‘Strange days’, ‘unsettling times’, ‘unprecedented situation’. These are just a few of the phrases that most of us will have come across on a regular basis in recent weeks. It’s almost becoming clichéd to use these words about the current Covid-19 pandemic, and yet those phrases do adequately describe what we’re living through. And although, in the grand scheme of things, it may seem as though writing projects – and their success, or failure to progress – matter very little, I’d actually argue that they still matter very much. The question is, how does one keep writing through a pandemic?
A discarding of the inessential
A few weeks ago, when lockdown in the UK was looking very likely, social media was awash with the message that if and when this would happen, it would be the perfect time to write that novel, catch up with DIY or gardening, or craft projects that involved making things out of hundreds of rolls of toilet paper tubes. Generally, it would be a brilliant time to get stuff done.
Now of course it’s of benefit to look to the positive in what is an awful situation, but for some, instantly looking to the positive isn’t readily doable. Everyone processes swift life changes in their own time and in their own way. Also, for many, this “time to get stuff done” is actually a time of working from home as well as schooling children and/or caring for elderly or vulnerable relatives or neighbours whilst trying to source food and other necessary items from supermarkets that are not the once-plentiful places they used to be.
Yet, the thing about a high-pressure situation is this: it forces an individual to focus on the essentials of life. Our physical needs – for good health, food, exercise – alongside our concerns for loved ones, friends, and our own mental health and emotional wellbeing will be at the forefront of our minds. (Not to mention fears about finances.) And it is only once those things seem somewhat more stable, that we can think about how best to manage work, writing and our day-to-day lives in this “new normal”. Indeed, for some of us, writing is our work and/or our emotional stabilizer. It might feel as though it is at the very core of our selves.
Stripping away the inessentials of life may also force us to strip away the inessentials in our writing life. It may cause us to rethink the importance of our writing projects, enabling us to discard things that we were only ever semi-invested in, helping us to prioritise the project that we are truly passionate about and want to get finished.
A time to get stuff done?
For many of us living in lockdown, time itself may have taken on a new quality, warping and shifting around us. Those of us without pressing work and caring responsibilities may have more time to spend on writing. Indeed, it may inspire some to finally put pen to paper. (If so, great! You may want to check out Emma Darwin’s recent series of blog posts on how to start writing a novel.) For others, though, time may have shrunk, and a daily commute or lunch break, or promised hour to oneself every day in which writing would normally get done, may have vanished. Those with intense workloads (at home or outside the home, doing an invaluable job in keeping the nation running), or young children or elderly relatives may feel particularly washed-out at the end of the day and find they have little creative energy to make use of.
It’s important to realize that despite the lockdown, we all have different amounts of free time and energy levels. Go easy on yourself if you haven’t written a word of your novel or kept up a steady submission schedule. Equally, if you have found a spare half hour to focus on your priority project, commend yourself on your progress (instead of criticising yourself for not getting more done). And if you do have good news to share – about a writing achievement or hitting a word count goal or winning a competition or having a book out for publication – tell people about it. Guilt may stop you from wanting to share your good news in a time when people are suffering – that’s understandable. But life is always a mixture of good stuff and bad stuff. In general, good news is cheering. And true friends and fans want to celebrate your achievements with you. Your good news can inspire and motivate others to pursue their own writing dreams – something which is always to be encouraged.
Anxiety and overwhelm
One effect of the lockdown has been the abundance of free online materials, courses, books, stories, films, workshops and festivals, invites to newly created Facebook groups, YouTube workouts, calls for submissions on coronavirus-related writing, Zoom chats etc. being made available to keep us all busy, connected, engaged and entertained. And there’s a whole host of great stuff out there for readers and writers. (I particularly like this page of inspiring and useful resources from the TLC.) Yet it’s also easy to see how quickly one can feel overwhelmed by the wealth of stuff out there – as though you’re being offered dozens of ice creams all at once and you really must consume them all now because a) they all look delicious, b) it would be rude to refuse and c) they’re all melting! Take it easy. Slow down. Remember that priority writing project. Focus on that in the time you have available to you. The digital ice creams can melt. And if you do ever fancy one, know that the van’s only ever a click away…
Writers may also have worries about the publishing business. Will their favourite indie presses make it through these difficult times? What about their go-to magazine/bookshop/writing organization/literary event? What of that short story which was accepted months ago for an anthology. Will it ever be in print? What will publishers, and hence agents, be looking for in novels that come to them during lockdown? Is there still a market for dystopian fiction or has everyone had enough of dystopian-like living? These are all very real concerns. I won’t cover them here, but for now I’ll offer this nugget of comfort from Helen Corner-Bryant of Cornerstones Literary Consultancy (from within the latest issue of Writing Magazine): “The good news is that publishing tends to be robust in hard times.” Basically, people will always need books and storytellers. Long-term, the publishing business will survive.
Also, as well as these particular kinds of overwhelm and specific bookish worries, there may also be generalized (or specific) anxiety to do with the pandemic that will come and go as it pleases. There may be days when we might feel too worried to do anything but deal with the essentials of life. There may be other days when we miss loved ones so much that it hurts and we can’t do anything but cry. And that’s okay. It’s understandable. Go easy on yourself. Do what you have to do in order to keep on keeping on. If you simply don’t feel like writing, or simply can’t write, or don’t want to submit anything because a possible rejection may hurt too much, that’s okay. The writing, and your courage, will return. And in the meantime, your subconscious goes on writing for you… processing all those feelings and fears and small moments of wonder and natural beauty and love and kindness and friendship… storing it up for future writing projects.
You are the creator of your unique writing life. And as every creator knows, rarely is the creative process free of obstacles or periods of hardship. The main thing is to approach it with an open mind, flexibility, and the willingness to acknowledge hurdles simply as bystanders to your patient, yet determined, efforts to overcome them.