Creativity in a Time of Isolation

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

As more and more countries and cities shut down over the current Covid 19 outbreak, artists and creatives around the world are isolated at home like the rest of our friends and neighbors. Besides the difficult looming question of how to survive the financial implications of this time, there looms another question.

How do we hold onto our creativity while watching our personal worlds suddenly contract to the space of our own homes and at most a handful of people in that space?

While many of us creatives may be introverts, perfectly happy to stay to ourselves for extended periods of time, many are not. And even introverts may find it intimidating to have their isolation enforced by circumstances outside their control.

Staying creative and mentally active through this confusing and stressful time is important to us and to the people around us. It will help keep us aware, functioning, and mentally healthy. It will help make the world a brighter place.

I write this article with a strange sense of the ironies of life. Here are my credentials for telling you how to remain creative in a time of unusual isolation.

I have lived through, not months, but years of intense isolation.

I spent most of my life essentially alone without any helpful outside contacts. I’ve navigated months at a time at home, leaving for only the most basic shopping needs. This wasn’t by my choice. But I’ve done it, and I managed to hold onto my creativity throughout.

I was raised by a mother with serious antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). I was forced to live with her for more than half a lifetime. My lifetime. She was able to control this much of my life thanks to doing a lot of intense brainwashing, gaslighting and other forms of abuse when I was young. Eventually, I managed to think my way out of her psychopathic mind-bending. But by this time she had gained complete financial control over me. She also had control over other family members that I loved. I escaped a little over a year ago and have been adjusting since then, working to integrate more fully into the “normal life” I never really had.

I am not going into more detail here; you can read a short version of my story in the articles linked at the end of this post.

The point is that I have lived through, not months, but years of intense isolation, in which I had no friends to go to and only my sister to share creative ideas and achievements. Very little of the world outside succeeded in making it past our front door and still less was approved. Mostly we were lectured about how evil it all was. And we were unable to leave the property freely by ourselves to connect with normal humanity. In short, I am very familiar with remaining at my own home for weeks and months at a time.

And yet my sister and I survived these decades of isolation. And whatever the future holds for me in a larger society, I have fortunately managed to remain intensely creative. In fact, creativity was one of the main ways I held onto my sanity and even my humanity.

Here is what I learned through those difficult years. As I say, it’s been only a little more than a year since I got away, so I don’t have to dig very deep to share these principles with you. They need only a little dusting off. Here they are:

There is always something interesting going on around you if you remain aware of the things we usually ignore. Let your mind become inquisitive about things that might otherwise seem too small or silly or useless.

Ask yourself the apparently trivial questions. The sort that are automatically brushed aside when you are rushing to work or the gym or out for food. Let your brain see the little things in your immediate surroundings, and wonder about everything.

Or think about bigger questions. The ones that seem so far beyond daily life that they don’t usually get asked. Not just the obvious, like life and death, but about humanity, its wonders and foibles. Ask about nature itself, not just our positions on climate change and conservation. Simply find out how much more you could know about the world. About the city or fields around you. The stuff that doesn’t show up in our brains during times of rush. The stuff no one “cares” about.

Go ahead, wonder honestly about the unimportant things.

Because, if you remain aware of the “other” things, it is much easier to keep your mind active, which will help keep your creativity active as well.

One of the difficulties in isolation is losing a sense of existence outside our own. There is a tendency to tunnel vision, to seeing things only as they relate to our immediate circumstances. This isn’t selfishness per se; but it can make life difficult for ourselves and others, so it’s important to counteract it.

One way to avoid this is to notice things completely beyond your own life. The birds, the trees outside your window, the weeds in the drainage ditches, the spiders on your ceiling, all lead lives largely unconnected to yours or mine even though we share the space. The little creatures are thinking about different things than we are. The plants are living with the seasons, not the shutdown. The sun rises on its own schedule.

If you have pets, become very aware that they have lives of their own. Go ahead, wonder what they are thinking instead of assuming that you know. Let them help you tune in to a different daily rhythm than you might otherwise choose. Honestly, I think our animals often have a much better perspective on priorities and happiness than we humans do!

