Writing in Lockdown: challenges met, challenges missed

Image by GraphicMama-team from Pixabay

To begin with, I thought writing in lockdown was going to be a doddle. My normal working life was sitting alone for hours alone staring at a computer screen. Then there were those bursts of high energy word-cookery. What would change?

Actually, I was even crazier than that. Staying home and not seeing people, I thought, would give me oodles of time to complete the umpty-um projects on my 2020 schedule. Maybe this was the year I completed three books, cleared out the study, got to grips with social media and started exercising regularly.

Um – no.

The Big Freeze

snow in March 2016What actually happened was that I froze. Pretty much immediately. And completely. Could hardly do a thing.

It was a nasty shock. I was ashamed and a bit scared. At the time, I didn’t tell anyone.

The house got more and more of a tip. I started things I didn’t finish. But for a while I was self-isolating. So nobody knew.

That stage didn’t last. But struggling out of it took me time. And, from things I have been hearing, I’m not alone. Writing in lockdown can be harder than you’d think.

With the prospect of more lockdown-type stuff coming, I thought I’d chart my progress, for anyone in a similar condition.

There’s a load of Advice for Writers on the Internet. But they all set me tasks I couldn’t manage. What I needed was a bridge out of the Ice Palace. Then to travel at my own pace.

But first I had to work out what was holding me back.

Lockdown Challenge 1 – House Arrest?

At its simplest, staying indoors is quite different when someone makes you do it. I got incredibly restless. I prowled the house like something caged.

What’s more, caging an animal has always been one of my big horrors. I wept over the guinea pigs and hamsters my primary school friends loved. Taking me to a zoo was an experience nobody repeated, ever.

Essentially, when I write, I nest. Writing in lockdown, my subconscious was constantly trying to make a break for it. Instead of concentrating on the words, I spent hours staring out of the window. Into an empty street, for the most part.

Solution? I didn’t find one. Though staying away from caffeine reduced the symptoms a bit. Any advice gratefully received.

Lockdown Challenge 2 – Here Be Dragons

Oh, that overused word unprecedented. 

I’ve been in places and situations that were new to me before. But never one where nobody at all had a reliable map, at least in outline. Politicians and pundits bleating about how unprecedented it all was just made me want to kill.

And, of course, the old analytical brain kept sifting and analysing and synthesising every parallel I could think of. OK, it drew blank after blank. But I couldn’t distract it from its obsessive path seeking. Made me feel helpless.

Image by FotoRieth from Pixabay

Solution? Clearly a little therapeutic assassination was not on the cards. (Though maybe I could write that murder mystery now.)

Cutting the pundits and politicians out of my life definitely improved it. It also saved some of the crockery I might otherwise have flung at the radio. But it was very, very hard to do and even now I can’t give up the News completely.

Lockdown Challenge 3 – Creativity Struggles

The worst thing of all, from my point of view – that busy left brain crowded out every creative idea, I had. I tried. But I just couldn’t concentrate

I was writing a novella for our Libertà Beach Hut anthology and it was due imminently. Yet whenever I sat down to write, I would flip into thinking about something else the moment I sat back to take stock.

Even when my concentration improved a bit, I found myself writing short scenes, out of sequence. Some, enough, were for my Beach Hut story, Going Home? Phew! I had colleagues waiting for my story. Simply getting it done gave me the best feeling.

alchemy magic witchcraftI wasn’t concentrating on one single story, even then. One or two of those scenes pushing at me to come out of the fog and onto the page  were for the story after that. One other – a big one – was for a substantial long term project.

But some were about new people entirely. And yes, you’ve probably guessed it. They were in lockdown. Will I ever put that book together? Who knows!

Solution? Go with the flow. Writing in lockdown seems to have its own momentum.

Lockdown Challenge 4 – No ending

electronic benefitsLockdown had a terrible effect on my perception of time. I had no sense of sequence. The structure of my day was gone and, with it, all the priorities. Everything was equally urgent and could await mañana. Self-isolating, I drifted in hallucinatory stasis.

Yes, I knew it was barmy, even at the time. One of my first creative bursts was writing the diary of a man struggling to bounce himself out of that state, helped by a cat.

For the Companion Cat pretty swiftly imposed a structure on my day. Breakfast sachet at eight. Dreamies snack mid-morning. Top-up of kibble around one etc, etc. And reminded me pretty sharply to jump to it, when i began to drift.

The lockdown timetable lurched and frayed and dissolved and re-coalesced. Tom Kydd focused like iron. Bless him.

