“What a time to be alive” is my new catchphrase. I’m even annoying myself with how much I say it.
But annoying-me-who-needs-to-find-something-more-original-to-say also has a point.
This is history. This is an enormous global event that people will be talking about for decades, probably centuries. This is the most disruptive event most of us have experienced in our lifetimes – and it’s still so new we’ve not had time to process it all properly.
But if you cast your mind back to what feels like years ago but was actually only three weeks ago (i.e. when large parts of the world started becoming locked down), I for one was actually excited about all of the free time we’d have at home to work on important things. Time to write songs! Time to read! Time to get ahead writing my new book!
In fact, I was so excited about all of the free time I thought we’d have to be creative, that I sent out an email to The Song Foundry community about it.
As a writer I spend a decent chunk of my life trying to duck out of obligations and commitments so I can spend time alone and get shit done. So always looking for the silver lining, I was expecting the lockdown to turn out to be a huge blessing.
Only, of course, it didn’t.
I’m running at anywhere from 20–50% of my usual productivity most days. My sleep schedule is so weird and unpredictable I’m embarrassed to be more specific about it than that. I’m going through something like thirty-seven different emotions on a daily basis and not one of those emotions is ‘I’m so motivated I could do anything!!’.
And I know from literally everyone else I’ve spoken to during the lockdown that that’s not just me.
But it’s not all doom, gloom and ‘Oh God WHEN WILL NORMAL LIFE RESUME!?!’. I’ve managed to get some decent creative work done – if kind of sporadically.
And since I’m not the only person trying to stay creative – and, well, sane – in this crazy age of coronavirus, in this article I thought I’d share five important ways I’ve been able to keep myself going.
So let’s dive in.
Embrace the New Normal
You’ve probably seen the posts: ‘Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was in quarantine. So you should go and create your own masterpiece too.’
Well, forgive me for being skeptical about the life story of a guy which includes a seven-year period we know literally nothing about – never mind a guy we’re not even certain wrote half of the things it’s said he did.
But seriously, the jury is out on whether King Lear was written during a quarantine or not. But what is clear is that Shakespeare existed at a very different time, with a very different support system to what most artists today have, and lived through multiple plagues – without creating a masterpiece in every single one.
So maybe the best way to get through this global pandemic isn’t to compare what you’re up to with the sketchy historical details of what one artist might have been up to four hundred years ago.
In fact, maybe the best way to get through this global pandemic isn’t even to compare what you’re up to now with the historical details of what you were up to even a month ago.
These are not normal times. We’re all new to this, and frankly we’re just winging it. (Unlike Shakespeare, who enjoyed his first plague at the grand old age of, uh, zero years old.) So it’s not helpful to compare the things you do, the way you feel, or any of your priorities with what those things are during ‘normal’ times. You’ll drive yourself nuts.
Maybe you’re sleeping from 3am to 11am every day. Maybe you haven’t worn pants in days. Maybe working from home has lost its charm already. Maybe you’re watching all of your hopes and dreams for a fun and outdoor summer disappear before your eyes.
C’est la vie. Que sera, sera. This is the new normal – even if it sucks.
Add to that the fact that we’re literally grieving – even if we’re lucky enough not to know someone who’s become seriously ill, or worse, because of the coronavirus.
We’re mourning all the things we thought we’d be doing now. We’re mourning the loss of our usual routines. We’re mourning an old way of life that was pretty suddenly taken away from us and been replaced with the biggest upheaval and uncertainty most of us have ever experienced. And maybe that’s a sign of our success – we’ve had it so good that to watch it all come crashing down so suddenly hurts even more. But it still hurts.
So you can’t compare how you were and what you did before with how you are and what you’re doing now.
You’re not going to be able to create ‘as normal’. You’re going to have to start creating within the parameters of the new normal.
Look After Yourself. Seriously.
History might be full of myths and tall tales, but the present is too – like the myth of the tortured artist. It’s the idea that the only way to create greatness is to suffer. It’s the idea that you have to be a bit nuts to be creative.
But you guessed it, it’s a myth.
While there’s some truth to the mantra “Take your broken heart and turn it into art”, it’s really difficult to create great art if you’re stressed, anxious, depressed or sick. Creativity is work. It takes focus. It takes persistence, patience, positivity – all of the things you’re less likely to have if you’re suffering.
Don’t get me wrong – plenty of negative and even traumatic experiences have inspired some great art. Some of the most moving songs of all time are heartbreak songs, unrequited love songs, and songs to and about people who aren’t here any more that move us. But it’s hard to write clearly and poignantly about a bad experience you’re right in the middle of. It’s hard to craft a decent song if you’re suffering so much your brain isn’t working as well as normal.
