Locking Down Your Creativity
Tim Williams was a 2020 Writeability Fellow, and worked from Melbourne with mentor Tim Hobart in New South Wales on his screenplay ‘Splint’. Fulfilling fellowships remotely was a particular challenge for our fellows, who took part in workshops and received manuscript assessments, as well as working with mentors on their projects. Tim’s story is about writing your way out of lockdown, something which wasn’t as easy as he hoped.
I’ll be honest, the thought of writing during the lockdown initially sounded pretty great. Here was a time in which to knuckle down with no distractions (apart from a slew of streaming services, terrifying news updates and ten kilos of macaroni in the pantry) to put together that masterpiece that’s been gathering dust on the shelf. At the start of lockdown No. 1, there was a thing that got passed around among the arts community about how William Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ while quarantining at home during the plague. Good for Bill, eh? Not a bad way to spend thy quarantine for sure. But the thinly veiled smug implication seemed to be ‘what’s your excuse?’ If Renaissance genius William Shakespeare could do it, why can’t you?
Granted Bill never had Netflix to scroll through but I guess there’s some validity to that point. Writing is often a solitary pursuit and solitude is needed to put in the hard yards required to create a finished work, masterpiece or not. But is a time of global crisis when anxiety and uncertainty are rife, numerous job sectors have ground to a halt and physical interaction is limited really the opportune time to spin creative gold? Thinking back to those early days of the lockdown, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised when sitting in front of the laptop desperately trying to wring the juices from the creativity Chux that my writing wasn’t flowing so smoothly.
During an intense and prolonged period of isolation like last year’s Melbourne lockdown, it becomes very easy to blame oneself for not being productive enough. This of course is not limited to creatives. In these situations, the easiest thing to do is to have a lie-down on the altar, cry to the inspiration gods that it’s all your fault and hope that they spare your lazy arse. Surely you’re to blame for not being in the right headspace to create something brilliant and worthwhile, despite this smorgasbord of time that’s been handed to you on a silver platter. Yet here you are, throwing it away like one of your disposable facemasks.
If you’re like me, you’re your own harshest critic. When that critic is steering the ship twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, you can find yourself in rough territory. If nothing sparked yesterday, then why should today be any different? It’s a dangerous cycle you can find yourself in as days start flying off the calendar while pages remain blank. As frustration and self-loathing rise, you find yourself in a rip you can’t swim out of. In my lifetime nothing compares to 2020, but the temptation was to try to carry on business as usual as best I could. I mean, what else was there to do in between treks to the supermarket to find the Pizza Shapes shelf raided once again? However understandable this method may have been, I always wound up at a dead end. These were extraordinary circumstances so why would an ordinary solution work?
How do you get back on the horse and ride your way out of the wilderness? There’s no universal way to do it. For me it was about baby steps and celebrating any win I could get my well-sanitized hands on. When things got overwhelming, I started sitting down every Monday morning and writing a big list. Not a digital, typed list. A proper back-to-basics pen and paper list. I was trying to create some structure in my life. It could just be the screenwriter in me, but without that structure, my everyday life (and indeed my scripts) starts to fall apart. Everything from polishing off that first draft to taking out the rubbish went on the list and of course I added stuff throughout the week. Then, like Uma Thurman in ‘Kill Bill’ I would take a ballpoint samurai sword to the list and start slashing my way through it. It’s comforting seeing a list with a whole bunch of lines through it, especially at a time when small comforts are crucial. And if, at the end of the week, I didn’t get through everything, that’s okay. I put it on next week’s list.
Suddenly there was momentum and a sense of purpose in my day and I found myself in a much better place. Suddenly those projects on the shelf didn’t seem so scary. I eased myself back in. It’s a screenwriting rule that characters need to be motivated and constantly pursuing clear, achievable goals. So do screenwriters, it turns out. I’m a perennial list-maker, now. By giving myself tasks alongside my creative practise, the windows of time I have to be creative get smaller and, weirdly enough, more productive. Give me a whole day to write and it can be like pulling teeth. Give me an hour and it’s go, go, go. There’s no time to second guess yourself and beat yourself up. Deadlines are powerful motivators.
When the restrictions started easing and we were allowed to go further than five kilometres from the front door, I quickly noticed a change, not just in my overall mood but in my creative output. Hang on, where did those twenty pages come from? Did someone sneak into my apartment while I was asleep? If you’re going out of the house more, don’t you have less time to put pen to paper or fingertip to keyboard? What I found was the change was all in my head. Suddenly being able to see friends and explore different spaces (even if it’s just a pub across town) made me look at those projects I’d been toiling away at in a fresher light. Time and space in between creative slogs is underrated. Suddenly that niggling plot issue on page twelve had a clear solution and ideas started flowing again. The dam wall had broken. Anyone who’s ever been stuck on a crossword, gone away for a cuppa only to find the answer right in front of them as soon as they sit back down knows what I’m talking about. Getting out and finding yourself in different spaces doesn’t just help creativity, it’s crucial for it. You still need the discipline to sit and punch out words but without taking the time to be social and have new experiences, trying to be creative is like trying to drive a car with no petrol. All the controls may be there but you won’t get very far. So, if you didn’t write ‘King Lear’ during lockdown, don’t be too hard on yourself. There’s plenty of time to get your mojo back. And besides, maybe if the Bard hadn’t had so much free time, Act 3 wouldn’t have gone on for so bloody long.