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November 3, 2020

Being Creative at Home During COVID-19 

By: Aidan Clay 

Photo of Aidan Clay









While COVID-19 disrupted my life and routines by cutting my senior year of high school short and forcing the cancellation of events like choral performances, it also presented me with an interesting opportunity: time, with which I could do whatever I wanted. I had wanted to reintegrate creative writing into my schedule for a long time. I realized that COVID gave me the time for creative writing, as well as for musical endeavors like piano, that I craved. I said to myself, “if I don’t use all this time to write, I’ll go crazy and I’ll never forgive myself. I want to come out of this pandemic proud.” While sheltering at home, I have learned a great deal about fiction and music, I have used that knowledge to create art in the form of stories, and I have shared some of my work with my friends in hopes of lifting them up. 

I have used the immense time on my hands to learn as much as I can about various topics. When I listen to songs, watch films, or read books, it’s as much education for me as it is leisure. I already pay attention to strategies used in each of these mediums to make them more effective and capacity to do so has been strengthened thanks to the additional time I can dedicate to it. During quarantine, I’ve watched various horror films and asked myself, “what about these movies scare me? What themes are they exploring? Why do these movies need fear and terror to communicate these themes?” I enjoy films for their runtimes, and for days afterward as I reflect upon them. Ideas like the strength of bonds in the wake of dangerous situations, how traumatic events affect family units, and the psychology of criminals like Hannibal Lector all resonate with me. When I’ve listened to songs like “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” by Elton John, I ask myself, “why do these chords make me feel such relief, and how do these lyrics communicate a story that plays out like a movie?” When I read books like When Breath Becomes Air and A Prayer for Owen Meany, I ask myself, “how can I use my skills to find meaning in life? How does our childhood affect us as we grow older?” Another source of creative inspiration I discovered during COVID was a site called “Master Class,” which contains online courses in a variety of areas taught by renowned experts at the top of their fields. I took the Art of Storytelling taught by author Neil Gaiman, Film Music by composer Hans Zimmer, and Space Exploration by astronaut Chris Hadfield. I took detailed notes about these masters’ insights into these subjects so that I could analyze and even utilize some of their strategies. Gaiman encouraged using fiction, the ultimate and memorable “lie,” to share the most important truths. Zimmer talked about how to collaborate with film directors and how to utilize a simple, humble melody to be the heart of a score. Hadfield shared the procedures, training, and scientific concepts involved with being an astronaut. Even though I likely won’t be an astronaut, I love acquiring this knowledge because I want to be able to know what I’m talking about in a discussion about space travel. The magic of being a writer is that no matter what subject you learn about, it will serve you well by giving you new subjects to write about. Another platform of learning came from online “video essays” that anyone can find on YouTube or other sites for free. The fact that anyone can share anything they want on the Internet and it might get heavy traffic can be a very good and very bad thing. However, if you absorb content from well-spoken, professional creators who cite their sources, the Internet can essentially offer a full education in certain subjects. I have listened to many video essays about writing, music, and science. For example, I listened to a video essay about the music from The Nightmare Before Christmas. It explained that the music associated with the Halloween characters in that movie was written in minor keys, the music associated with the Christmas characters is written in major keys, and the songs sung by the characters of Jack and Sally are the only parts of the soundtrack written with Phrygian scales. Music theory aside, in layman’s terms, that all means that the Halloween music is written to be dark and gothic, the Christmas music is written to be joyful and pretty, and Jack and Sally’s songs have elements that only the other shares, thus cementing them as love interests and confidants to one another. Because of this, the music in that movie is as important to sharing the story and atmosphere as the screenplay and acting. I have also picked up a lot of useful writing techniques from video essays about stories. One of my favorite video essays discusses the portrayal of the character of Thanos in the Marvel superhero films. At first glance, Thanos might just appear to be a decent cinematic villain. But this particular video essay revealed him to be a man stricken with grief from an uncaring universe, who tragically chose to inflict pain upon the rest of the world instead of reconciling with his trauma. Not only is he a complex villain, but he sees himself as the hero in his own story. Only downright beautiful, nuanced writing can make that happen. It’s a great habit to always be learning and absorbing information and trivia from the world around oneself, but it’s just as important to apply that knowledge to one’s life and craft. 