I say this because already it’s become clear that being locked down because of the coronavirus is affecting everyone’s mental health. And that’s hardly surprising – you take away face-to-face social contact, you make it harder for everyone to exercise, you subject everyone to a massively disruptive and alien situation, you take away a lot of people’s job and financial security, and a spike in depression and anxiety is pretty much guaranteed.
That means in general – but especially if you want to use some of this time to be creative – it’s essential you look after yourself.
You can’t pour from an empty cup. Here’s how to fill yours up:
- Get some exercise, without fail, every day.
- Eat more fresh, unprocessed foods and less processed, sugary foods. (The science is clear: sugary foods are especially bad for your overall mood and well-being.)
- Take time to meditate, spend time outdoors and make sure you get enough sleep, even if you’re not on your usual sleep cycle.
- Limit your news consumption, both from mainstream media and social media. Once you’ve caught up with the actual updates, any mindless scrolling beyond that is likely just to make you feel more powerless to change anything.
Imagining your energy and sanity is a cup you fill and/or empty is a great metaphor because it’s a great reminder that every time you don’t do one of these things – you go 24 hours without exercise, you eat nothing but ice cream and oven fries, or you check Facebook fourteen hundred times a day – you create a gap that’s going to have consequences later.
In other words, you can still do these things occasionally, but you cannot do these things a lot and keep your sanity and productivity long term.
So start now. Turn your self-care up to eleven. It’ll be good for you physically and it’ll be good for you mentally – which means it’ll be good for you creatively too.
Create a Routine
One of the hardest parts of this crisis is that everyone’s routines are a mess now. What’s the date today? What day is it? And does that even matter any more?
That’s hard not just because it’s a change of routine, but because for most of us, it’s a complete lack of a routine. Unless you’re working an essential job and leaving the house every day (and in which case, THANK YOU), you’re probably stuck at home with a huge list of things that probably, uh, should get done but no clear and defined schedule for how you should get through them.
I personally thought I’d be right on top of this – I work from home and/or remotely most of the time, I’m good at creating my own schedule, I love having the flexibility of starting later or finishing earlier when I need to. But without all the other stuff to plan a schedule around – seeing friends, going out on a weekend, trips to the gym – it’s made planning out a schedule feel like carving an ice sculpture in a sauna.
Global pandemic or no, one of the best ways to be productive as a songwriter is to write to a schedule – to commit to specific writing times and spend that time creating no matter what. Writing isn’t about waiting around until you have ideas – it’s about sitting down and having ideas. Or as Pablo Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
So if you want to stay creative while you’re under lockdown, the best thing you can do is to plan that time out and stick to it, whatever happens.
Maybe that means getting up half an hour earlier to give yourself time to create before you have to work. Maybe it means clearing two hours every Saturday afternoon to create something. Maybe it means promising yourself you’ll do two writing sessions each week and deciding which are the best times every Sunday night. Or maybe it means spending just 10 minutes every day doing something creative.
The thing about creative work is that you can’t really plan exactly how much – or how well – you’ll create at any time. Sometimes creative ideas flow and sometimes they, well, don’t. All you can do is give them as much space and opportunity to flow as you can.
So create yourself a timetable. Take away the stress of deciding what to do when you wake up each morning by deciding it the night before, or even the weekend before. If you like, plan out your entire weekly schedule like a school timetable like a freelance musician friend of mine did last week.
Rules were made to be broken, and plans were made to be altered. And that’s fine. But pushing yourself to structure your waking hours as tightly as you would if there wasn’t, you know, a global pandemic going on is definitely going to pay off.
Speaking of which…
Be Prepared to Push Yourself More Than Usual
Songwriting – like anything creative – can be fun. But it’s always tough fun – challenging but rewarding.
Compare that to something like eating ten doughnuts, drinking or watching reality TV – they type of fun that gives you an instant hit but no longer-lasting reward. (In fact, the type of fun that if you do too much can have serious negative consequences, like obesity, addiction or a whole culture where people think the Kardashians deserve an unlimited amount of attention.)
The upside of tough fun is that while it doesn’t always give you an instant hit, it tends to give you a longer-term sense of fulfilment or achievement.
But the downside of tough fun is that there’s often a barrier to entry – even if it’s just an emotional one.
It takes effort to spend an hour learning a new skill or starting work on a new project instead of watching Netflix. It takes effort to stick to your workout schedule even when you’re tired and don’t feel like it. It’s a commitment to put your family’s needs before your own sometimes. And the fear of staring at a blank page is enough to stop a lot of people from ever getting started on the creative projects they care about.
The trick, of course, is training yourself to push through that barrier. It’s building the habit of getting started on something even if it’s going to be hard at first. It’s having the perspective, faith and self-assurance that any difficulty at the start is more than compensated for by the rewards you get by the end. It’s having the sense to prioritize the things that matter to you over the things that just feel good or easy or the things that just happen to be right in front of you.
