Cutting well-done steak with a dull knife. Swimming in glue. Running on sand. These are the metaphors that come to mind when I try to describe the act of writing recently. There is no question that it’s an enormous privilege to have the time and space to do creative work at home right now, but it’s also a uniquely challenging moment in which to try and “take advantage” of that. Nearly six months into the pandemic, I’ve been eager to hear from writers about how they’ve been navigating the pressures and obstacles that result from such a dichotomy, and how current circumstances have impacted their writing process.
Today, I talked to Vivek Shraya, a creative multihyphenate (writer-musician-visual artist) hard at work on a new non-fiction book and adapting her debut play as a TV pilot. A tenth-anniversary edition of her book God Loves Hair is coming out this fall.
How has your writing process changed since the pandemic?
My main writing project at the moment is a new manuscript and for a book that’s supposed to come out with Penguin next fall. When the pandemic first hit, I was relieved to have something like that to keep me focused, but over time I have found that my creative energy has really dwindled. Writing has felt a lot more challenging and cumbersome because I don’t have the same ability to focus. I’m also missing the spark I used to get from the other aspects of my work–touring and performing and connecting with people. Without that, I’m finding that the artistic process is suffering.
The amount I’m writing day to day ebbs and flows as a result. First drafts can be painful even in the best of circumstances, but I try to keep the perspective that I’m fortunate to be at home and do the work that I’m doing in the first place.
Have you felt more pressure than usual to write/create during this time of isolation?
One of the unusual things about this pandemic is that the think pieces about it–and about productivity during it–are being written in real time. The way I manage my anxiety tends to be through creativity, so my response to this initial feedback loop on social media was to be like, “Oh OK, well I guess I better use this time to write three books and 16 songs.” And I started making a list of all these projects that I needed to work on in order to really take advantage of this time. I feel really grateful to the amazing writers and thinkers who quickly pushed back against that kind of thinking and reminded everyone that a pandemic is not the same thing as a writing retreat. That’s been important for me to acknowledge when my writing doesn’t feel particularly strong or fluid right now. I’m trying to write during a time when my mental health is not in the best space.
How and where have you been finding creative inspiration these days?
I’ve been watching a lot of TV. I felt very guilty about it at first, but my friends who are super generous told me it counts as “research,” because one of the other projects I’m working on right now is a pilot script adaptation of my play. Having given that connection more thought, I’ll also say that watching TV helps me think about chapters I’m writing as scenes. I’m more attuned to considering what the scene I’m writing looks like, and what I’m trying to convey with it. I never thought about writing from that perspective before, so I credit TV for the inspiration.
What’s something you’ve written recently that you’re especially proud of (even if it’s just a sentence!)?
I managed to finish the first draft of my new book of nonfiction for Penguin. I can’t say that the writing is extraordinary at this point–it’s very much a first draft–but any writing feels like a huge accomplishment right now. It feels nice to be like, “Well, at least I did this one thing.”
What’s the best thing you’ve read recently?
Girl Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo, which was inspiring while I’ve been writing just because of the way her style is so fragmented, and how she pushes against the expectations of the sentence.
A book of poetry that just came out by Amber Dawn called My Art is Killing Me, which examines the connection between art production and capitalism in a really beautiful way.
And finally, Our Past Matters: Stories of Gay Calgary. Here in Canada I feel like so much of queer history or the LGBTQ history is rooted in Ontario or Toronto, but there’s gay history everywhere. It’s been really interesting to read about the history that’s taken place in my home province and where I’m living right now, especially because Pride season here is in September.
What advice would you give to young or aspiring writers who are trying to write something right now?
I think the biggest advice I would give is the same advice I’ve been trying to give myself: It’s okay not to write. It’s okay not to be creative. There’s so much pressure right now to be doing something, and I think it’s important for us to push against that as much as possible. So constantly remind yourself that it’s okay not to write, and it’s okay not to be creative, and it’s okay to watch TV and for it not to be inspiring.