How Creativity Can Help Us Cope with the Pandemic: a Q&A with Alex Leviton

The silhouette of a man walking down a tropical white beach in the Cook Islands, facing a story sea and reef break

Instructor Alex Leviton (a white woman with brown bangs and shoulder-length hair, glasses, a bright smile and pretty blue necklace. You can see PNW foliage in the background.)Write Like a Honey Badger Instructor Alex Leviton had to evacuate her Seattle rental twice during the COVID-19 outbreak because of asbestos exposure. From temporary digs, she discusses how imagination and creative play can help us all deal with coronavirus fears and lockdown pressures.

This Q&A also explores how to set aside “productivity porn” and performance pressure, charting your own course through the pandemic disruption.

Alex is teaching an online workshop, Create Like a Baby Panda, starting April 21, 2020.

How can imagination and creative play improve our mental resilience and ability to adapt?
First of all, I want to make something extremely clear about creativity: It’s not just about arts like painting, music, or writing. Creativity is about stretching our brains in new ways. It’s about connecting dots with open or insightful thinking. Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire published a great book, Wired to Create, detailing how some of history’s most innovative minds have 10 traits in common. It turns out we all excel in at least three or four of these areas!

I just read a great definition of resiliency: the ability to bend and rebound to overcome adversity.” Play and creative thinking prepare us to bend when we need to and give us a ladder to climb when we’re ready to rebound.

The science – which is just starting to trickle out – seems counterintuitive at first. Creativity is like sleep or meditation; you can’t tell your brain “I read this tweet about how doing needlepoint will make me more resilient. Here I am, pushing the needle; why is nothing happening?!?”

Instead, prepare to catch your creativity when it bubbles up. And by creativity, I mean not only classical arts like dance and poetry, but homeschooling kids, or simply feeling playful. It can even be searching your home for anything to entertain you or bring you relief. (We salute you, Magnus Muhr, the dead-fly cartoonist!)

Creativity is about newness, innovation, and stretching ourselves. It can be the elastic that helps us bounce back.

The pandemic is provoking a lot of grief, anxiety and other powerful feelings. How can creativity help ground us all?
Creativity can be wonderfully grounding, but there’s a huge caveat: Are you safe? Are you secure? Or are you in what I call “triage?” Where are you on a spectrum from -10 (rock bottom) to +10 (skipping through a field of rainbows and unicorns)?

You might be, say, a +5 if you can work from home, no problem, and you’ve got two adorable kitties and a partner keeping you company. Or you could be a -7, a single parent homeschooling three kids after getting laid off. So before you can even think about creativity, check in with yourself. If you’re below a -3, focus on the essentials of safety and survival.

Obviously, everyone’s scale is going to change from day to day, so you might go from a +5 to a -5 in an hour. That’s okay. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

I lost my house in a fire seven years ago, and I was at about a -6 for two weeks, staying with friends and in Red Cross-supplied motels. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t sleep, and I’m pretty sure I lived on Wheat Thins and turkey jerky for the first few days.

Have mercy for yourself, and everyone else around you during the inevitable hard times now. I’ll explain in a minute, but just that act of allowing, experiencing, and noticing what’s happening right now will be one of the most creative things you will ever do in your life.

Experts recommend allowing our brains time to embrace the new crisis conditions. What advice would you give writers and other creatives feeling pressured to advance their artistry or skills during the lockdown? I.e.; how do we escape “productivity porn” and embrace our own paths through pandemic disruption?
Ha; “productivity porn” is the perfect term for it! Just as porn is the ideal fantasy, so are these memes about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Newton discovered gravity in quarantine. Seriously: screw that! Newton spent his quarantine on a family farm with a dozen servants. If you’re also a +8 or +9 on the grounded scale, great! Write King Lear II, but don’t post to us who vacillate between a -5 and +5 that’s what we should be doing.

There are no “shoulds” at the intersection of creativity and crisis. Is your productivity coming from a fairly stable place or is it stemming from a well of pure terror? It doesn’t matter either way. Just ask yourself: “what creative or playful pursuit might move the needle one number for me now?” That’s it, full stop. You can’t force yourself to magically churn out  +8 or +9 creative work, but trying knocking on the door to the next level up, and enjoying what happens next.

A pull quote: "Creativity can be the elastic that helps us bounce back." Many people are dealing with severe disruption from isolation, schooling their kids, and working from home for the first time. What are some simple steps to help carve out time and space for creative pursuits?
Scientists say all advanced life forms require play. How can you fit in a little, even five minutes? Or just one minute? Or literally ten seconds?