Doing this can be hard in normal times. But in this weird clusterf*ck of a time, it’s even harder.
Chances are right now you’re more anxious, overwhelmed – and even scared and angry – about what’s going on than normal. Even if you’ve been working hard to look after yourself. Even if you’re physically safe and well. And when you’re more stressed and anxious that normal, that usually translates into more resistance to getting started.
But here’s the thing – though the barrier to entry might be bigger right now, the rewards and fulfilment you get from doing the things that matter to you are as great as always. Or maybe even greater.
In other words, yes, some days all you’re going to want to do is use your free time to watch Netflix and eat. In fact, let’s call those most days right. But if on some days you can push yourself to stay creative just a bit harder than usual, you’ll probably be really glad you did.
Personally, my best and most fulfilling days over the past few weeks – by far – have been the days when I’ve got some creative work done, even though I mostly didn’t feel like it. Diving into some of the projects I’ve got going on has helped me find fulfilment, helped me find more of a sense of purpose at this weird time, and helped me feel like there are still things within my control – even while it feels like the world is on fire and there’s nothing I can do about it.
One great trick I encourage songwriters to use is to promise themselves they’ll do just twenty minutes of work on a new project. That whatever happens – no matter how stuck or blocked they feel – to stick it out for just twenty minutes.
Because in reality, what usually happens is pretty amazing. Yes, the first ten minutes might involve a lot of staring into space in frustration, but soon enough the frustration gives way to boredom, which gives way to ‘ah f*ck it, I might as well just try write something’.
And more often than not, that just trying something leads to trying something else, then something else, and getting hooked enough in the thing you’re creating that before you know it, you’ve actually spent a good forty minutes or two hours or even the whole afternoon creating the thing that not long ago you had no idea where you were going to start with it.
And that’s been exactly my experience during the shutdown.
I’m creating way less efficiently than normal. Everything is taking longer. Everything feels harder to do. My brain is nowhere near as smart as normal. But every time I’ve told myself I’ll just try working for twenty, maybe thirty minutes, I’ve ended up spending at least an hour working away, and I’ve mostly created some decent stuff.
And all because that extra bit of self-encouragement. It’s going a long way right now.
Create with – or for – Other People
One of the ideas I explore in The Art of Songwriting is that creating art is never just about us, as artists. Sure, most artists create for themselves first, but most artists create, one way or another, to share what they do with other people. On top of that, some of the best art – and songs especially – is created not just by lone artists locked away, but by a group of artists working together.
One of the weirdest things about this pandemic is that it’s turned our social lives upside down. There’s no eating out, there’s no going to cafes to catch up with friends, there’s no going to gigs or events or shows, and there’s not even any spending time with co-workers in the office.
Instead, we’re all hanging out online – in FaceTime catchups and WhatsApp groups and Zoom meetings. It’s not quite the same as meeting face-to-face, but it works.
So if you’re struggling to motivate yourself into doing something creative right now, one great way to do it is to co-write – either with someone you already know or someone you’ve been meaning to set something up with for a while. Send them a message, setup a Zoom meeting, see what happens – even if it’s just for the fun of creating something new, no strings attached.
It’s a great reason to spend time with other people, plenty of people are looking for things to do, and you’re much more likely to stick to your creative schedule because you can hold each other accountable for sticking to your writing sessions. And as lots of musicians are discovering, collaborating or even playing together is a pretty great substitute for doing it in person.
At the same time, one of the best ways to keep yourself motivating is to create something specific for other people. Maybe that’s a fun lockdown song to upload to SoundCloud or YouTube. Maybe that’s a new arrangement of a song to perform on a Facebook or Instagram live. Maybe you promised yourself you’d spend the afternoon working on your new book but writing a blog post about being creative in the time of coronavirus felt more pressing and something that would give you – and your audience – some more immediate gratification. I don’t know, just riffing here.
So if it helps you motivate yourself, get social. Don’t let being cooped up at home stop you creating with other people. The Internet is literally the best tool ever created for connecting and sharing things with other people. And now is a great time to take advantage of that.
Being creative always means going against the grain – kind of by definition.
It means filling empty space with something worthwhile – something beautiful, something interesting, something meaningful. And in a time when it feels like most of our waking hours are empty space, that’s never felt more important.
In the musical Rent, there’s a line at the end of Jonathan Larson’s lyric to ‘La Vie Boheme’ that’s always stuck with me: “The opposite of war isn’t peace. It’s creation.”
And if, in this time of crisis and loss, you’ve also been turning to art and music and video and books to keep you sane, you’ll understand why.
Stay safe and stay well. And if you can, stay creative.
If you’re looking for inspiration, ideas or specific songwriting projects to work on during the lockdown, you can get any of my books for 25% off using the code STAYHOME. Just head here to access the complete store.