Writing in an age of absence

“Living things don’t all require light in the same degree….Some of us make our own light.”

Louise Glück

This was to be the time for creation. 

We were told, in the separation enforced on us, that we were gifted with the time and space to develop ourselves, our minds, our ambitions. We were told that great works of art were created during plagues. Boccaccio’s Decameron. Shakespeare’s King Lear. This was to be our motivation, anodyne bits of trivia meant to enliven our spirits.

As writers, we heard this in the beginning of 2020, when the pandemic was frightening and new, and the realization that life was to change radically was only beginning. Many of us took this as a call to action and set up their artistic goals with the seriousness of purpose of a military mission. Some of us may have succeeded in their tasks. Others did not. For too many of us, we were given a vehicle for creativity without the fuel needed to activate it. With human activity minimized, our drive to fulfill our artistic needs seemed unattainable. 

What ignites our creativity? The complexities of our relationships, voyages to new lands, our stresses and concerns? Ultimately, it is within ourselves that we find inspiration. Yet if we can’t find inspiration in a time where we are most entombed in our solitude, are we somehow deficient as artists?

Of the many things the pandemic has made me lose is a sense of artistic agency, that the struggle to create in a void is intrinsic to the writing life, in hale times and in plague days, amongst friends or in the wilderness of our loneliness. Over the past year, I’ve spent countless moments staring at desolate screens waiting for the blank whiteness of the page to yield…something. An image, a novel idea, a new novel plot turn, a turn of phrase I can pocket to be used in the future. When the time comes to write, there was nothing but a lacuna where imagination should have been. It was the pandemic, I told myself. COVID-19 had damaged my creative spark.

In the best of times, writer’s block feels like a lesion on one’s mind that arrests any effort to control language. Perhaps that is true to a large extent. I’ve heard of pandemic fatigue and COVID-19-related writer’s block being a very real and very crippling phenomenon. Stresses, anxieties, a limited existence alongside a surfeit of uncertainty lurk in the silent areas where we write. 

This week, I did a thought experiment, asking myself a simple question–was the pandemic so empty as I had thought? Even in a relatively vapid existence, there were slivers of stimuli available to reaffirm the basic beauty of the world: inflamed red leaves falling to the ground during an autumn drive; the damp feel of summer grass in an emptied field; light skipping over a stream burrowing through a neighbourhood park. I still had the ability to capture and contain the world in thought. The pandemic may have injured my inner life, but it had not obliterated it.  

“Living things don’t all require light in the same degree,” writes poet and Nobel laureate Louise Glück. “Some of us make our own light.” We are not deficient when words are lost to us. We writers suffer as the world suffers. Our capacity for strength and weakness are unique to ourselves, as singular and specific as fingerprints. If others succeed and we fail, such is our condition as artists and as humans. We must accept the capacity to fail as natural and hardly shameful. Plagues take their course. Blocks and barriers crumble after time. We owe kindness to ourselves as much as we owe it to others.   

The winter days are short, and islands of receding snow litter the lawn that I stare at daily. The world is empty, empty like the pages in front of me, waiting to be filled. 

If not today, soon.

And if nothing is filled, let the page still stand in front of me, a witness to my struggle, waiting for the moment I can create my own light.    

Saad Omar Khan

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