Writing is hard at the best of times. When the world is in the middle of a pandemic, it almost feels impossible.
You might sit down to write, willing the words to come from your keyboard, and find nothing comes out. Thoughts of other worlds are replaced by brain-weasels and the genuine fears of job loss, lack of income and being alone.
I’ve been in self-isolation for three weeks now, like many of you only exiting from my vampire den to exercise, sometimes not going outside for days at a time. Like you, I’ve been spending too much time on my phone, scrolling through news feeds and social media for hours.
In doing so, I’ve found that there are a lot of very unhelpful memes running around the internet at the moment, implying that all of us ought to use our ‘down-time’ to write King Lear or come up with some form of scientific theory to revolutionise toilet paper distribution.
I finished editing my novel last week and I’ve been at a loose end figuring out what to do with myself. Shouldn’t I be moving onto the next project? Shouldn’t I be writing a short story? Shouldn’t I be entering competitions and winning awards?
Without my strict exercise regime to manage my anxiety, I can feel all these pressures bubbling under the surface. Some days are better than others.
In the past, this anxiety has often manifested itself in the need to be continuously busy, to be continually striving to get ahead, to get somewhere, to be published. This idea of always needing to write comes from a perspective of shame – if I’m not doing something, who am I?
The last few years has taught me this: although writing makes up an enormous part of who I am, it’s not my entire identity.
Success isn’t a matter of churning out words like a metaphorical meat-grinder. Quality matters over quantity.
Getting words on a page and bashing out a novel is a brilliant way to learn how to write a novel. But processing emotion and understanding your place in the world is also essential to creative writing. You can’t write full characters if you don’t understand your own feelings.
If you’re feeling down, helpless, tired, stressed, anxious, in this time of COVID-19, know you’re not alone. I’ve felt all those emotions in the last month.
Having a project to work on is helpful, but if it’s causing you distress, it’s okay to put it down and take time for self-care. There’s a balance to working hard. I’m not one for excuses or procrastinating. But you know where the line is, when things get too difficult and you feel overwhelmed. Even more so, if you’re managing kids around the house, or you’ve found yourself without work and struggling to get by. I acknowledge I’m in a lucky position – with a steady job, a stable residence and no kids, I don’t have the additional pressures that many people have.
What to do instead?
Take some time to do things you enjoy. Pure, no-strings attached enjoyment, not pseudo-work.
I’ve been playing video games and digging into the marvellous Control. I’ve been ploughing through my TBR pile. I’ve been sewing a sailor dress to spend less time on screens. I’ve started cleaning out my office, shredding a lot of old papers, digitising anything I can. I’ve been binge watching TV. And I’ve been continuing to play Call of Cthulhu with a few great friends; despite the distance, we’re having fun through video calls. These are all things that make me happy.
I used to feel guilty whenever I was doing something outside of achieving my ‘goals’. Now, I realise that I learn indirectly about writing through all these things – video games, TV, books, roleplaying games, and revising old notes.
I’ve also limited my consumption of news to a few trusted sources and check them once or twice a day. I’ve been putting my phone into focus mode, where I can block off social media apps for both work and me time. Where I can, I’m reading paper books, although with the libraries closed this is more difficult.
The key to this is acceptance. I used to not be okay with doing nothing. Now I know it’s a beneficial part of refreshing myself as a creative person. You can’t be on all the time.
So, from a formerly strung out anxious beastie workaholic to you, it’s okay not to write.