So, Ms. Rona is on the loose and she’s got an attitude and a nasty lace front and bad breath and I do NOT like her. However, as an artist in the chaotic whirlwind of NYC, the one thing I have been craving is time. Time that just belongs to me. Time to work. Time to process. Time to sleep, sleep perchance to dream, dream perchance to kick this damn caffeine addiction. And this pandemic has at least given me that. So, silver lining! I snatch ‘em where I can. I’m gonna share a little bit about what my time in quarantine has taught me. I’m a writer/actor and will spend most of this piece talking about my experience as a writer, but I think it may apply to any medium of art, so here goes!
I started Ms.Rona’s reign thinking about what I actually should be doing with all this time. But should is such a stressful word. It immediately made me feel like if I wasn’t strutting out of my house in a couple months with a six pack and the next Angels in America on my laptop, I’d be a failure. Instead of being focused on product, on coming out of this with something tangible I could show people, I decided to try and take this time to reinvest in myself as an artist. If creativity is a garden, I’d spend this time watering mine. Recharging my creative batteries. Rediscovering my unique voice. Remembering why I write. What do I want to say? What do I have to say? Who is my work for? What is my mission? I’ve decided I want to come out of quarantine more sure. Not of what the future holds or that I have created the best thing since sliced bread, but more sure of why I do what I do.
I think the most important thing we can do as artists is ask questions. And I’ve realized that I often have no problem asking questions of others but very rarely do I take the time to turn inward and ask questions of myself. The hustle mentality of NYC can be a source of motivation, but for me, it has also been a distraction. I find that I often hop from project to project and saying “yes” to every opportunity without investigating what I learned, recapping what I liked and didn’t like, and really stopping to ask myself if I was truly fulfilled by the work I’d just done. I think taking a beat to interrogate our experiences brings us closer and closer to understanding our unique voices and perspectives, what we need in order to do our best work, who we work best with, what stories come most organically to us and which ones we are most excited to tell. I think it is great to have many irons in the fire. And sometimes, especially if you are a full time artist, you just gotta say yes to the dress and take what projects come along in order to put food on the table. I understand that sometimes choosing your own projects is a privilege and luxury but I really do believe that when we take the time to interrogate ourselves and our art, it puts us in a powerful position. We begin to create with specific intentions. When we know what we create and why, the right projects begin to find us. The right collaborators find us. We begin to find the right homes for our work. I believe that when we have a specific mission as artists, our creativity is unlocked and our productivity increases, simply because we are attacking the work from a more intentional place. This quiet time in quarantine has been a great opportunity for my own self-interrogation and reflection.
Your Mission = Your Framework
A while ago, I had the the awesome opportunity to write for a play festival called Rule of 7×7 (produced by the wonderful and hilarious Brett Epstein) in which 7 playwrights had to each write a play that followed the same set of 7 rules. I remember thinking “Ugh, this is gonna be SO hard. My creativity is STIFLED!” Of course, I experienced the complete opposite. My creativity exploded open. I had these guidelines I had to abide by, but I could tell whatever story I wanted within that framework. I ended up writing the play extremely quickly because I had very clear intentions and knew the bones of the story. Each play ended up being so vastly different and imaginative and I left that experience craving that kind of framework each time I sat down to write. I think proclaiming your mission as a creator can be like setting rules for the stories you tell, which, in turn, can help to kick your creativity into gear.
For example, if I say that my mission is to “lift people out of repression by writing stories about black and queer characters wrestling with identity and ultimately owning their authenticity”, then I know that is my framework. That is the story that I tell from my unique experience and there are an infinite number of ways to tell that story. Now I can choose projects by asking myself if they aid in my pursuit of that mission, I can search for collaborators who vibe with that mission, and I can sit down at my computer looking at that blank page and stressful ass blinking curser knowing that, at the very least, I know what I want to do with this story, even if the details have not revealed themselves yet. And at least having that jumping off point has helped me feel more in control of my creativity.
