Uncertainty as Catalyst by Mary Pan

Published: October 11, 2021

Categories: Artist Stories | Featured

To kick off our second annual Mental Health and Wellness Mondays, writer Mary Pan, 2019 Grants for Artists’ Projects Award recipient, talks about how the current pandemic is affecting her life as a writer and physician, and the uncertainty fueling our current lives.

I hardly wrote in 2020. I took up watercolor and knitting (scarves, so many scarves!), learned calligraphy and embroidery, practiced meditation and plotted out a vegetable garden in my previously neglected yard. Even though my last trip before the pandemic hit was to an energizing writing workshop with Tin House on the Oregon coast, I could barely write more than a few sentences or lines at a time for the rest of that year.

There were many reasons for this, not the least of which included the fact that as a healthcare worker, my job and duties and risk at work were turned upside down by COVID. With three young children, I suddenly had to figure out how to educate and care for them entirely at home. And there was the emotional toll, the shock of the pandemic that affected us all, regardless of vocation and life stage.

I do think writers and artists, though, maybe similarly to healthcare workers, experienced a particular disjointing effect of uncertainty. There was a new dimension, all of a sudden, to any kind of vulnerability. As a healthcare worker, that risk materialized in physicality, such as with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the barrier between us and the invisible particles that could infect and, potentially, kill. As writers and artists, the risk of physical harm may not have been as prevalent, but that of vulnerability persisted—the potential harm in exposure of self.

I know writers who became more productive during this time, doling out novels and chapbooks and book proposals, but I was not one of them. The chronic stress initially had me focused primarily on my physical health, and that of my patients and family. I started wearing scrubs to clinic, gave air hugs to my kids when I returned home; my left eyelid started twitching on particularly stressful weeks, and for the first time in my life, I experienced insomnia. I was surviving, but with a newfound authenticity that, despite the isolation, bore a reimagined connectivity.

Uncertainty abruptly became a collective state. I had baseline anxiety prior to the pandemic, but suddenly the rest of the world was experiencing universal upheaval. This triggered anxiety and depression in many who might not have experienced these symptoms before. I saw it in my patients, my friends, my coworkers. Yet there was also a strange comfort in the communality of the pandemic crisis. I didn’t have to hide the fact that I was stealing naps when I could, coaxing my kids into the backyard or in front of the TV so I could escape for 40 minutes under my new weighted blanket, sounds of a cabin downpour flowing from my Headspace app. We all took turns having our moments or days of breakdowns, bolstering each other when we could.

I eventually realized this time was rich in a kind of subconscious creative energy. Perhaps it was a different kind of productivity. I found myself with fits and starts of sentences, themes, poems. Waking in the middle of the night, there was almost an avalanche of these snippets, a phrase or a line or a connection between a news headline and a patient encounter, between waving to my parents or my children through glass windows and the solitary nature of existence, between overcoming the discomfort of constantly seeing yourself on video and the mirrors placed on our identity through the isolation of quarantine.

My writing group began meeting virtually and, though none of us had energy to write much individually, we conjured up collaborative lyrical essays, each section serving as a prompt for the next. Inspired by Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade’s many collaborative essays, we started a Google doc and toggled between the four of us. The first one, written in spring of 2020, had common themes of failure, bones, hope, soil, regeneration. It was a way of creating a whole through the fragments of many parts.

In a way, the chronicity of the pandemic has made it okay to be vulnerable. The pandemic, like any crisis, has stripped away the facades that many of us held to, maybe felt confined by. Priorities, including in work, home, and creative pursuits, are clarified in moments of crisis. A chronic, ongoing crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, necessitates an introspection, a culling of that which doesn’t serve our creativity, our authentic selves.

These disruptions—in medicine, in social justice, in our relationship with risks and rewards, the revealing of mental health as the persistent epidemic beyond the great pandemic of our time—can serve as a catalyst for renewal, for a revelation into a new way of creating, of telling the truth, our story through art.

Mary Pan is a writer and physician with a background in global health and narrative medicine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Creative Nonfiction, Intima, and elsewhere. She is a Tin House 2020 Nonfiction Winter Workshop alum and a 2020 Media & Medicine Harvard Medical School fellow. The recipient of a 2019 Artist Trust Grants for Artist Projects Award, she was runner-up for AWP’s 2020 Kurt Brown Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She is currently working on a book exploring mental illness and identity. More at marypanwriter.com  


photo credit: Jennifer Wohrle