Jenny's Patio September 2020I usually plant seeds in the spring. This year was difficult because all garden centres had been closed. But I ordered on line, went a bit mad and planted morning glories, a forest of sweet peas, nasturtiums, night-scented stock and tobacco plants. Checking their minute growth  every morning well and truly fixed the progress of seasons.

And then writing in lockdown began to have, if not a timetable, a demonstrable measure of momentum. It was slowly moving forward and my writing with it.

By summer we calculated that I had 18 species of plants in possibly the smallest patio in England. It made me very happy.

Solution? Find markers of time that are outside your control. Cats work particularly well in this regard.

Writing in Lockdown to Come

Writing energy, happy writerAnd then there were friends. I might have been under house arrest for a while but I was never in solitary confinement.

The regular phone calls, the occasional updates, the surprise messages on social media, they all gave me steady orientation points when I needed them.

Whatever the coming Diktats from the government, I shall draw on these experiences to start me off writing in lockdown earlier and better.

But above all, I shall count on and be counted on by my friends. Blessings on their pointy little heads!

Sophie Weston Author


24 thoughts on “Writing in Lockdown: challenges met, challenges missed

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    I found the same. For the first weeks, I was glued to regular news slots or faffing about on Facebook. Animals wandering in deserted streets was a joyful distraction. I had to keep going on promotion actions but writing? Struggled to concentrate. Eventually I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, set a mental deadline to get first draft done and got going. A few days in the words began to come easier and quantity built. Life began to feel a little more normal.
    I was lucky living in a block of sheltered flats as I did see people and could have socially distanced face to face chats in the garden. That helped a lot.

  2. Sophie Post author

    Glad you found your way through, Liz.

    Concentration was the main problem, I think. I wonder how prisoners cope.

  3. Sue McDonagh

    It’s lovely to read an honest account like this about the effect the lockdown had and is still having, on the creative mind. I was lucky in the beginning, I had edits and a deadline and I was able to lose myself in that. I too planted seeds and followed their minute growth with daily attention. I was shielded and allowed myself a daily dog walk. The sun shone, and actually, apart from the global crisis, I was happy in my own little bubble.
    I’m finding it harder now to be creative. As the effects of the virus continue to impinge on our lives I’m mourning the loss of the spontaneous hug, the chat over coffee and the planning ahead. I started my fourth novel with enthusiasm only for it to crash and burn and to be re-written from all angles until I wondered whether I actually wanted to write it at all.
    We’re all learning about ourselves.
    I wonder what next year will tell us.

    1. Sophie Post author

      My first reply seems to have disappeared. (This is just to explain in case it pops up again.)

      I said I think Sue is right, we’re all learning a lot about ourselves since the lockdown. And I hope the book starts to behave. I’ve had one or two of those and often they turn out to be the best, in the end. Good luck.

  4. Melinda Hammond

    This resonates on so many levels for me, Sophie, thank you for putting it into words. I, too, thought Lockdown would mean more writing time (Hurrah!), but I lost my thinking time. The awful situation in the country – nay, all the awful things around the world – sent my brain into constant worry mode. It was okay when I was physically busy, but trying to write? The “what if?” creativity that used to produce the new scenarios for a book now threw up real-life scenes. I was worrying about things I couldn’t change, things that might never happen. It took a while to get that under control and push myself into writing. I scolded myself, reminding myself that the world needs escapist, feel-good stories & romance more than ever now. Did it work? I have almost finished my book, so my editor will tell me soon enough.

    So pleased you finished “Going Home?” and I can’t wait for your next super creation to be finished!

    1. Sophie Post author

      Hugs, Melinda. You were one of those who helped me touch normality from time to time. So many, many thanks.

      And we certainly need some escapist literature and will do even more as we go into the dark of the year, I feel. Well, I will anyway. Looking forward to reading your next.

  5. Jan Jones

    I found the same. Couldn’t cope with uncertainty in the world as well as uncertainty in my wip. What helped me was editing and publishing my dust-gathering back-burner book ‘Different Rules’ which had the outstanding merit of being actually finished, so I didn’t have the worry about where it was going. I think the fact that it was set in the 1990s when technology was simpler and pandemics were nowhere in sight helped too!

  6. Louise Allen

    Concentration was my problem – I suspect that the sudden added time actually made it easier to drift and lose focus. I am lucky – in the country, plenty of space in the house and a garden and the quiet and the absence of traffic was wonderful. But that made for guilt as well, thinking about people jammed inside with children and no garden, anxious about relatives and so forth. Just back form 10 days staying in 3 different Landmark Trust properties (nothing says Social Distancing like a castle…) and found the crowds of people in towns and beauty spots positively disturbing. Glad to be back in our bubble!. The concentration hasn’t improved much though!

