How do you write creatively when you’re living through a global crisis? For the first month of 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? For almost five weeks, I did pretty much no creative writing. I merely did research in the evenings for my fourth novel.
However, I recently started writing again, thanks to a deadline. 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. 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.’ Doug Johnstone says, ‘the routine of writing has been what’s kept me going.’ Screenwriter Annalisa D’Innella says she realised that ‘writing was the key to my mental health so I just aimed for one hour a day. I cheered the hell up almost instantly.’
For many people, however, writing is difficult or impossible at the moment. They’re constantly caring for others or working around the clock. James Silvester says, ‘I’m struggling like never before. The complete absence of solitude is almost impossible to overcome.’ 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 speaking to other writers, the key tips to writing during lockdown seem to be as follows:
1.Try to set a routine, and carve out some time away from your other demands. For many, that means getting up at the crack of dawn. Erin Kelly says: ‘I leave the window open so the dawn wakes me up just after five, and I'm at my desk at six. Three hours' work before the kids get up.’ For others, afternoons work best. CL Taylor says, ‘I now write between 3pm and 7pm, having got home-schooling, exercise and lunch out of the way.’
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.’ Marnie Riches agrees: Turning social media off is essential. I've done it this weekend and managed to plough through 200 pages of light edits, after rewriting the first half of my manuscript.’
3. Don your ear defenders. I invested in a decent pair a while ago and they were worth every penny. CL Taylor says: ‘Noise cancelling headphones help me block out my family, delivery people knocking at the door and neighbours doing home improvements.’ 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.’ Mark Edwards’ advice is: ‘Buy your children lots of new video games and don’t let them into your office with a NERF gun while you’re trying to work.’
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.’ Lou Abercrombie has changed where she works (now at the bottom of the garden) and is focussing on ‘writing the bits I want to write, rather than ploughing through chapters that aren't coming to me yet.’
7. Lower your expectations and give yourself a break. It seems many of us were unable to write at the beginning of lockdown. Laura Shepherd-Robinson says, ‘I found the first few weeks hugely distracting and I felt very anxious. So I treated it as a holiday. Just put it to one side, read books, built Lego, watched films. Then I woke up one morning filled with the urge to go back to my book and have been writing ever since.’ 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.