Creativity in a Pandemic

Isaac Castella McDonald 1 October 2020

This term, TCS Arts is covering the Cambridge community’s lockdown induced creative outlets. So many slow months brought on, for me at least, some real introspection. This impelled me to hash out some kind of response.

One way I did this was by clearing out a derelict shack. Outside the small village where I live, on land owned by someone who, according to village orthodoxy, lives in Spain, there is a small old shed. Coming back from university, in all the hysteria of the early lockdown days, I began to clear it out, only later realising that what I was really trying to do was create a college room at home (I had visualised a desk, chairs, comfort, independence). I developed a strange obsession with sweeping, drawing inspiration from zen gardens in my attempt to make it as clean as I could. This phase ended gradually, and through lockdown, as I inhabited the shack, the leaves, soil, and nameless minutiae that nature creeps with slowly joined me in the space I had cleared for myself.

I made internal wall partitions with bee-hive frames, putting little bits and bobs in the squares to weigh them down. The game-changers were the rug and armchair I found in a skip and carried home with the help of my brother.

It was great to make a place to live between old beehives, and to fill the squares with things I had made, drawing inspiration from Kettle’s Yard. I felt incredibly lucky to have this place to go to in the midst of the crisis.

I spent a lot of time there attempting art – writing and reading and doing absolutely nothing. I read Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, a book surreally appropriate for the beginning of lockdown. At one point, the author writes:

‘It was a place that was lost in the world. On the threshold of our space … we hover between the awareness of being and loss of being, and the entire reality of memory seems spectral.’ (Poetics of Space, p.79)

Bachelard’s description of Goyen’s novel The House of Breath, out of context, seems an excellent description of how lockdown and this place functioned in my life. In the days I spent there, I had the feeling of being on the ‘threshold of [my] space’, but also ‘lost’, of feeling central and yet dislocated, of feeling utterly present in a place I had made, and feeling invisibly alone.

And the reality of memory did seem spectral. Initially, lockdown cut the legs from the momentums I was so engrossed in before, but left the sense of their urgency intact. Then, as time passed, and the heatwave came, the urgencies and imperatives of my past life faded, and I was left with the memory of a self who was, emotionally, completely different. Not only was there so much I realised I had taken for granted, but the time before lockdown seemed unreal, a time when I didn’t really know about the reality of the world.

So, there I was, in the shack, hovering between ‘the awareness of being and loss of being’. There completely, present in the armchair, but remembering myself with memories that I had little emotional affinity to.

Now this is all a bit much I know. Clearly, I did not unbecome, and clearly, things will return to something like normal. I didn’t feel this way all the time. Nevertheless, I still say these things with conviction, as how I felt underneath it all.

One way we all stayed anchored to our pre-lockdown selves was through social media. Another thing I took for granted before lockdown. It became a connection in a disconnected life. It was more tangible than ever; indexed in my emotions and moods. In response to this, I buried a four-metre tall post in the ground outside the shack and wrote a stream of words on it about posts on social media.

Making this post, I was interested in the transfer of text about a digital reality onto a physical object, as a way of showing that these digital selves have a real existence – that posts do exist in a powerful way. Despite this, there is still a strangeness of the text about this subject on a physical object. The post created an ‘I’ shape emerging from the world – everything said is contained by and produces the ‘I’ that it’s a part of. The verticality of the post, and its stark differentiation against a neutral background, are all related to the way people try to differentiate themselves in the digital realm, and how, there, they build identities. If anyone is interested in what the post says, the text is here ( in TCS’s creative writing section.

Creating a space to exist in the shack, and burying a post in the ground and writing things on it, were two of the things I did in the last couple of months that I probably wouldn’t have done outside of a locked-down context. They are products of this time, and they helped keep the abyss at bay. TCS would love to hear what you did in the time, however small, however big, and how the arts helped you through. Send me an email (icc29) if you are interested.