Writing (and not writing) in a time of Corvid-19

Image CDC PHIL royalty free.

Thanks to quarantine, many of us have been given the gift of more ‘free’ time than we have ever known.

When the lockdown was first announced, social media was awash with calls to see this ‘extra’ time as a bounty or opportunity.  It was time to learn the ukulele or Japanese, develop those washboard abs, or write that book every single person in the world has within them – prevented only by the absence of time. 

Lots of sites offering tutoring, support, ideas, editing and guidance to writers started generously offering loads of services for free. The world is in trouble and people wanted to help in the ways they could.

Indeed, initially, Twitter started glowing with word count achieved, five hundred words today, a thousand, five thousand this week.  Over just a couple of weeks though, those Tweets celebrating word count achievement seemed to diminish in number.  The voices of others started to appear much more frequently – people struggling to write, struggling to continue with WIP’s, to research or create new works.  Writers on Twitter (in particular @WritingCommunity and @AcademicChatter) wrote of the absence of will, or ideas and the presence of fatigue, anxiety, fear and grief.

I have a writing plan for this year. I wrote about it on my first post this year’s blog.  I intend to submit to a writing competition every month, and, post a writing process piece here on my blog.  I have enjoyed it so far and been energised by some of the personal challenges I set myself (sonnet writing, for example) and the deadlines required by competition guidelines.  It has been fun.

Competitions for April included one poetry competition which I submitted to very early in the month. I started two short stories – each with competition given themes, one with a target of 1500 words, the other of 3,000.

I love writing. As other writers know, it can feel like a delicious drug. I fall into the words I write about; I can see my characters, hear their words, smell their scent, know their flaws. I once saw it described as a writers playground, and this fits my own experience of creative writing.

One of my short story WIP’s (the 3k one) started strongly. I had to describe a tin box dug up in a garden and I could almost smell the soil and taste the leaf mould on my tongue.  If I closed my eyes, I could feel the curved edges of the box under my fingers. 

My second story had an unusual and bold first sentence. I had no idea where it was going – I had no plan, just the good opening line – so I was amused to see how it would pan out.  I tend to plot a rough arc, but for this story, I would travel where it took me. It promised a bit of an adventure.

Only twenty days further into the month and with deadlines for both looming, neither story has gone anywhere. All efforts to write have ended up in contrived, tortured rubbish. I am not sure I will have anything to submit to the competition and I feel all kinds of awful about this.

I feel lazy, sloppy, inadequate, frustrated, confused. All this time, when so many people are in much, much worse circumstances than I am, I am wasting this valuable ‘free’ time and proving that old ‘imposter syndrome’ is true – I am not a proper writer. Tweets evidence that I am certainly not alone. Some people are rocking their word count. I am full of respect and admiration for them, but there are many more (writers in particular – both academic and creative – I am not sure if this has resonance with other creative endeavours) who report feeling lost, with low energy, no motivation and significantly diminished creativity.

A few days ago, I saw a tweet from Thrive Manchester (@ThriveMcr – April 17 2020). Thrive Manchester is a charity established to facilitate positive mental and physical health in the people of Manchester.

“This is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Wherever we were on it a few months ago, everyone is now at the bottom – fundamental needs; physiological survival & emotional & physical safety. So we’re having difficulty with higher needs, feeling connected, motivated, fulfilled, positive”.

This was such a useful and helpful tweet.  It reminded me that as a society, we are actually operating in survival mode (the two bottom-most levels).

News stories over the past few days have discussed ‘survival’.  There was the terrible, heart breaking story of Rajesh Jaysaseelan who died after trying to hide his illness for fear of eviction.  He literally had no access to, or means to get, shelter, food and healthcare support.  It is clear he did his best to survive but for reasons of poverty and inequality, forcing him to exist at the bottom-most level of Maslow’s Hierarchy he had no access to resources to help him beat Corvid-19.

In other stories, the press has delighted in scoffing at celebrities and royals who live in mansions with pools, expansive gardens and the luxuries wealth affords. Walks around one’s estate or a live-in nanny quarantining with the family is hardly ‘survival’, they sneer.

I had not thought of myself as ‘surviving’. I am safe, I have food and shelter but what the tweet from @ThriveMcr made me think of is that whatever our situation we share the commonality of being concerned about survival – of society, of the people we love, of ourselves. Will we die? We are all in an actual existential threat of a greatness most of us could never conceive. We are experiencing multiple anxieties about the impact of Corvid-19 on the society we know. In the context of a global plague the familiar is becoming ever more unfamiliar. Uncertainty and fear may be soothed by physiological and safety needs being met, but they are not eradicated, and these feelings bubble and fizz just under the surface for all of us to some extent or other.

In that context it is not surprising that learning a new skill, writing our opus, becoming ripped or the many other ways we try to be a better version of ourselves seems somehow less important than maybe it once was.

Similarly, status and esteem as goals or life achievements – often hidden-but-there parts of writing for publication – seem now to have little currency or merit.

Of course, most of us would wish to have ‘self actualisation’ as our ultimate aim. Who would not want to become the best version of ourselves we can be? For writers, this usually (always?) involves actual writing – and more than that perhaps, having readers.

Amid Covid-19, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a reminder that in the context of such a huge individual and societal survival threat. it is not surprising that many of us are feeling wobbly! The Hierarchy has an inbuilt series of solutions towards the peak of the pyramid – including the need for friendship, intimacy, family and connection. Those arenas give the comfort I can take from and offer, and from which my word count will one day re-emerge. I hope it is soon, but it may not be, and that is fine too.

Many thanks to Thrive Manchester for the thought-provoking tweet.