I’m a writer but I don’t have much to say right now. I’m a storyteller but I don’t have many stories to tell either. There is an explosion of online content, but I do not feel compelled to contribute. Instead I am watching, listening, noticing.
Week one of the self-isolation measures, amongst the multitude of COVID-19 memes about toilet paper, face touching, and the quarantining-with-kids-chaos, one in particular caught my attention:
As an introverted writer (with a splash of agoraphobia), I realized that in many ways I’d been unwittingly adhering to a regime not unlike the #stayhome measures put in place in an effort to #flattenthecurve. For years I’ve been working alone at home in Montreal, sometimes not using my voice or emerging into the outside world for days at a time. Now, suddenly, much of the world was sharing some very specific elements of my solitary life, as expressed in a new slew of memes and statuses:
OMG I’m wearing pants without an elastic waist today!
The days just run into one another and it seems it hardly matters what day it is.
How many granola bars a day is reasonable?
Without an external force, it can be difficult to keep a handle on simple concepts like mealtimes, wearing actual pants, and being aware of the time or even day of the week. I only started wearing jeans about a year ago, I consistently miss recycling day, and my “meals” are often just slices of toast with a rotation of spreads depending on where the sun is in the sky.
By week two of the #stay(thefuck)home directive, when it became clear that the two-week isolation period was just an appetizer for what was to come, I noticed another phenomenon. The already effervescent internet was exploding with content—a different kind of content. Hand-drawn cartoons. Spontaneous paintings. Live videos igniting at all hours. And music, from celebrity live streams to living room solo jam sessions. There was a clear and urgent desire to share. Not masterpieces, not carefully crafted content. Perfection wasn’t the point. The point, it seemed, was simply connecting.
In her book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing writes, “If loneliness is to be defined as a desire for intimacy, then included within that is the need to express oneself and to be heard, to share thoughts, experiences and feelings.”
Maybe that was it. A sort of collective loneliness was setting in, and with it, the need to self-express. Maybe the isolation and loneliness of being a writer also fuels the force that compels me to create and share my work with the world. While my version of self-isolation is self-imposed, it doesn’t mean it’s not lonely. It very often is. And now, the rest of the world was lonely too, which I’ll admit made me feel less lonely.
Week three, another shift. Things got darker. The funny memes slowed. Longer posts started to surface. Honest struggles. The isolation, among other hardships, was taking its toll. One widely-shared article features Keith LaMar, who has been in solitary confinement for the last twenty-seven years. “You have to learn how to deal with yourself,” he counsels.
Artists and writers are sometimes perceived as navel-gazing (one critic called my solo storytelling show, aptly titled Self-Exile, “solipsistic”) but often they are simply dealing with themselves, mining themselves for material, for in the specific can be found the universal. As a memoir writer and true-life storyteller, I’ve been doing a lot of mining. If I was a limestone quarry, you could build a small village with the material I’ve dug up. So I know: the self can be a terrifying thing to face. LaMar points out that “educate” comes from “educe,” which means to bring out or develop. His advice for those in isolation is to “bring forth that which is already there.” Of course, what’s “already there” can be a minefield of grief, abandonment issues, anxiety—things that are more comfortable not to explore. It can be excruciating, but it can also be empowering. There is beauty waiting there too. And strength.
As the exterior world falls away, our rich inner world can come into focus. At a time when we would normally see social media inundated with pics of bathing suits and beaches in exotic locations, I was seeing something much more interesting and even more exotic: expressions of quieter but complex selves. Someone saw a blue jay flash by their window. Someone heard geese overhead. The moon has made a comeback. So much bread baked! So many puzzles! Photos displayed a bouquet of fresh parsley or leafless treetops against a moody sky or a beam of sunlight spilling over a radiator. Selfies, instead of flattering filters, now featured expressions of worry or sadness or a brave but tenuous smile.
I don’t like the expression, “We’re all in the same boat.” It makes me think of a Noah’s ark type of vessel, with hundreds or thousands or millions of people jammed together, heading to the same destination, seeing and experiencing the same thing. Not only does this image make me shudder in these COVID times, but it doesn’t sit right with me. Currently, the world is experiencing something together. And as we experience this global phenomenon, we are forced to do so separated, as individuals. Instead of the same big boat, I picture us on individual rafts. We’re all sailing, but we’re going at different speeds and on different bodies of water and our rafts have slightly different designs and sometimes we get stuck or we might find we’ve been going backwards for a time. We are alone on our raft, but we’re all paddling together. It’s how I think of my writer friends. I know they are toiling away alone at their desks, deep in their own projects, but we’re unified in our solitary toils.
And there is something else that writers do. Maybe the best part. Writers imagine. Different worlds. Different people and scenarios. The way things could be. Our world is changing drastically, but we don’t know what it will look like, which means there is room for us all to imagine. How we want to be. What inner climate we want. What we can do to curb the outer climate. What kind of relationships we want to have. What kind of spaces we want to create. We can all be writers. We have to be if we don’t want someone else to write the story. Unshaven, in our elastic-wasted PJs, binging on granola bars and sipping our tenth cup of coffee, we can gaze out the window, and we can imagine. Something new. Something different. Something beautiful.
Nisha Coleman is the author of the memoir Busker: Stories from the Streets of Paris, published in 2016 by Radiant Press. Her storytelling show, Self-Exile, won Best English Production at the Montreal Fringe and was featured at the Centaur Theatre as part of the Wildside Festival. Her work has been featured on The Moth Radio Hour, Risk, CBC and PBS. She is a co-producer at Confabulation, Montreal’s monthly storytelling series, as well as its French equivalent, Enfabulation. She is currently working on a novel. www.nishacoleman.com
Photo credits: Nisha Coleman (header banner); Sarah Grace Moumblow (puzzle); Summer Nicholson (figure from behind); (Kiran Ambwani (headshot)