Until 8 April, Unsung Stories are crowdfunding a new anthology called Out of the Darkness. The theme of the anthology is mental health – with contributions from writers like Alison Moore, Jenn Ashworth, Tim Major, Aliya Whiteley and Simon Bestwick – and all royalties and my editor’s fees are being donated to charity Together for Mental Wellbeing. The Kickstarter campaign has meant that my attention has been turned towards mental health more than usual, and at the same time the topic is frequently in the news, as the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic are felt. Everyone has struggled to cope during the lockdowns, and often during the more ‘open’ periods in between, and writers are no exception.
When the first UK lockdown was announced in March 2020, I saw several comments online about all the free time we’d have – and in particular (given the circles I move in) the amount of time to write. The everyday distractions of the outside world would be behind lock and key, and we’d finally all have time to ourselves, to let our imaginations run riot and our pens (or keyboards) flow freely. We’d have so much time, so the supposition went, that there would be a flood of new novels and short stories once the lockdown was lifted. I almost believed it myself.
I’m not sure when the narrative changed, or who first broke the silence. Whoever it was, someone must have stuck their head above the parapet and admitted that they weren’t using the time to write at all. They wanted to, but it wasn’t happening. For some, the words simply weren’t flowing – creativity feeds on stimulus, and there were only so many circuits we could run around the hamster wheel before the ideas started to run dry. For many of us, this was further compounded by the fact that we had suddenly and without warning inherited new responsibilities: home-schooling, or teaching via Zoom call, or working from a makeshift office at the kitchen table. There were still those who found they had so much time on their hands, but the stories I was hearing online were more about stress, and anxiety, and frustration – and most of all, exhaustion. If writing requires a room of one’s own, then many of us found we were suddenly sharing that room with our families – and the first thing to slide was the writing.
I wanted to see whether that summed up everyone’s experience, or if there were any lessons we could learn from the creative logjam that was lockdown. I asked James Everington, author of The Quarantined City, if he’d managed to do much writing during this real-life pandemic. “I got a little writing done during lockdown,” he replied, “but I’ve no idea whether it was good writing or not. Anything I got written was done in fits and starts, just whenever I could grab time, so it was all very sporadic and uneven.”
The response from Tiffani Angus, author of Threading the Labyrinth, was eerily similar. “Short answer: no,” Tiffani said.
“Longer answer: a year ago this week we shifted to online teaching, and the job that had already started to eat my life completely finished the job with some fava beans and a nice chianti. It isn’t work from home so much as now living at work, with no commute time during which to read or prepare for a day on campus. Combine that with the fact that most writers/creative types tend towards introspection and sensitivity, and university students have their own anxieties, the pandemic exacerbated the situation and I became a ‘front line mental health’ worker for many of my writing students. This past year has left me with no brain space to just sit and think for five minutes.”
The lack of thinking time – and space – seemed to be key to the struggle many writers were facing. From my own experience, I knew that juggling home-schooling young children and trying to maintain a freelance career put enormous pressures on my time. So I was surprised by the response that Tim Major, author of Snakeskins and Hope Island, gave to my question:
“I did – in fact, despite the need to home-school two young children, I spent more hours writing in 2020 than in any other year! My immediate response to the first lockdown was to read intensely (chunky classics I’d previously neglected) and to throw myself into writing whenever I had free hours. In retrospect, I was manic and desperate to distract myself from the real world. When that initial rush wore off, I was lucky that I had a commissioned novel to write, which kept me returning to my desk even when the motivation was harder to find.”
He went on to explain, though, that it proved impossible to sustain:
“The lockdown that began in January 2021 was another matter entirely – like many people, my stamina was far lower, and my resilience almost zero; the intensity of home-schooling and entertaining two young kids in the winter months was immensely draining. It didn’t help that I was between writing projects, and therefore had nothing to plod along with, adding words when I could. I didn’t write a single word of fiction until mid-March.”
