Re-imagining

“What’s the first thing that happened to your writing practice when lockdown started?” my friend Maria asked me.

“Same as what happened to everyone else. Everything closed.”

Gotham’s office closed. All the coffee shops closed. My writing space closed. My writers group stopped meeting at a bright, bustling diner on 14th Street. Because it’s closed.

You know what else closed? Me. I’d carve out time, clear my space, turn off my phone, and…craft an anemic, half-baked draft of something I wouldn’t finish.

Look, it happens. But I’d never endured a streak this extended, and it was making me cranky. Which meant I wrote anemic, half-baked, cranky drafts of something I wouldn’t finish.

So I guess I’m exactly like Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts who said recently, “From a creative standpoint, this year for me has been a dust storm…I’m guessing there are some other artists who identify.”

You guessed accurately, Mr. Letts.

Maria suggested my problem went deeper than stress and distraction. No matter how often I changed chairs in my apartment, I couldn’t escape what was missing–the energy of writing, and talking about writing, in the company of other writers.

“So how can you invite that energy into your space, symbolically?” Maria asked.

There are so many ways to do this. Several friends work with weekly Zoom writing groups, where everyone checks in, writes for two hours, (mics and cameras off), and then they come together again at the end.

Some writers call or text each other before sitting down to work, and trade pages at the end of the day.

Some writers fill their line of sight with craft quotes and photos from friends and fellow writers. Others found success working to audio or video recordings of the ambient sounds of crowded coffee houses.

My student Zinaria Williams struck perhaps the most genius solution. Her husband built a desk that fits into the hatchback of her car, where Zinaria added colorful and comfortable pillows and throws, plus snacks. From her new workspace, parked on Manhattan’s Third Avenue, Zinaria wrote an op-ed that appeared last fall in U.S. News and World Report.

Like writing itself, this re-imagining is a process. No one found their solution on the first try—everyone had to experiment, tweak, and start over. But it’s worth it.

For me, after a few failures, finally, something clicked: A generic, vanilla-scented candle I bought for six bucks. Because it’s cheap inexpensive, the candle burns a bit hot, slightly raising the temperature of the room, filling some of the empty space around me with a hint of heat and vanilla.

It can’t replace the physical and spiritual warmth of my fellow writers.

For now, though, it’ll do.

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Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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