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not writing Lear: against productivity, against the hustle in crisis

Published 4th May, 2020 in MRP Guest Blogger

Written March 24

In the past few weeks—as the global COVID-19 pandemic has blown up past being a ‘distant news item’ and into the everyday reactivity of Australia—I have seen many variations of a motivational, writerly ‘headline’ either shared amongst my circles or sponsored to me on social media. This revolves around making the most of a bad situation; utilising isolation, social distancing, quarantine etc. to write. Finish that novel; start a new project—there’s no better time than now(!). With an almost painful frequency, the internet has broadcast to me the idea that “Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague”. To be fair, I don’t know if this is true or not. I’ve yet to click on one of these links and read about exactly what Shakespeare did or didn’t do, or how. Quite frankly, I don’t give a fuck. 

I wasn’t sure if I was still expected—or if I was still planning—to fulfill this commitment, and produce these blogs for Margaret River Press, during this time. I also wasn’t sure if I would—or should—write in response to the pandemic, to partial lockdowns, to the months of distance laid out before us. Perhaps I should contribute as if everything were normal. Maybe I should have prepared something earlier. The truth is, as loath as I am to add to the noise, I have very little else to write about in this moment, and very little else on my mind.

Beyond the act of writing, I work primarily as a theatre practitioner as well as an arts educator. The arts industries, already struggling under lack of funding and lack of federal care, were immediately hit hard by crisis and cancellation—but, and I am happy to be able to say this, immediately responsive and responsible to the needs of flattening the curve of transmission in this crisis. Alongside the social responsibility of these cancellations, I have witnessed the wave of possibilities—attempts to create opportunities, attempts to create digital solidarity—as we grope in the dark in this time. Streaming, digital performance, distanced rehearsal practices, the barrage of free content. I have been party to this myself. This goes hand in hand with our writerly desperation to make the best of a bad situation—to buckle down and focus on our personal King Lears. We have an urge to create; we are desperate to make, even as our funding bodies, and federal support, struggle to catch up with us. All I want to say here is that perhaps it is also okay not to. 

It is okay to hibernate, or mourn, or feel frozen by paralysis. I don’t know what to write about. I don’t know what projects to work on, or what to assume is waiting for me in the future. I don’t want to opportunise on what might be a new normal (or at least—an interim normal). Even before we entered this strange space, I could feel the dangerous tug of productivity weighing heavy on my mental health and my capability. As a writer, as a performance-maker, you never switch off. You tell yourself that you should always be writing or making. You should always be useful; productive; advancing your career. We have so internalised capitalism that we feel a great shame in stopping, even for a moment. And so, now—as we distance, and as we adjust—I will applaud your Lear. I will take hope in it, even. But in no way should you feel obligated to write it right now. 

A little more than a month ago, I listened to the exceptional Maria Tumarkin speak at Perth Festival (and doesn’t that feel like another life…?). Tumarkin described herself as a “writer of the aftermath”—as somebody who takes stock of, and organises, the debris. This crisis—this unsteadying change in how we operate our daily lives—stretches out before us. We are not yet in the aftermath. It is not easy to take stock, and it is not easy to take a long view. It is okay to experience this confusion on a day to day level. 

The projects we make for ourselves in this time do not need to be completed. They do not need to be prize-winning, or our masterpiece, or even our contribution. We are all engaged in the project of coping. To write is such a decisive action—there is an inherent violence in setting words down to a page, as if they were the only words we could use (as Anne Bogart, in her writing on theatre direction, would attest to). But we do not need to write with certainty. I am happy to jot down notes inside this doubt a little longer, until I can better organise the aftermath. 

My dear friend and WA poet Maddie Godfrey messaged me recently to say, “once this is over, people might rely on us [poets] to help them to remember how they felt”. With a more political bent, the great Chinese novelist Yan Lianke echoes these sentiments here.

Take notes. Scribble memories. Don’t worry about finishing. Afterwards, we can arrange the pieces into a work of memory—or perhaps even a work of transformation. We shall see. Don’t worry about your Lear. Do what you can for your mental and financial health, even if it’s not literary. If you feel paralysed, be paralysed. Keep sending whatever it is you choose to make out into the (digital) world, if only to connect. This is advice to myself, as much as anything, and perhaps it doesn’t belong on a literary blog. But it’s what I can write about now. Next week, I will share something I set down a couple of months ago, which perhaps still has some value. After that—we will see where we are. 


PS. Also, you may as well order some West Australian lit online. Some recommendations:

Margaret River Press and Ethos Books’ In This Desert, There Were Seeds—for solidarity and connection not just with each other, but for our neighbours. There’s grim isolation in these short stories, yes, but there’s also hope and so much transformative potential.

How To Be Held by Maddie Godfrey—this poetry collection is a couple of years old, but social solidarity means holding each other tight with our hearts and our minds, until our bodies can follow. 

The Salt Madonna by Catherine Noske—Cate’s novel is barely a month old and it’s a banger. It’s Australian Gothic worth losing yourself in, for a while.  

The Future Keepers and Swamp by Nandi Chinna—two poetry collections to remind you to fight for the beauty around us. Also good for those isolated walks in nature.

Andrew is a Queer writer and performance-maker creating work between Boorloo/Perth and Singapore. He was awarded Overland’s Fair Australia Poetry Prize 2017, and his poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction can be found in numerous publications nationally and internationally, including CorditeWesterlyScum Mag, Margaret River Press’ We’ll Stand in That Place and Proverse Hong Kong’s Mingled Voices series. As a performance-maker, he has twice been awarded the Blaz Award for New Writing, and makes up one half of independent theatre outfit Squid Vicious (@squidvicioustheatre). He is re-learning the flute in isolation, which he occasionally broadcasts on Instagram @spandyandrei, amongst tragic selfies and pictures of birds. 

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