A few ridiculously short prompts in my Explore Every Day book are:

1) Breathe in for four seconds, out for six

2) Give a tree or plant outside your window a nickname, based on its personality

3) Go ahead: shake until you get all the kinks out

Seven seconds of creativity or play is enough right now. Baby steps…

Ready for a bit more? Write out the 10 simplest creative things you enjoy. Think as infinitesimally small as you can. Listen to a song. Put on eyeliner. Doodle. Make a mocktail. Organize your desk. Walk on a nearby block you’ve never strolled before. Take time to notice “five things you can see, four you can hear, three you can touch, two you can smell, one you can taste,” as Write Like a Honey Badger alumna Colleen Stinchcombe recommended in The Seattle Times.

Meet yourself wherever you are in the moment. You don’t even have to be creative as much as, say, creativity-adjacent. Binge dumb TV shows, take a bath, sleep 10 hours. When our bodies are in shock, we conserve core energy. If you’re in triage — meaning below a zero numerically — you get to add buoys instead of weights.

What lifts you back up to stability that you can do easily at home?

You’ve had an unusually challenging lockdown, “sheltering in place” outside your home because of asbestos pollution at your rental. How are you doing? And how is creativity making it all more bearable?
My lockdown experience has been surreal. My partner and I were fully prepared to 100 percent self-isolate for weeks, but our home is now covered in yellow “DANGER HAZARDOUS AREA KEEP OUT” tape. I’d gotten quite a bit of asbestos exposure during the house fire, so physically, I’m not great, and going to hotels and Airbnbs feels unsafe. I’m ridiculously happy I teach this wacky methodology, because it is everything to me right now.

I ask all my students to make a “Noticing Wall” in their Creativity Manuals, capturing fresh observations about their lives. I usually add one or two items a week to mine, now I’m adding three to four a day. A soft, comfortable life seems so nice, but getting through times like, well, this very moment, has given me what I like most about myself: my resilience, my compassion, my courage. It’s surreal to watch that perspective at work in a real-time trauma.

Your recent Lonely Planet book, Explore Every Day, gave prompts to bring the excitement and innovation of traveling home. Can you share why this is important and also some ideas for opening up that inspiration while sheltering-in-place?
Coincidentally, my book about how to “untravel” came out last autumn. I’d also been writing speculative fiction about a pandemic quarantine, set in 2079. So I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to invoke newness within smaller confines.

It’s not about going farther out as much as deeper in. And you can do it right this second! One prompt is: What are your five travel words, the concepts that drive your exploration of the world? I list around 30 to choose from: learning, food, culture, sports, adventure, etc. What are your five words? (Don’t worry; they’ll change year to year or even month to month.) Now, how can you do three or four of them at home? For instance, I was talking to someone whose words were “food, connection, learning, family, and new experiences.” So they’re going to Zoom an older relative and talk through an ancestral recipe they’ve always wanted to try cooking.

Why is it helpful to embrace risk and “beginner mindset,” especially in this uncertain time?
The other day, someone in crisis asked me “how do I find meaning in all this?” I realized this uncertain time isn’t about finding meaning. It’s about gaining meaning.

“Find” implies you need to go looking, put in effort. Who among us wants to strive for anything non-essential right now, unless it’s Cheetos, sleep, or anything starring Kristin Bell?

Right now, you’re gaining meaning if you want to or not. You know the whole tortured-artist cliché? I don’t think creatives need to be emo or haunted, but they must have a broad range of experience to be able to come back and explain it to the rest of us. That means +9s and that also means -9s.

A pull quote: "trauma is what happens to you, and creativity is how far you’re willing to stretch on your own terms."We are going through collective trauma right now, especially in China and Italy and New York City. Creativity and trauma are inextricably linked because they both involve incredible risk. But trauma is what happens to you, and creativity is how far you’re willing to stretch on your own terms.

How else can people embrace your “untravel” ethos?
This is like finding vs gaining. Untravel is already embracing us! But we can adopt that beginners’ mind and be a little more open, more curious, and maybe even a little more brave? Look back at your five words. How can you combine two, three or even five this week?

What’s the most urgent message you’d want to share with creatives right now?
You are developing tools for creativity whether you realize it or not. Humans thrive because of our innovative adaptation to trauma. We were cold, so we made fire. When we needed transport to build better shelters, we invented the wheel. Our tools, rituals, natural sciences… they all came from gaining meaning after crises, both large and small.

But in the moment, our brains are doing what they were made for: surviving. That means seeking out the familiar, and resisting newness and challenge – where creativity lies. That’s why I urge people to figure out where they are on their spectrum, start with the smallest baby step. Then prepare, add prompts, and create personalized guidelines or failsafes. Find accountability buddies. Join an online class. Write out your own prompts on slips of paper, add them to a hat, and draw one whenever you need a boost. Make a pact with someone to play or create or have an 80s dance party for five minutes a day.

Just don’t listen to any ‘”shoulds.” There are 7.7 billion ways to be creative, everyone has their own spectrum, and no one can tell you how or where to show up.