The Onion published a sublimely funny, spot-on commentary on the very strange pressure to be creative during the “free time” of quarantining. The headline says it all:

Man Not Sure Why He Thought Most Psychologically Taxing Situation Of His Life Would Be The Thing To Make Him Productive

Local man Michael Ayers admitted that… he had no idea what he was thinking when he told himself that being furloughed from his job and enduring a sustained period of emotional isolation would be just what he needed to start eating better, acquaint himself with world cinema, and get a jumpstart on the novel he had always wanted write.

We know a lot of people who assumed that they’d somehow be massively productive while quarantined at home, all the while overlooking the emotional toll and intense work it takes to navigate profound and sudden changes in our lives, not to mention a sense of loss. Tired, distracted, they couldn’t understand what was wrong.

Have we all somewhere internalized images of the ever-creative uber-artist like David Dawson’s famous portrait of an aging Lucien Freud working with fierce intensity? Not to mention the grail of smooth productivity that has been the subject of media for the past decade…

Lucien Freud, 82, painting
David Dawson

In an interview with the New Yorker, British actor, rapper and activist Riz Ahmed eloquently described the reality sandwiches of creativity in this locked-down time:

It’s really tricky, isn’t it? On the one hand, the creative process can be a therapeutic one. On the other hand, it can be quite intense. I think we’re all just working it out. I wish I had something more insightful to say, but some days I feel like I just really can’t focus, and other days I feel quite inspired. We’re all reimagining what productivity is. We’re all reimagining what our purpose is. I think there’s something spiritually profound about what we’re all living through. Insofar as I’m envisaging work, I’m thinking, What does work that I make purely for myself look like and feel like? And I’m not sure….

…I think we’re all experiencing this trauma, really, and so many of our mental and emotional energies are going toward dealing with that. I’m also kind of reconsidering what an act of creativity is—mealtimes, for me, were usually just throw it all in a blender and throw it down your neck on the way to the next meeting. But I’ve been cooking up some ambitious food, by my standards, and that’s an act of creativity that nourishes you, that calms you. With a lot of these terms, like being “productive” or being “creative,” we’re really expanding their definition to include a more humane view of the world, rather than just a capitalistic one.

…So one of the consistent elements of my day has been that psychological shadowboxing with myself about what I should be doing. And I’m really starting to investigate where that voice comes from, who it really serves, what it defines as productive. Is taking care of yourself and your body and your loved ones, is that valid? Is that productive? Is it useful? Day to day, how I’m feeling can vary.

Ahmed puts his finger on the way we’ve come to value productivity over our our essential selves. He sees the possibility that the virus might lead to a re-evaluation of priorities and values we’ve blindly accepted, and a re-balancing of how we move through our life.

But I’d like to hope that if there’s an arc to this journey, it might be starting to interrogate and challenge some of those mantras that we all inherited.

CC0 JumpStory

Related posts:

Taking A Break To Do Nothing Is Necessary For Doing Something

The Subtle Violence Of Busyness (Thomas Merton)

Hidden Wonders In ‘Dullness’

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2 replies on “The Onion and Riz Ahmed on The Pressure to Be Productive During Lockdown

  1. This helps, thank you. Having this extra time at home has been a two-edged blade with no safe place to grip. Partly for exactly the reasons Riz Ahmed delineates, partly due to my own specific circumstances. For my entire adult life I have had projects I’ve imagined myself doing “when I get the chance.” And in mid-March I couldn’t help but feel that this is my chance. Two things happened. One is that I was ambushed by anxiety about the future. I worried about the health of my loved ones and the possibility of losing my day job. This worry caused my “COVID productivity” to falter, which opened the door for Number Two: the inner judgmental voice chimes in to remind me of all previous failures, suggesting that I have kept all my pet projects on the back burner because they will never really happen. Thanks to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I recognize this interior negative voice for what it is, but naming the enemy is only the first step. The struggle is real, as the kids say. For now, I’m accepting whatever progress I make on my someday/maybe projects as gifts: my “fruits of solitude.” I am also blessed to be living with someone whose company I enjoy, so true isolation is not among my challenges. This entry puts the whole mess in perspective. Thanks.

  2. “Ambushed by anxiety about the future.” is a very real stressor that many are dealing with, as is grief at the changes and losses that have accorded. To name just a couple of the issues that we are dealing with on very deep levels. Most of the people I know have reported an unsettling lack of focus and often fatigue, something I find waxes and wanes with me. About three weeks into the stay at home order, I set up a simple jewelry studio so I could continue the work I had been doing for the past year at the 92nd Street Y. It took me about a week to actually make anything; I’d find myself sitting down and tinkering, to lose focus quickly. Being kind to myself helped; I’ve learned to just wait, take care, listen deeply. And sure enough I hit periods when the creativity and flow happened. And it felt great. Making things connects me to nature, life, the way things really move. However that can be tapped is helpful these days. Even if it is not what we imagined for “when we had free time”. As you said so well: “For now I’m accepting whatever progress I make…as gifts.”

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