How do you write creatively when you’re living through a global crisis? For much of the first lockdown it seemed that – for me at least – the answer was ‘you can’t’. Trying to fit my law work around home-schooling two young children meant I had no time and no headspace for writing. It wasn’t just that either: it was a feeling that, in the midst of all this suffering and chaos, what on earth would be the point?
However, an imminent deadline meant I had to pull myself together. At the beginning, it seemed impossible and overwhelming. I had too much work, I had two children shouting downstairs, I couldn’t possibly do it. Except that I had to do it. I took a few afternoons off work. I turned the internet off to stop myself looking at breaking news and social media and constant messages. I went out running to clear my head. Every evening I continued working until late, keeping going on tea and adrenaline.
I’m so glad that I did. I had forgotten that I need to write – that it takes me out of the day-to-day and puts me in different place. It’s my way of thinking clearly, and keeping sane. I’m not alone in this. Writer Rowan Coleman says writing is, ‘the only thing I can do right now that feels normal, so I find even the tricky bits very relaxing.’
I love the historical research too - it reminds me that our current woes are a mere jot in centuries of human suffering. My fourth novel is set in Mussolini's Rome as the world hurtles towards war. Whatever difficulties we may be experiencing now, they are probably not as catastrophic as the trials of the Second World War.
For many people, however, writing is very difficult or even impossible at the moment. They’re constantly caring for others or working around the clock. And, as Will Dean says, ‘The low-level, constant underlying anxiety (with no reliable end date to give comfort) is not conducive to creativity.’
From my own experience and speaking to other writers, the key tips to writing during lockdown seem to be as follows:
1. Set a routine, and carve out some time away from your other demands. For some, that means getting up at the crack of dawn. For others, it means writing at evenings or weekends or at set times of day.
2. Shut off the internet. Or at least find an app like Self Control or Freedom that blocks certain sites. Abir Mukerjee says, ‘Set aside a few hours when you can keep distractions to a minimum. Switch off the phone and the internet and the Zoom, lock the kids in the basement and just write.’ I've left Twitter for the time being as just don't have time to do it all.
3. Don your ear defenders. I invested in a decent pair a while ago and they were worth every penny, allowing me to cancel out the sound of the children shouting downstairs and the the workmen drilling next door. Others prefer to listen to music or even white noise to put them in the writing zone.
4. Find diversions for the kids to keep them out of the room. The sign I stuck to my door begging my children to leave me alone had pretty much no effect. Canadian writer Elle Wild says, ‘I carve out a set time at end of school day and assign my kid a task, like painting, practicing music, or walking pup while I write. It’s tough. Just do what you can.’
5. Work in short bursts. Many use the Pomodoro technique, writing in twenty-minute bursts. Victoria Scott says, ‘I have young kids, so I'd snatch 20 minutes while they were eating, or playing outside, or watching TV. Setting a timer for 20 mins seems to help, too.’
6. Find ways to motivate yourself. Angela Clarke breaks her calendar days into four-hour blocks, and shades in what she’s done. ‘2 hours worth and I’m happy. 4 and I’m thrilled.’
7. Lower your expectations and give yourself a break. These are very tough times. Laura Wilson says, ‘Manage your expectations - if you can only do half, or even a quarter, of your normal word count, so be it.’
8. Go outside, walk, run, jump, dance. I go running (not very fast) four or five times a week. Other writers go walking, cycling, or just spend time outside. I think it’s probably essential for mental well-being in general but it makes a big difference to my writing.
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. But if you have any top tips, I’d love to hear them.
Featured imaged - Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of Creation.