During quarantine, the pressure to be productive was everywhere. Articles about making the most of staying home through Zoom meetups and learning to podcast or crochet or play the dulcimer popped up in droves, occasionally insinuating that by not creating, we were wasting our time.
Of course, a global pandemic doesn’t exactly get the juices flowing. Most people, even when working from home, battled a significant collective trauma as constant fear and concern pressed in on all sides. Living in all-encompassing anxiety, it seems, does not make it easy to create.
And yet there was a certain sense of obligation. I, like so many others, had been toying with a creative project for several years, and for the first time in most of those years, I found myself with a single remote job. That left lots of time to sit on the couch and look at the ceiling, or alternatively the wall and, eventually, my messy Word documents.
The value of art became even more apparent during the pandemic as well, as people turned to music, film, TV and books to fill their time. That human desire to consume art that colors every epoch of history, the compulsion to create even in the worst possible circumstances. I’m reminded of the works of Osip Mandelstam and his wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, two Russian Jewish writers who continued to work even as the Soviet intelligentsia were disappeared into gulags. In her book “Hope Against Hope,” Nadezhsa Mandelstam wrote that instead of putting away his pen for his own safety, Osip Mandelstam memorized his work to avoid leaving behind an incriminating scrap of paper. Even through the worst of circumstances, when creation is actively squelched, Jewish artists and writers continue because of that innate human desire to create.
I’m not comparing my own experience of writing in my little apartment during a pandemic to the terrors faced by Jewish artists throughout history. Nobody is coming to break my door down and demand every one of my papers (hopefully). But even after I returned to work, that fervent compulsion remained. Writing can be a chore, absolutely, and there are certainly days where I lie face down on the floor in a weak attempt to become one with the linoleum, but current circumstances have strangely spurred my creativity instead of stifling it.
This is not to say that everyone should engage in art during what is widely considered one of the most traumatic periods in recent American history. It’s enough to watch a movie, read a book, find patterns in the ceiling and/or wall. But I’ve come to realize that writing, despite all its frustrating idiosyncrasies, makes me feel better. When the pressure comes off, when I can work without worrying about whether or not something is “good” or “important,” creating for the fun of it helps me cope with the tangled mess of the world. I cannot count myself among great Jewish authors writing during times of struggle, obviously, but I do feel a certain kinship in indulging the urge to create. When the complex skin of this country comes away, when we are all locked in our homes, we turn to art. And this, at least to me, speaks to the intrinsic importance of the practice.