How Do I Stay Creatively Motivated When the World Is Ending?

All of us, trapped in our homes right now. Photo: Fox Network

As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka Mattoo represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and directs, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide. In show business, they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck, because now you know Priyanka!

So, uh, how am I supposed to even think about something as insignificant as screenwriting while the world seems like it’s ending?
— Everyone, everywhere in the world right now

Oh, man. I spent last Thursday in a panic spiral, looking for anyone on the internet to dole out one comforting word, and it did not happen! So I’ve been comforting myself, and it seems to be working, so maybe I can pass that comfort along. I haven’t made this crystal clear to my readers, but this column is a recurring excuse to give myself pep talks. I’m glad it helps all of you, and we’ve built a nice community, but since I started writing it, I’ve embarked on a screenwriting career, made a short film, gotten agents, sold a show, and was supposed to pitch another this week, but now, pandemic! Every time I’ve felt discouraged or confused about my career in the last few years, answering readers’ questions gives me the clarity I often need to boost me back up. So thank you for existing, and for reminding me to remind myself that everything is hard, but not impossible. What is a writing career if not a series of existential crises? Technically, you’ve been preparing for this since you decided to be a creative person.

Now, I admit this situation is easier for me to bear than the average American. I grew up in the Middle East during the Gulf War, my ancestral home was burned down by militants, and my family has collectively experienced four air wars. I wouldn’t wish that series of events upon anyone, but it does put me in the unique position of being able to wake up and remind myself that I slept a full night, in a bed, with neither air raid nor gas mask. A lot of the world has all of that to deal with on top of the virus. That said, this is objectively a huge deal. Swaths of the country are losing their financial stability, and many more will become critically ill, especially if everyone keeps mingling about! This is all so bad and hard. And like all hard and bad times in my experience, the only way I know not to implode is to focus, as much as possible, on getting through today, and thinking about tomorrow … tomorrow.

My danger-adjacent childhood taught me to accept that everything might end tomorrow. It might! But it probably won’t. There is always a chance it might, but I could also just keel over any given Tuesday. So I can choose to spend today rocking back and forth in my bed, wanting to vomit (like last week), or deciding today is going to be at least tolerable, and I might even enjoy a moment or two. Of course, the latter option is easier said than done if you’re currently enduring crippling anxiety or depression. If you are, and can muster the wherewithal, please seek out a therapist who can Skype! You don’t have to go through this alone. Open Path is a great resource for lower-cost therapy at $30 to $60 a session.

And now what? Who wouldn’t want to spend a day or two at home, not seeing anyone, eating a bag of stale cookies and watching subpar TV? It can be fun! But not quite as fun 30 days in a row, when it’s the law and/or you’re homeschooling children while somehow working. And definitely not when so many people’s jobs and lives are disintegrating. As my friend Liz said the other day, “The mechanics of this, I can probably deal with. My challenge will be in not getting depressed.” The desire to lie in bed and give up is also my constant companion, but thankfully keeping my brain chemicals up has become a hobby of sorts.

Here are some things that have been great for my brain chemicals: daily meditation, a walk or two, doing busywork with my kids, reading funny books, making soup. But nothing is as restorative as my No. 1 mental-health practice in trying times: staying off social media. Sure, I pop in every once in a while to see how everyone is doing, but since I took it off my phone (and disabled Safari!), I’m ten times calmer. It’s nice to feel connected, yes, but see how the panicked howls of hundreds of millions of users might make you feel … more sad and scared right now?

In addition to your chosen combination of mood-lifting practices, might I recommend adding some shape to your day? My husband and I are currently home with a 6-year-old and a toddler, and like all the other homeschooling parents, every morning we take a big piece of craft paper, tape it on the wall, and write up a basic schedule: meals (and what we’re eating for them), when we’re taking turns working, the brain activity and physical activity for each morning and afternoon, and a chunk of “quiet time” in the middle of the day. The toddler naps, I sit still, and the boy does whatever he wants, as long as he’s quiet. It’s not a perfect system, but it keeps us all going, gives us purpose hour by hour, and leaves less of those thinky cracks where one can fall into thinking the world is over already.

There’s also a crucial game we play in the evening with our son that I think every grown person in the world should, crisis or not: “Rose, Bud, and Thorn,” in which you highlight the best part of your day (rose), the worst part of your day (thorn), and the thing you’re most looking forward to tomorrow (bud). We play it as a family — I even play it on our podcast, Foxy Browns — but it can also be played over group text, or FaceTime, or … I’m not certain how TikTok works, but sure! In times like this, it can feel impossible to think of anything positive to say, but it’s a surprising exercise in amplifying the goodness of small moments. We’ve also added a fourth element, “Pomegranate,” which is what you’re feeling most grateful for every evening. Am I brainwashing my children into having perspective and gratitude? Absolutely. And now I’m hoping to indoctrinate you, dear, suggestible readers.

You might find, after a few shapely, Twitter-free days capped by “Rose, Bud, and Thorn” (and Pomegranate!), that you’re feeling compelled to get out of bed and do something with all of your ideas and feelings. You don’t have to write a script. Maybe it’s a maudlin song, maybe it’s just journaling. Maybe you cross-stitch, or paint, or reread the Harry Potter series. Don’t worry so much about being productive. Just keep your brain in a good place — that takes a lot of energy.

As a parent, there is not a chance in heck I’m going to have any time to write more than this column until school is up and running, but I do often come back to this incredible NPR piece with Nora Roberts, who started writing to escape the madness of being stuck in a snowstorm with her children. Let her 198 New York Times best sellers be an inspiration, and if this cycles through like every other crisis I’ve experienced, I’m guessing we’ll also come back to our normal lives with a renewed sense of purpose and clarity.

So, in the course of keeping yourself alive and your spirits afloat, do you have to write a masterpiece? Or even the garbage draft of one? No! Definitely not, if you don’t feel like it. Don’t feel any guilt about this at all. Your main goal right now is to stay home, stay healthy, and nourish yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally, one day at a time. Selling your wares, or participating in some kind of invisible content race, is the least of your worries this month. There will be plenty of time to hustle* once we get through this as a society, which we most definitely will — if we all just stay home. STAY HOME. xox

*If there isn’t a writers’ strike, but that’s a whole other column!

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How Do I Stay Creatively Motivated When the World Is Ending?