My ‘day job’ is copyediting. In some ways, right now is the perfect time to be an editor. Work might be coming in a little more slowly, but I don’t get stressed at the idea of being home alone for days and weeks on end because I do it all the time. I don’t rely on having to go to work because everything I do is virtual. Clients can still send me editing and I can still do it. They have more thinking time than they’re used to, so even if it’s not large amounts, I’m getting regular work – even from clients I haven’t heard from in ages. I recognise and am grateful to be one of a handful of people for who this isn’t the end of days, business-wise.
But with lockdown has also come the idea that as well as #wfh, you should be taking the time to explore something new, or do the things you wouldn’t normally have the time or inclination for. All over the internet, Netflix bingeing is being cast aside as people form choirs, perform comedy sketches, knit, bake, redecorate, get their sewing machines out, paint, draw, and read that book they haven’t had time to read all year. And I hopped on that bandwagon at the first sign of lockdown, too. ‘Oooo what a great opportunity to get my book written,’ I said, shortly before I realised it might just be the worst time ever.
The schools shut. The shops shut. The cafes shut. Procuring toilet roll and queuing for bread turned me into a cold war Russian housewife. As each facet of normal life was removed and replaced by the vacuousness of staying home and doing nothing, I found it more and more difficult to get started. And, as Twitter and Insta flooded with creative productivity, the guilt of being a writer of novels and not actually writing a novel grew daily. In fact, last week, my performance anxiety was only outshone by my record levels of procrastination.
Because boy, did I procrastinate. Each day, I asked myself, really, who the hell can write a book now? It’s hard enough on the average day. And then I went off and searched the internet for wallpaper or cleaned the bathroom or answered 14,000 WhatsApp messages. One day, the only thing I did all day was clean my laptop screen so I could see Netflix better. I tried to be better. I know there will be writers out there who churn out 1000 words a day NO MATTER WHAT and say it’s the only way, but forcing myself to sit and write didn’t work for me. It never really has.
For starters, I need stimulation to get myself into the zone – and lots of it. Months of it. I’m not a writer who meticulously plots out a novel before they begin. I collect my ideas from the outside world as they happen: from travelling, conversations, observations and interactions; and somehow, that gets translated in characters or a scenes I can begin to tease a story from. I do not get ideas by staring at the same four walls of my house, homeschooling, cleaning, cooking, worrying about running out of toilet roll and missing my mum. I did not seem to have ‘loads of time with nowhere to be and no one to see’; in fact between fielding WhatsApp messages, Zoom, FaceTime and HouseParty calls, reading and watching endless news cycles about Coronavirus and feeding/entertaining/acting as life coach/personal trainer/teacher/housemaid/cook/IT helpdesk to various other members of my household, I had arguably less time than ever.
And I was never on my own. Gone were the days where the big man went off to work and the little man went off to school and I had hours of glorious alone time to stare into space and bounce my ideas off the walls without any interruption. Before three weeks ago, if I wanted to write in a cafe, I could. If I wanted to write in my bed, I could do that to. For as little or as much time as suited me. If I wanted to eat at 3pm, or 11am, or skip food altogether because I was on a roll and didn’t want to stop, there was no one asking me what time lunch was, or if they could watch TV, or call their friends, or did I feed the cats yet, or have I seen the stapler. And I don’t begrudge my family for the interruptions. They don’t understand that to create a world I have to be inside it, really in it, and not get turfed out until I am good and ready. And on a normal day, I wouldn’t ever ask them to.
So, I gave up trying. I resigned myself to the fact that life was going to be relentlessly boring. And along with half the population, I started going running as a substitute for pretty much everything else. Just half an hour, three times a week. At first I hated it; I’ve never been a runner, I’ve never seen the point and just think it’s fast tracking my knees to hell.
But something changed while I was out the third or fourth time. I realised that, in lieu of my normal life, those 30 minutes of physical agony were the glorious, inspirational answer. I discovered that pounding the pathway by the river first thing while everyone else was still finishing up breakfast or checking their emails, I was on my own and able to inhabit a world of my own creation: my novel. I couldn’t write it while I ran – I’m not that bloody talented – but I did fix a micro-problem I’d been stuck on that meant I dashed off 2000 words in a few hours as soon as I got back; and the next run, I had my first solid vision for how the book might end – or at least where it might end up. Since then, each run has produced a new little seedling of an idea which I’ve come home and written down. And now – ten days into this new regime and six thousand words later, I’m feeling like I might actually be able to do this.
I’m not setting any goals. I’m not going to sit here and say I’ll be finished the first draft by the time lockdown is over. Mainly because I have no idea how long that is in days or weeks and I don’t want to get depressed about being socially isolated for the amount of time it takes me to write a whole book. Because writing a book takes a LONG TIME and I really don’t want us all to be locked up that long.
As a creative person, though, I reckon any output is better than none. And I also believe that creativity feeds creativity. Doing something, even if it’s small, nourishes you and encourages you to keep at it, do more, be better. And if you can’t get ideas from the outside for whatever reason, then inside is where the inspiration has to come from. It’s hard, for sure. But it is possible. And when I look back on this time and think about how I wrote a book – or part of a book – while we waited for the world to reboot, I’ll remember how creativity kept me sane and active and gave me a place of my own to escape to, and I will be proud of whatever little (or lot) I managed to accomplish.