In addition to absorbing great works of art and analysis of it, I wrote my own stories. I have filled several notebooks with random ideas ranging from the lore of fictional worlds of my own design, the structure and order of stories I’ve previously written or conceptualized, and commentary on things like my favorite film trilogies or film scores. Taking what I had learned about structure, acts, and storytelling from Neil Gaiman’s Master Class and many video essays, near the start of quarantine, I put together a plot, character, and mystery-based outline for a space adventure story called “Knight’s Voyage” inspired by the science fiction classics of Jules Verne. With this new project, I did a ton of planning beforehand. When I started crafting stories, I was under the impression that using previously established storytelling conventions was a pitfall into cliche territory. However, it doesn’t have to be. Conventions are used time and again because they work when done right. Although utilizing the “Architecture” writing style made “Knight’s Voyage” very smooth and fun to write, it wasn’t without its challenges. The story was very demanding scientifically and thematically. I wanted to add as much real science as I could to make it believable. I dipped my toe into fields such as physics, astronomy, astrobiology, aerospace engineering, and even Russian history. If you want to know about applications of exotic matter with negative mass or what the weirdest planets in the Universe are or what colors alien plants might be, I can now tell you these things. The research I did gave me a deep respect for the forces of the Universe; the same way people admire the oceans, coral reefs, mountains, or canyons, I now admire black holes, neutron stars, and nebulae. A story being scientifically accurate is one thing, but any good piece of literature needs a strong thematic foundation. “Knight’s Voyage” follows a few core themes, such as the dangers of obsession with a nostalgic past or idealized future, and how these lead to an inability to craft a meaningful identity for oneself in the present. This is something that I am very much able to relate to during COVID. “Knight’s Voyage” is also about relationships. Using my writing, I’m trying to communicate that whether in a romantic relationship, or the connection between all of humanity and the resources of the Earth and the cosmos, both parties must be willing to give a lot to each other, but not take any more than needed. I’m also trying to emphasize the value of our emotions and opinions, even in the face of an insurmountably massive Universe within which we as humans seem infinitesimal. Despite the complex science and heavy themes, the greatest challenge in writing “Knight’s Voyage” was far more physical and practical than I expected. Sitting in front of a screen for extended periods to type was causing strain for my eyes, so I found an alternative method. I started handwriting my “Knight’s Voyage” draft in notebooks, and would place them in front of my iPad screen so that the screen is blocked but I have a reference to type from. Then the muscles in my dominant hand started cramping up from overuse. To solve this new problem, I practiced writing with my left hand, I researched posture and methods of holding writing utensils, I used voice recordings, I wore a wrist stabilizer, and I started doing hand exercise. A combination of these methods allowed me to continue writing in notebooks before copying the draft on online documents. While I’m proud of how “Knight’s Voyage” pushed me in how to handle science and themes, I’m even prouder of how it pushed me to keep writing in the wake of adversity without overexerting my physical limitations and finding ways to better take care of myself. However, I am even happier with the art I have shared with others. 

Not only have I created art for myself to enjoy, but for the people around me to experience as well. My piano teacher hosts an annual event where all of her students get to perform a classical piece and another piece from each respective recital’s theme. (This year’s performance was modified with face masks, social distancing, and sanitization of the piano keys.) I performed George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Hans Zimmer’s “This Land” from The Lion King (per this year’s Disney theme). Both of these pieces were challenging for my skill level. I spent a lot of time sheltering in place perfecting both of these pieces so that listeners would get the most out of them. I also worked on vocal music. Many events related to my high school choir were cancelled due to COVID, which was a huge loss for me. However, we did our best to keep the music going despite being physically separated. The school’s concert choir and I put together a “virtual performance” of us singing a song called “Give Us Hope,” which we shared with our community. This got an unexpected amount of attention in the local media, getting thousands of views on the Internet and appearing in the town newspaper. Even though I was only one voice among dozens in this virtual performance, I tried to make my individual performance the best it could be. I took a drive and sang in my car just to warm up, before using duct tape to cover a wall in my room with a white blanket to act as a background in my video, setting up pillows for me to kneel on at just the right height for me in frame for the video, and doing several takes to perfect my pitch. Not only have I sang for choir, I’ve also used creative writing for choir. Before COVID, I had written a poem about my love of choir and its ins and outs called “Being a Choir Kid.” I used that poem to capture little details that only a true choir kid would have experienced. I collaborated with our choir tech expert and my parents to put together a video of me reciting the poem to a series of pictures of our favorite choral memories. I couldn’t have asked for better reception to the poem. I got so many messages complimenting the poem, asking for copies of it, or saying they were on the verge of tears. I gave copies of the poem, with different editing and personal handwritten notes, to those who wanted the poem or who had recent birthdays; my friends were even more happy to receive personalized versions of “Being a Choir Kid.” There is an intrinsic joy in creative writing, even if you keep it to yourself. But the reactions from my peers to my writing made every word I had ever written more than worth it.  

Normally, if there’s a period in my life where I was consistently participating in activities I enjoyed, it would be a time I would feel immense nostalgia for in retrospect. While I don’t necessarily see myself wishing I could go back to shelter in place, I am extremely proud of how I utilized that time and made the most of those circumstances. My experiences with piano and choir showed me that music is a source of inspiration under any circumstance. Writing “Knight’s Voyage” took me on a journey through the cosmos in the comfort of my own home. Sharing writing and music showed me that the art I create can bring people together in times when we are most separated. I don’t know if I would have progressed as a writer and musician as much as I did without the time quarantine gave me, and that is what I will remember most from this difficult time. 



“Being a Choir Kid” By Aidan Clay


You might be in track,
Or band or sports.

Maybe the debate team,
A group with a core.

Choir is one such group and it is mine.

A large group of people who sing together,

With occasional instrumental accompaniments and solos, Usually harmonizing with each other.

This is a textbook definition.
But to choir there’s so much more;

When you join a high school choir, There’s a lot you’re signing up for.

Choir is not just a group of kids. It’s a musical experience,

Or better yet, a thousand little instances.
Let me share some such occurrences.

Choir is the frustration when those darn risers won’t fold.
The vine-like jumble of amp cords you’re putting away.

Considering the time aftershow cleanup takes, You’ll probably be home the next day.

Choir is screaming on the tour bus, Great tunes, old and new,

“I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys.
You can’t stop us. What are you gonna do?

Choir is going to a friend’s house to rehearse. Half the people don’t show up.

You eat cookies and watch Netflix when you’re done; Yeah, I think we practiced enough.