During this isolation time, I’ve been thinking about all the ways I gather inspiration that I usually don’t have the time to really indulge in because…life. 🙂 So, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve been doing to stay inspired and generate creativity:
Catching Up on Some Art
Nothing inspires me like watching great performances and hearing great writing. I’ve been going through my list of movies and television that I haven’t been able to get to and finally crossing things off of my list. If you need a place to start, I’d suggest CMU grad Kyle Wilson’s WordPress article “50 Best films of the 2010s”. It’s full of awesome films and little blurbs about why they are great by artists who love them. Also, pretty much any entertainment publication you can think of (Indiewire, Rolling Stone, Variety, etc..) has a similar “best movies” list.
Additionally, many plays and musicals are now streaming online (some even for the free free!) on sites like Broadway HD.
I’ve also been catching up on reading which has been pretty magical. If you don’t already have a list, googling “Best books: of the decade/of all time/by women/by writers of color/etc” is a good place to start.
-Something that can be time consuming but an incredible learning experience has been watching movies I love and then reading the screenplays and investigating why they work beyond “Oh I like this”. It’s a good way to analyze and understand script structure in action and see how what you write translates to the screen.
-Listening to the advice of people I admire. Reading and watching biographies of artists is always a source of inspiration. Also, going on youtube and watching interviews with playwrights, actors, directors and filmmakers is invaluable. I’d say check out The Hollywood Reporter’s Roundtable series, SAG Foundation Conversations series, and the Academy Originals “Creative Spark” series.
-I know the news is horrifying right now and honestly I’ve been consuming as little of it as possible because I gots to protect my mental health. But I have found that when I have an idea, searching for past or current news articles relating to that idea can jumpstart my creativity. Especially because real life is stranger than fiction and you will find some WILD stuff out there.
Reviewing My Think Tank
I don’t know about y’all, but I have so many random half written scenes, one sentence ideas, play/movie titles, and all kinds of fragments of stuff written in my phone’s notes section and in random notebooks that I haven’t ever gone back to look at. I’ve been taking the time to comb back through these random ideas and see if there is anything there worth taking a real crack at now that I have some time.
Filling My Cup
Sometimes the best thing I can do for my creative, physical, and mental health is just taking care of me. Taking time away from forcing myself to be productive/creative and just letting myself be human.
-Meditation. I’ve been trying to meditate every morning. Sometimes I really feel like it and sometimes I really don’t, but, at worst, sticking to at least 5 minutes a day makes me feel proud of myself for setting aside that time. And at best, I keep going for upwards of 30 minutes and feel refreshed, focused, and full of gratitude.
-SLEEPING. Sleeping without setting an alarm is not something my body is used to but baaaaby? I’m a fan.
-Hobbies! I have been buying and caring for houseplants and it has been a saving grace. Having something alive in my room that I have to tend to gives me something to focus on and obsess over besides making art. And cooking has been amazing. Finding new food and drink recipes on Pinterest and trying them out has been very fun, delicious, and rewarding.
-Happy hours with friends. It’s good to talk to people. I am bad at reaching out and calling folks, even when I want to, but making virtual dates with people and sticking to them is wonderful. People need people, even when our minds try to trick us into telling ourselves we don’t.
Go Forth and Be Well!
I gotta be honest, writing this has been very therapeutic for me. If you’ve decided to read, I thank you for your time and attention and I hope you were able to get at least one helpful thing out of it. Really, the best thing we can do right now is continue to be gentle with ourselves. These are unprecedented times, so its fine to have unprecedented feelings. Our creativity is so intrinsically connected to our mental and physical states of being. So try things out, sleep, drink, eat, laugh, create when you’re feeling it, don’t beat yourself up when you’re not, and take this time to get to know what brings you peace and joy. Cus once you have that, you can start to share it with the rest of us.
Much love to you all.
Harron Atkins (Musical Theater, 2015) is a Brooklyn-based writer/actor. He is a member of the Obie Award-winning playwrights group, EST/Youngblood, and his plays have been produced at Williamstown Theatre Festival, Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Tank, Dixon Place, Two Headed Rep, and Normal Ave. He has been a WGA Made in New York Writers Room Fellow, a Sesame Workshop Writers Room Fellow, a Sundance Episodic Lab semi-finalist, and a Screenwriters Colony semi-finalist.