Let yourself develop a slower, more centered rhythm in your daily routine.

After all, nature is much larger than our current emergency. Use its wisdom and broader perspectives.

While isolation may make it more difficult to integrate your creative work into a larger context, it provides a good time to learn new skills and techniques. Try things totally new to you. Over the years I taught myself to paint, throw on the potter’s wheel, do basic leatherworking, make jewelry, cook from scratch, develop recipes, grow flowers, and knit and spin yarn, not to mention develop my writing skills. Clearly I was isolated for a long time!

Learning new skills is a great way to keep your mind, heart, and creativity active.

When I began, I did not have access to the internet (in fact, there was no internet yet). As more people share more of their own know-how, it becomes easier to learn new skills. There is a wealth of teaching now available both online and in books. Give yourself the opportunity to gain new skill sets. And if you can teach new skills remotely, perhaps this is a good time to do so!

Use this opportunity to actually expand your skills and broaden your horizons.

This will be different for each of us. The key is to become aware of what actually gets your creative juices flowing. This knowledge can only be gained through experience and experimentation. I get a great deal of creative inspiration by looking at architectural design, even when working on something completely unrelated. It opens my mind in a refreshing way.

Make use of the seemingly random stuff that makes a creative’s mind start turning.

I’m not talking about studying for your skill sets, consciously taking in informed material. I’m talking about the seemingly random stuff that makes a creative’s mind start turning. It may be totally unrelated to what you are actually producing — in fact, it probably will be. Just find out what it is and make sure to give yourself a healthy diet of it (or more likely, them)!

There is a lot of inspiring material out there; don’t hesitate to use it to keep your own creativity vital.

When you can’t run out to the store for new materials every day, it can be helpful to stock up on basic items and learn to work from the ground up. This way you will actually have a wider field for your creative work as well as avoiding a frequent shortage of supplies.

As an example from the kitchen: from a basic pantry of flour, salt, and water I can make flatbreads and tortillas. Add oil or butter and sugar, and I can make pastries and cookies as well. Include one or two leavening agents, and I can make a wide range of bread and cakes. The list becomes explosively larger with the addition of each new ingredient. It’s the same in other fields.

Beginning with the most basic approach and materials gives you the opportunity to greatly expand your working range.

You may have to learn a few new skill sets this way but see point 3. This is another way to keep your creativity healthy and well-supplied — all without having to restock frequently.

When you are isolated, it is healthy to connect your daily rhythms more closely with those of nature, as I wrote above. This actually includes everyday human pleasures. They keep you attuned to something outside the restrictions you are living under. They widen the dimensions of your isolation.

Experiencing the many fruitful dimensions of daily living gives you much more control over your relationship to your own life.

So slow down, enjoy mealtimes and remember that food is a celebration as well as a means for survival. A bath or shower is not just a way to keep disease at bay; it is also a luxury. Enjoy it as such. Clothes and accessories are not just something to cover us up, nor even just social place-setters. They can express identity, mood, even a sense of ritual.

If you can’t get to a hair salon, try styling your hair in new ways by yourself. Make these necessities a further source of creative exploration as well as enjoyment.

Read books; there is something therapeutic in the feel of pages turning in your hand. Pick up a needle and thread or a pair of knitting needles. Do something by hand that is usually done by a machine these days.

Connect with doing, and become aware of the meaning of the things you do.

It may be a while before life returns to its normal cash values, so to speak. When you can’t see your work fitting into a larger context, it can be difficult to see it as valuable.

Sharing your work online is a good way to keep a sense of excitement over what you are doing. Often friends can see value where we as makers cannot.

Understanding your work as part of the human experience is another way to feel that excitement. While I could not access friends, I learned to love doing the basic, primitive crafts: baking my own bread, spinning my own thread, mixing my own clay, and so on. It gave me a sense of being part of the great human experience over thousands of years. Whatever allows you to keep that human connection most alive in your own mind is useful.

Remain aware that there is value in just being, and in bringing new things or ideas into existence.

There is often far more meaning in what we do than lies on the surface. Our vision of the universe gets into the things we create, all the more so as we think and experience life more deeply.