As it turned out, Tim’s experience shared a lot of similarities with my own – and with those of many writers, especially writers with young children:
“My wife and I both work freelance,” Tim continued, “and have shared childcare for years, and as our youngest child has only just started primary school, we only regained a ‘normal’ amount of working hours very recently. During lockdown we split the day directly down the middle, each working for half of it and with home-schooling and childcare comprising the rest of the day. I was able to get a fair amount of work done in my sessions, often including an hour of writing – though afternoon sessions were more difficult, when my energy had already been sapped by the kids. Even though I had time in which I might have written, I had no access to the mindset that would allow it.”
James Everington summed it up:
“The main issue was the school closures, and having to juggle both a day job and home-schooling/childcare, and dealing with the mental stresses this situation caused for everyone in the house. Even when I did manage to find thirty minutes to write, I was often too exhausted to do so.”
Tiffani Angus’s experience during lockdown was in many ways similar, despite the fact that her home situation was different. I asked her what particular challenges she faced:
“There was no alone time this past year. I don’t tend to be a ‘write every day’ type; I never have been. So I will use three-day weekends when my partner is away on a solo trip to be a hermit and pound out 20K of a WIP all in one fell swoop. But with us here in the house 24/7, that didn’t happen. The week-long writing retreat I was scheduled to go on last May was cancelled; we are still waiting to see if it’ll happen this May.”
Despite all these challenges, however, many writers have continued to work regardless. While my own productivity decreased during lockdown (two short stories written, one of which has found a home), I was partway through working on two anthologies, the first of which – Out of the Darkness – we’re crowdfunding at the moment. Since its theme was mental health, it felt more relevant than ever – and even with the stress and exhaustion of lockdown, it felt like I was still on topic.
I asked Tim Major what strategies he developed to help him write during lockdown:
“It was horrible, going without writing for the longest stretch since I began in earnest in 2012 – it was a longer hiatus than after each of my children were born. Having made writing such a fundamental part of my life, I felt I’d lost my identity. The final two weeks before schools reopened were the hardest in terms of mental health, but I found a ‘way back’ to writing by preparing outlines of novel after novel with the same mad intensity I’d had the previous March. Each synopsis represents a sort of promise to myself that the rest of the year can be filled with writing.”
Tiffani Angus, by contrast, struggled to find a way to write:
“No, didn’t develop any strategies because I honestly didn’t have the brain space. What time off I’ve had (a bit of leave last summer and over Christmas) ended up being just down time where I got to try to recover a bit from everything, but none of it was long enough or restorative enough to help me feel refreshed enough to do any writing. I’m desperately hoping for the retreat, or at least a weekend or two free over the summer where I won’t have to worry about showering or cooking or anything and can be selfish with my time. The other day, on one of my few weekend days off this semester, I opened the files for the novel I’ve been working on to figure out what is finished in it and what needs to get done: I wrote an outline of what is there to reacquaint myself with it, since it’s been so long since I worked on it.”
As for James Everington, he pared down his output to make the most of his limited time:
“I quickly realised that in the circumstances, there were two things it was now impossible to do: write to any kind of deadline where I’d be letting people down if I failed, and trying to write anything lengthier than a short story. So, I focused any writing time I did get on a short story at a time, written not for any specific submission calls or for any requests from editors, but just to keep my hand in. Of course, I hope to sharpen these stories up and submit them eventually, when the world is at least slightly more normal – or just less hectic – than it has been.”
While there have undoubtedly been exceptions to this trend, it seems clear that many writers have been struggling to find the time and energy to write during the pandemic. As the world we used to know begins to open up again – hopefully for good – we can only hope that it gets easier again to find inspiration and time to write. In the meantime, maybe the lessons we’ve learned during lockdown have made us more disciplined than before, and taught us new techniques for overcoming the dreaded writer’s block. One thing seems clear: for many writers, it’s been a long, hard road out of the darkness.
Out of the Darkness is crowdfunding now on Kickstarter. Featuring brand new stories by Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore, Tim Major, Aliya Whiteley, Simon Bestwick, Verity Holloway, Malcolm Devlin and many more, it aims to raise awareness and funds for mental health charity Together for Mental Wellbeing. The crowdfunding campaign closes on 8 April.
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