of person who should thrive in lockdown. When I wrote my first novel, and the second that’s due to come out next year, I was obsessed. You have to be, at least a little. Maybe not to the extent I was. But insofar as I ever would have imagined being housebound for a prolonged period, I would have imagined I’d be writing.
In the moments—few—that I can carve out, I feel like a fourteen-year old, on some long, stay-at-home holiday. I swing between laziness and boredom; all I want to do is eat.
Life has a background ambiance of anxiety now. There’s so much to worry about: people dying, people running out of money, stampedes in supermarkets, living in close quarters with my immediate family for an extended period of time, not seeing my extended family for the same period. Also: that I will eat too much, I will get fat, that I should be a better feminist—a better person—who doesn’t care about getting fat.
I’m worried that I should be using this time better. But then, why bother? Why do anything, what’s the point?
Mostly I believe in the inherent value of art, but at times like this I doubt it. I’m wary of too much earnestness, the use of words like ‘transcends’ or ‘uplifts’ or ‘the human spirit’.
Who are we kidding? Writing seems stupid and irrelevant, simultaneously trivial and decadent.
On her podcast, The Writer’s Room, Charlotte Wood asked the American author Sarah Sentilles a similar question: How can we write when the world is burning? I held my breath as I waited for the answer, because if anyone knew what the point was, Sarah Sentilles would. She almost became a priest, you know.
But Sarah said she never really had to ask herself what the point was. So that was kind of a bummer.
In the midst of all this doing of nothing, there are a couple of things that are helping me, not to write but to reconcile myself to the fact of not writing.
An email from Alison Gibbs
Recently, I got an email from a listener to the podcast I co-host (The First Time), Alison Gibbs. In it, Alison talked about the creative malaise the writer Eleanor Dark experienced during World War II. I was interested in that, but also in Alison’s observation that she was experiencing a similar restlessness. This was during the bushfires, but I imagine it applies now too. Alison wrote, ‘I have sensed the same frustration among my writing friends over the past week. Isolation would appear to provide ideal conditions for us, authors, but our quiet lives may not reflect our state of mind. Like Eleanor, I’ve been doing the washing and lying on the lounge.’
I’m glad I’m not the only one. There’s comfort in knowing other people feel the same way, we’re all in this together,and so on and so forth. But if I am very honest, part of me is also happy because I obsess over what other people are doing with their time, whether they are using it better than I am. For years before I was published, I’d google other writers to see how old they were when they wrote their first novel, as if this will tell me how much longer I had to get published, the exact amount of time after which I would have to concede it would never happen… The idea that we’re all doing nothing holds some perverse comfort for me, because if everyone pushes pause at the same time, it means no one will get ahead. I’m not exactly sure what I mean by ‘get ahead’, but know enough to feel small in admitting that it pleases me. Sarah Sentilles would not approve.
The realisation there is no point
In a recent episode of Good One, a podcast about jokes, the host Jessie David Fox interviewed comedian Taylor Tomilson and found this sad thing they have in common. Both their mothers died when they were young and they discussed the impact this has had on them.
Jessie mentioned the psychoanalyst Otto Rank, who was a mentee of Freud and worked with a lot of artists, quoting him to say that:
Religion is the easiest way to live knowing we die. If you believe in it, you don’t have to ask any more questions. But if not, otherwise only the creative type can affirm and accept himself for himself to some extent by using his work as a justification for existence.
Jessie asked Taylor then: ‘As a person who…. became aware of death at an early age, and who was raised religious, does that resonate? Do you feel power in having the ability to create your own meaning?’
Taylor responded by saying that an artist can leave work behind, that being a sort of immortality. But I think she doesn’t quite catch the point. I don’t know if I do either, but I keep thinking about it. I don’t think art is meaningful or important because it could make you immortal or gives you an audience beyond your own lifetime. For me, at least, it’s meaningful in the moment that you’re doing it and even then, it’s only meaningful because you think it is. Maybe writing is just something to do that feels worthwhile while you’re doing it?
Because life is meaningless. Isn’t that the cosmic joke? There is no point. But you still have to pass the hours. You can watch TV, lie on a trampoline looking up at the sky, or you can create something. Which on the one hand, removes the pressure of it, if you view art as just an alternative to knitting or OMG-kill-me-now-I’m-baking-with-the-kids-again. But on the other, it is better than knitting. Rather, it is better because I believe it is better.
Decide if it’s ‘something’ later
There’s a line in Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, where one of the protagonists (Lina?) says that every Facebook post is posted with a single person in mind. You’re showing everyone something in the hope that one specific person sees it.
There are so many great observations in that book, these profound, offhand things that ‘ordinary’ people say. But they’re only profound, or rather, they only have an audience because someone wrote them down. Otherwise they’re just this thing one person said and another person nodded at and then it was gone.
So that’s another point, isn’t it?
Two points for writing, one point for not.
Of course, I say all this but I still can’t be bothered. I’m not worried though; Laura Ingalls Wilder was 65 when she wrote the first in the Little House on Prairie series*.
*Laura Ingalls Wilder? Am I clutching at straws?
Katherine Collette’s first novel, The Helpline, was published in Australia and in the US, UK, Italy and Germany, and was longlisted for the Independent Booksellers Debut Fiction award. Katherine co-hosts The First Time, a podcast about the first time you publish a book. Her second novel (as yet untitled) will be published by Text in 2021 and has been accepted into the Queensland Writers’ Centre’s Adaptable program, which seeks written works to adapt to film/TV.