Give yourself time to feel value and create value independent of the economy or careers or anything else.

One of the difficulties I experienced for many years was that, while I could furtively take inspiration from books and such, I had no way to share it back out. This was stifling.

Later, when I managed to connect via social media, I followed many very creative friends who gave me a good deal of encouragement. Their encouragement kept me going for years.

Then something odd happened. I sometimes felt like I was only sharing, not receiving. This was strange because I knew it was not at all true creatively. Eventually, I discovered why I felt this way: it was because I felt unable to express the difficult circumstances I was in. This bottleneck made it difficult for me to sense a two-way flow in my communications.

Eventually, I learned that it was safe and even necessary to be more open. In fact, it was then that my friends could actually help me, and the inspiration could begin moving both ways again.

Sharing both our creativity and our needs helps keep the inspiration flowing.

As much as you can, find means of sharing and inspiration that move both to you and from you. Learning from others gives a wonderful boost to creation. So does discovering that you have inspired someone else. Think of it. With my own two hands (and a camera, for instance) I produced an image that made someone feel differently — and better — about life and their own work! I don’t know of any more invigorating experience for a creative.

So get those lines of communication open and keep them open. For many of us, that will mean digital communication on social media. But there are other ways. We’ve seen the Italians singing together from their apartment balconies. Look for opportunities.

Do something synchronously with friends: watch a movie, listen to a concert, tour a virtual museum.

And remember that sharing includes being open about your needs. Feeling like you can only share the “good things” makes it difficult to remain creative. Stay open regarding your needs and others’.

This may be a difficult one. It is easy for terror to grow when we are alone, especially when we are alone under frightening circumstances. But fear and anxiety are no friends to the creative processes, or to human well-being generally.

Put your emotions to the back here, and let your mind check out your fears instead. Understand yourself and what you are actually afraid of: it may be different than what your emotions are shrieking at you. It is probably something that a little information and rational thought can help resolve or at least greatly reduce.

Much of the power of fear lies in the unknown. And if you have the right facts, you can usually take appropriate action.

Take charge of finding things out instead of just letting worry sap your life and creativity.

Also, share information with a mind to easing fears for others as well. But make certain you have your facts right! Misinformation can be extremely destructive. Harmful people will feed both fears and false hopes with lies and half-truths (ask me how I know!) and these effects can multiply rapidly.

However, I find that some honest sources of information also feed my fears. This can be completely independent of whether it is reliable information. If a source triggers you, stop using it! Period. I learned not to give up, but to find other sources that would work for me. Not just when I needed better information, but when I needed a source that did not create additional fear in me.

Avoid giving in to anxiety; address it as necessary and get rid of it. It distracts creativity.

This comes last and in a place of great importance.

My darkest years were the ones in which my cult-leader-like mother had me convinced that the world was ending and there was nothing but evil in the world outside our home. I began to recover from my deepest, longest period of depression when I began to defiantly believe that there was good in the normal, day-to-day life of larger society.

Normal daily life can always be improved. It’s never ideal, of course; but it exists, and we can rely on returning to some form of it. Oh, it may look different after a period of isolation, either because our viewpoint has changed or because circumstances have changed.

But normalcy is a real thing and a very valuable end goal.

In the darkest days of World War II, just after the evacuation at Dunkirk, Winston Churchill spoke of the future, that with victory “the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.” Those words have always stirred me deeply, even when my life looked most bleak.

In times of isolation, keep looking forward. Better days will come. Believe me.

Note: I realize these are, shall we say, the nuclear options. These are ways of coping in extreme circumstances. But perhaps they will be of some help to someone struggling with adjusting to the new abnormal. Hopefully, none of it will be necessary for very long.

And I realize that these ideas are written from the perspective of someone who could not reach outside resources. This is not the case for most of you. Even in a period of collective isolation, society and its many provisions are still there for the using. If I had been able to reach those resources sooner, my personal isolation would have been much shorter! Don’t hesitate to access what is actually available.

Lyric poet. Blogger. Grower. Maker. I love living things.💗POM-poet💗

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