This month marks two and a half years of shielding. So here is a blog post to celebrate!
In a strange way, it feels like something to be proud of: writing while shielding. Admittedly, I don’t know anyone else who has been shielding in the same way as I have been, but I know I’m not alone (as ironic as that feels to write.)
Let’s begin at the beginning.
When I came up with the idea for my first book, the story was almost fully formed, with a couple of problems for me to solve later down the line (important, I think, to leave a little mystery).
I wrote that novel during the first lockdown, in the Spring – Summer of 2020. As a shielder, I spent many hours each day frantically chasing supermarket delivery orders for us, and for my grandparents. Finding an available slot felt like an Olympic sport: repeatedly ‘Refreshing’ each page multiple times, only to be met with the same fully-booked grid staring back at me, me, sitting there terrified to blink in case I missed an opportunity… all for a food delivery. If there was ever a shortcut to going mad at the computer, this was it!
Unfortunately, because of chronic asthma (and other health stuff) I’ve had to continue shielding.
As for so many people, it’s been two and a half years of not going out, not seeing family or friends (other than some lovely visits to my grandparents’ garden), relying on weekly food deliveries (thankfully easier to book now!), and looking forward to the thrill of logging onto Zoom for my social life.
Writing while shielding is a feature for another day (writers are naturally self-isolating, after all) – but as a freelance journalist used to working from home already, I assumed it wouldn’t be too different from my normal routine.
I was right, and I was wrong.
In many ways, I continue to be grateful for the escapist benefits of writing, both fiction and journalism. Writing has been the best companion. But it is an intense one too. I’m sure everyone knows the strange feeling of beginning to reply to an email, hoping to get it done in two simple sentences, but for some unfathomable reason, it turns into a twenty-minute battle with the keyboard as you phrase and rephrase the same point over and over…? When that happens, the obvious solution is to get some distance and to return a bit later, relieved from whatever it was that was preventing your words from flowing freely.
Writing while shielding does not allow much distance from your work – physically or mentally. After a quick spin around the garden, your laptop is still warm and waiting for your return. So the pressure is on: to create something incredible out of this quagmire of isolation – for yourself, as much as your imagined reader.
I was so excited to submit my first book to my brilliant agent and to get started on what I am fondly referring to as Book Two.
I had an idea already. New characters had started introducing themselves in quiet moments, and I was lured by the promise of a fresh start with a different protagonist, plot, themes. I was giddy, enchanted by that loved-up feeling of a new beginning (although that could have been the shielding talking. Giddiness as a by-product of claustrophobia is my only frequent visitor.)
Book Two was panning out quite well, slightly slower than before, but that’s understandable (did I mention I’m shielding? Not leaving the house, other than for the occasional visit to a lovely local garden or park? A new, sedate pace of writing was bound to happen!)
After about 45,000 words, however, complete panic took over.
Was I being foolish for even thinking about ‘Book Two’ before my first novel has found a happy home with a publisher?
Of course not. Writers write, right?!
But this writer (like many) also feels quite numb. Shielding was starting to take its toll. Each day is (still is) the same, no matter how much I try to shake up meal times. I am starved of stimulation. And the pressure I have put on myself to try and write my way out – to create a world through writing so fantastic that I’m reassured that my old life has returned – does not help.
Once, in desperation, I tried to convince myself that I was on a writers’ retreat – at home. It felt equal parts hilarious and pathetic at the time, but I like to think that curious fortnight helped.
So, instead of sleeping on the sofa again in a bid to feel like I’m staying somewhere different, I’ve learned to go easy, and try a bit of writerly-philosophy on for size.
I attempt a writing / reading routine. I try to start each day with about 20 minutes reading (something I would always reserve for the evenings) as I find it helps me relax into the day. Obviously it’s not possible every single morning but I do try and do this at least three days a week.
I accept the fact that I might only manage to write 300 novel words in a day (totally disproportionate to the number of hours I spend staring at the screen, by the way.) If the book is not taking shape in the way I need it to (if the words aren’t behaving themselves!) then I’ll quickly switch to journalism, and plunge into researching my new and exciting feature (or, ahem, I might try and write a blog about writing while shielding.)
Sometimes, I know I’m going to find it hard to concentrate on reading a book. This is not a great asset for a writer to lose, the unrivalled focus on reading and writing! But I know I can switch it up, and move into the happy realms of reading poetry, or a screenplay, or enjoy some time scrolling through newspaper archives. Pretty soon, it doesn’t even feel like I’m reading-reading, it feels almost like I’m doing something else entirely, so much so that I almost feel like I’ve done something worthwhile, something I can tell someone about, a story to share! At last! Zoom, hit me up!
I have realised that chasing inspiration means it’s going to hide with greater ingenuity. Some days, I know if I were to hear a great starting point for a story, my mind might not be ready to receive it. I could be letting lots of brilliant ideas go just because I’m feeling a bit flat. I let my mind go even flatter, into total relaxation mode for a bit: I read lots, I listen to music, I look at books (of paintings and photography), or I watch a good film, before goading my imagination back into feeling receptive for any manner of ideas that might turn into something interesting, and go from there. (Although, that being said, while shielding, something so incredibly, incredibly bizarre happened – and I was able to take inspiration from it for my second book! It represented something of a solution to a problem I had with the plot, and it fitted in eerily well, thematically. Life can be stranger than fiction, can’t it? And art can imitate art too.)
Even the act of remembering the feeling of being creative can be slightly depressing. I’m sure lots of writers will look at their past work and think ‘How on earth did I manage to write that? I can’t even piece together a paragraph today, let alone a chapter!’ So, I try not to make comparisons, even with myself (again, a helpful exercise particularly when I find an old short story of mine and cringe – what was I thinking with that plot?!)
Every feeling is enormous in isolation. And remembering that provides helpful perspective.
I worry I’ve become a bore – congratulations if you’ve made it this far in the blog post!
But I know that a good story (heard, read, or created) can be so powerful.
And that is what I have tried to hold on to.
To enjoy the ride of the rollercoaster of every week.
Some days will be fine, other days will be indescribably… weird.
It has been such a strange experience: writing two books while shielding for over two years.
At the moment, I’m trying to do some third-round edits.
Did I say third-round edits?
Or is that the third book calling?
I’ll let you know!
In the meantime, see you on Zoom. Or hopefully in a nice garden somewhere!