Creating Art from the Ugly: Finding Motivation to Write in Quarantine

by Caitlyn Ulery

When we were first asked to quarantine ourselves back in March, I believed it was a blessing. With my classes and my job moving fully online, surely I would have infinite free time to devote to writing! I had grand intentions of writing daily, of creating at least one noteworthy poem a week, of compiling those glorious poems into a collection that I would send to as many publishing houses as necessary to become a published author.

Spoiler alert: I did none of these things.

As it turns out, motivation is hard to come by when friends and acquaintances are dying at the hands of a virus, when the nation’s elite are expanding their hoards of wealth while neighbors worry if they’ll be able to feed their families, and when political discourse becomes increasingly divisive and removed from the true issues at hand. I’ve spent the majority of my time in quarantine somewhere between fury, exhaustion, and apathy. Trapped in a cycle of emotion boiling over and leaving me empty, only to be refueled by more absurdity and heartache.

Needless to say, the recent conditions of the United States, and even the world, have not fostered a good writing environment. At first, I accepted that reality; maybe the only writing I would produce for a while would be essays and literature reviews for class, perhaps the occasional poem written to myself and not meant for other eyes. But that quickly became boring; who wants to live a life of apathy when you could write yourself into a paradise? 

So, I developed a set of habits to act as gentle motivators to encourage myself to write. Most are derived from things that writing professors have emphasized time and time again, only I’ve adapted them to be more forgiving, in a way, given the state of things.

1. Don’t schedule writing time rigidly.

True, it’s often helpful to designate time for writing, and this can be an effective accountability measure. However, I found myself to be less motivated, more often than not, when writing became another responsibility to manage, another chore almost. Or, I would be caught up in assignments for school or work and miss my designated writing window, leaving me discouraged and disappointed. Instead, I started telling myself things like I’ll spend at least 15 minutes after my final appointment writing about my work day, or Maybe instead of browsing Facebook right now, I’ll make a list of the nice things I saw today. Without rigidity, without confining myself to a time and place to write, I was far more willing to do it; it finally started to feel like an outlet rather than a chore.

2. Write poorly.

Write whatever’s in your head, regardless of if it sounds “good” or “intriguing.” Write about your trip to get groceries, write about the squirrel taunting your cat from the neighbor’s fence, write about the yellow spider living in the corner of your front doorway, write about what you think love is, write about what makes you cry. Write aggressively, write emotionally, write obsessively, write without punctuation or paragraph breaks. Maybe none of the things you write will be worthy of publication, and that’s okay! If the pieces you write are only meant for you, if the only person to benefit from your words is you, then let that be enough.

3. If you can’t write, read instead.

An obvious one, I know, but hear me out. Too often, when I think of reading, I think of starting a book or novel from the beginning and sticking with it until the final page. Instinctively, whenever I pick up a book, I turn to the first page and look through it from beginning to end. Because of this, the idea of reading is sometimes exhausting; I dread the mental energy it’ll take to follow the linear progression of a narrative or novel until I reach the conclusion. But here’s the thing, and it’s something I’m still learning myself: you don’t have to read something in its entirety. Flip to the middle of your favorite collection of poetry or prose and read a few entries, grab your favorite book and pick a random chapter to peruse, find an article online with a collection of inspirational quotes from literature. Reading doesn’t have to mean consuming a novel–it can be as simple as finding comfort in someone else’s words, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

4. Most importantly, be nice!

It’s okay to come out of quarantine (whenever that may be) without the skills of Maya Angelou or Emily Dickinson! It’s okay if your COVID writing never sounds like Mary Shelley or Toni Morrison! It’s okay if you don’t produce a single poem or piece of prose while the world is on fire (literally and figuratively)! What truly matters is that you don’t lose your craft, your love for language, when so much is already being lost to a pandemic and political uncertainty. Remind yourself that things are really, really hard right now, and you shouldn’t be cruel to yourself if the desire to write just isn’t there. 

I’ll be the first to admit that creating art at a time like this feels silly, almost insignificant – but I think that’s because, too often, I view writing, or the arts as something that must profoundly influence others for it to matter. One of the most important things I can do right now – and I hope you, dear reader, will do the same – is to remember that any art is enough. Even if the only person it benefits is the artist. If the words you type into a document, or write in a notebook, or scribble on a scrap of paper bring you any sort of relief, any sort of catharsis or happiness, then you have done enough. Don’t let the sharpness and cruelty of current rhetoric let you forget that language can be beautiful, too.

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