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Zachary Barnes

When COVID-19 hit and the world shuddered to a standstill, a lot of folks like me found a new pocket of time on their hands. I hadn’t realized just how much time I spent commuting while I worked four jobs and went to graduate school. These were the early, naïve days of the pandemic, when, in Virginia, we were told that the initial lockdown might extend into summer–into SUMMER for crying out loud. With nowhere to go, we creative types suddenly had the time we had been craving to work on our projects, and it seemed in poor taste to be anything but productive. To create, to write, to generate. How very capitalist of me—Taylor would be proud.

Interestingly, I felt a similar compulsion to always be doing when I was studying trumpet in undergrad–any time I spent not practicing induced a slight guilt, a feeling that I ought to be practicing, that, in fact, there was someone practicing right now, this very moment, when I was not, and that they were a better player because of it, more worthy of the instrument and craft.

I began to feel a lot of the same feelings in March 2020. It was this haunting déjà vu made all the more inscrutable because I had so much more time on my hands than I’d ever had the privilege of having in grad school and I was writing nothing.

Well, that’s not quite true.

In the very earliest of days, I made it a goal to write 1,000 new words every day, and at the beginning of April, I actually accomplished this. As a slow writer, it felt good to be productive again. Lani, my partner, whose prescience I ought to have heeded, warned me that the lockdown was more likely to be a marathon than a sprint, and that if I was treating it as the latter, I was likely to throw up on my shoes.

When the lockdown was extended, the spring days brightening into summer outside my office window, it felt as if my whole world had sunken into a malaise. I missed writing goal after writing goal and eventually stopped tracking my writing activity in the spreadsheet I had been using to chart progress. The icon menaced the corner of my desktop, so I dragged it into the recycling can and pressed “empty.” Surprisingly, this did not make things better.

Taking a long time to acclimate to the pandemic is not unreasonable. Many writers I know have had similar experiences,  existing in the limbo between the promise of going back to “normal” and staying in quarantine. I began asking myself: “how can you call yourself a writer if you don’t… you know… write?”

My father once worked on-call as a truck loader. It was the night shift. He told me he couldn’t stand it and quit after only three months, and I didn’t understand why until I worked on-call as a K-8 camp counselor one summer. I was paralyzed by the anticipated noontime call from my supervisor, often wasting the early part of the day in pacing anxiety, absorbed by preoccupying tasks like watering my houseplants, wondering whether I would get to work or not. I spent the midday hour soaked in sweat, and, if no call came, spent the rest of the day so emotionally exhausted that I could not approach writing my first novel. COVID and lockdown and quarantine has put the whole world on-call in the same way my supervisor’s erratic summons did that summer. It has become clear that our current trajectories–whatever those may be–could be abruptly disrupted: we could go back to “normal,” or get sick, or lose our jobs, or lose our loved ones, and it’s emotionally exhausting.

I’ve only recently learned to structure my time so that I can approach each day with a little more focus. I ask myself: what one thing would I have to do today, writing or otherwise, that would make this a productive day? I write that thing down (something specific that can be accomplished in 2 hours or less) and do it first. Between Zoom meetings and syllabus prep and reading, I get the thing that is most important to do that day done–anything else is a bonus. While it’s no silver bullet, I’ve managed to regain that sense of working on my craft through incremental improvement.

It’s unreasonable to expect yourself to be creative every day, especially during a pandemic. But the reality is that we are on-call–how we approach our priorities can make every difference between spending the day anxious and drained or focused on one thing that matters most. Sometimes that’s your work, sometimes that’s your mental state, and sometimes that’s your houseplant that is really, really sad and needs a little water.

Zachary Barnes

is phoebe’s Fiction Editor and a third-year MFA candidate in Fiction at George Mason University. He writes and teaches about speculative fiction from his home-base in Northern Virginia’s single, dormant volcano, and he tweets once or twice a year at @zbarneswrites. Find more of his work at zacharybarnes.us.

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