    1. Sophie Post author

      Best of luck with the concentration, Louise. Mine is variable but improving.

      Much look forward to the Recluse in the Castle book to come.

    2. Joanna

      I found that time drifted. Like Louise, I am lucky, in the country, plenty of space and garden. Agree about the guilt, too. Haven’t yet been off anywhere though a socially-distanced castle is a thought. Am probably going for drinks (socially-distanced, natch) in neighbours’ garden today, if the weather holds. No hugging, sadly, but a long chatty catch up.

      1. Sophie Post author

        Oh, I so miss the hugs! But just raising a normal glass with good friends and raised my spirits enormously whenever I’ve managed to do it, Joanna. Enjoy!

    1. Sophie Post author

      I can do crowds on the street and in shops, if I have to. Larger expanses, like airports (shudder) or demonstrations, not so much. I’m too short.

      And there is undoubtedly a story in my first venture out into the King’s Road after lockdown – not a soul in sight on either side of the road and notices torn off the windows of hastily shuttered shops bowling along the street like tumbleweed.

  7. sarigelin

    Very grateful that you shared your experience – so similar to my own loss of momentum, motivation and organisation during lockdown. And also to learn that the writing cannot be forced or cajoled, but it does peep out now and then. I suppose now we do have a roadmap, and the dragons have retreated to the further edges of it, but they’re not so very far away.
    Beth Elliott [ on WordPress as Sarigelin, which is another story]

  8. Sophie Post author

    Much sympathy, Beth. I’m with you. The dragons are going to be in the vicinity for a while yet, I suspect.

    Glad if this blog helped a bit.

  9. Rosie

    This rang many bells with me. I too thought I’d have no excuses not to get on with the WIP. Wrong! I write contemporary fiction, so my first dilemma was: do I bring C-19 into the story? But if I do, will anyone want to read it, and if I do, how will it all end? I’m now coming to the conclusion that my readers will have had enough of living in a dystopian world, and will be looking for joy and escapism.

    So I have made it back to the keyboard, and am advancing slowly – too often distracted by the new-found pleasures of baking, gardening and going for long walks. (To hug trees!)

    1. Sophie Post author

      I think a lot of people are wondering whether C-19 needs a spot in their story, Rosie. (Including me, for one of those shards of a book that has emerged unexpectedly.) I suspect that the trouble is, we don’t know how it ends yet.

      Good luck with sticking to the keyboard – and the tree-hugging.

  10. Juliet Archer

    Your blog was therapy in itself, Sophie, and it worked for my husband too! We could both relate to so many of your experiences, even while recognising differences.

    As you know, writing is my ‘downtime’ from a busy job with NHS 111 in London – enough said. During March and April, as A&Es emptied and GP surgeries closed their doors, 111 became the only access point for anyone with a health concern – unless they decided to call 999. We are now preparing for a winter like no other (daren’t use the word ‘unprecedented’!).

    Loved your reference to ‘word-cookery’. Tending the garden and the cat – plus cooking wondrous dishes courtesy of Hello Fresh! – have been steadying influences in our house. And there have been other benefits: along with the countless hours on Skype/Zoom with family and friends, we have spent more time shouting pleasantries at our elderly neighbours than in all the 20+ years we’ve lived next to them.

    When I have time to write, I light a scented candle, think fondly of that weekend writing retreat back in February and ‘will’ the words to flow.

    ‘Going Home’ – such an evocative title, even in these times. I look forward to reading it.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Glad if it helped at all, Juliet. (Husband, too. I was wondering whether my experiences were mirrored in other experiences than writing. Not surprised that they are.)

      I was thinking of you and the whole NHS111 operation and wondering whether you were drowning. Good to know that you’re still in there punching your weight, even if you are preparing for more and worse. Take care of you!

      I think we should promise ourselves another weekend writing retreat, someday, somehow, when the time is right. Am up for it whenever you say the word. Cheers me up, just to think of it out there, waiting…

  11. Melinda Hammond

    Juliet, I am in awe of those working in the NHS and any other “front line” services at the moment, and very grateful, too. I am glad to know you are finding some time for writing, it doesn’t some easy, does it, when the world around us is so troubled. Your scented candle sounds like a good idea – I use music, but might just light one of my candles, too – anything to help create the mood! Also, I can recommend any book or story by Sophie Weston, they are a wonderful way to escape the cares of the world for a while!

  12. Sophie Post author

    SO with you on those working in the NHS, including the first responders like NH111, Melinda.

    And a socially distanced curtsey to acknowledge your kind words on my books. Only because hugs are not being allowed, you understand.

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