Writing is a shelter from anxiety and listlessness during this pandemic for Zalika Reid-Benta
I'm Writing is a personal essay by Zalika Reid-Benta, part of CBC Books' Transmission series
I've wandered onto filming locations twice in my life. Both times were accidents. When I walk, I propel myself into a rhythm that allows me to effectively block out all external noise. On a few occasions, friends have seen me on the street and called my name multiple times only for me to walk right past them. The first time, I'd looked up mid-walk and was bombarded with squad cars and armoured vehicles and caution tape. I thought something horrible had taken place on my university campus.
The second time happened a couple of years later and was much like the first, except then, I'd crashed an ongoing scene and actually ruined a take. Crew members demanded to know how I could possibly miss all of the DO NOT ENTER signs.
From the moment I've been in quarantine, I've been able to write with an ease that makes the consistency feel routine.
Lately, I find myself thinking about those two incidents. Not because I had been outside and not because I'd taken the simple act of walking around for granted. My mind keeps circling back to those two respective days because every time I log onto social media, I feel the same way I did then: confused, embarrassed, and slightly guilty for [seemingly] not being on the same page as everyone else. Everywhere I look I see passionate reactions to our new social-distancing reality, from intense loneliness and disconnect to overwhelming optimism and hopefulness. I find myself in neither of these categories but rather, in this perpetual state of fine-ness that I repeat to friends and acquaintances who check in with me:
How are you doing with all of this?
In the past, I've been accused of repressing my emotions. It's an observation I consider when I see deeply-felt status updates. I, too, struggle to remember if it's Tuesday or Friday, if it's 2 p.m. or 5 p.m. I, too, find myself wary to go outside, and have started to view Outside as a kind of mythical beast that one must either avoid or battle to survive. So is it possible for me to really be fine? But then I think of my full answer to the one question I'm occasionally asked:
I'm writing. I'm fine.
The past month has been an unusual one for me for many reasons, one of them being that I've been writing daily. More times than not, it's difficult for me to be productive; either every sentence is a struggle for me to put down or after finishing two or three pages, I feel the prose is inadequate and I delete everything. Yet from the moment I've been in quarantine, I've been able to write with an ease that makes the consistency feel routine. Normal. I never questioned it or thought much about it until I was prompted to do this piece.
I'm fine. I'm writing.
That's, really, the true order: I'm not writing because I'm fine, I'm fine because I'm writing. I rely on it. I wake up to write. I eat to write. I scour the Internet to write. I pace my bedroom to write. Staying up until the early hours of the morning to discover the world I've created but haven't fully unearthed, to see what my characters will do next has been what's imbued my days with meaning but without any warning or indication.
Productivity is the by-product of my creative energy, not the goal.
Whether or not my pages will turn into anything consequential is irrelevant; whether or not I will eventually delete the chapters I've written is besides the point. Productivity is the by-product of my creative energy, not the goal; there is no goal, there is no metacognition, there are only the days that go by made to feel like any other day — due to the fact that I've been writing.
Perhaps when we think about creation in general but particularly during a volatile period, we have this idea that it's meant to be a Romantic undertaking that actively fills the artist with hope and inspiration or catharsis and solace. Or maybe it's more appropriate to say that's where my mind goes.
I've had no moments of epiphany during my writing, no moments of sweet release, but without being consciously aware of it, writing has acted as a shelter from listlessness and potentially devastating anxiety, which allows me to feel fine, to feel more or less the same as I did before all of the uncertainty, and while that gift may be a quiet one, it's one I am truly thankful for.
Zalika Reid-Benta is a Toronto-based writer whose debut short story collection Frying Plantain was longlisted for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Frying Plantain is also nominated for the 2020 Forest of Reading Evergreen Award, presented by the Ontario Library Association. Zalika was listed as a Canadian Writer to Watch in 2019 by CBC Books and is the winner of the 2019 ByBlacks People's Choice Awards for Best Author.
Transmission is a series of original creative works, commissioned by CBC Books, that reflects on time, place, identity, community and purpose in an era of COVID-19. The series ran in spring 2020.