Writing in Isolation: How a Residency in Brussels Prepared Me for Covid-times

2020. The year it all went pear-shaped, and the writing world was largely split between those who were struggling to find the headspace to engage with a single word, and those who were churning out chapters like the world was about to end. Which, let’s face it, it still might.

Notebook, pen, laptop and coffee mug on a kitchen table

I’ve already talked a bit about productivity during lockdown, and about the difference between solitude and isolation. But I want to come back to it: this idea of the writer in a lonely garret, probably wearing fingerless gloves and gnawing on a hunk of stale bread.

What does it mean to write in isolation?

At the end of 2019, I spent a month in Brussels. This was part of a residency organised between Belgian organisation Passa Porta and the National Centre for Writing, based in Norwich. I got to stay in a gorgeous apartment in the city centre, just up the road from the famous Grand-Place, and within spitting distance of Place Sainte-Catherine.

It was a gorgeous place to spend a month, and I had one of the nicest writing rooms I’ve ever experienced (vying for first place only with my little cabin in the woods at MacDowell).

Katie sitting at a desk in a light airy room in a Brussels apartment, with shelves of books behind her

And yet I felt lonely.

At first, I didn’t really notice. I was too wrapped up in reading, writing and editing poetry to pay much attention to the warning signs my body was giving me: insomnia, restlessness, overly vivid dreams that left me feeling like I hadn’t slept at all, shallow breathing, and a craving for salt-rich meals I didn’t have to cook but could just pick at, constantly.

This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced some sort of anxiety, so I knew what these symptoms meant. The trouble was that I just didn’t think I felt anxious. It took me until the end of the third week to work out that was what this was: an anxiety born of loneliness.

By that time, I’d already started going for long walks in Brussels’ many parks. At first, I felt guilty for bunking off from poetry, but the more I did it, the more I made myself acknowledge that this was actually a vital part of my writing process in that city: a way of reconnecting with nature and getting out of my own head – something as important for writing as it is for my own mental health.

It was November, and the trees were a flourish of reds and golds. There were a lot of those cold crisp days covered by endless blue skies, which always feel as though they’re pulled straight out of an autumnal picture book. I started taking a book with me to read on benches. I took poems to edit outside.

An avenue of autumnal trees in a Brussels park

I won’t say that these walks were a cure-all, because they weren’t. I was still lonely. I didn’t realise how lonely till I got back to London and met up with a friend for coffee a couple of hours after getting off the Eurostar; when I saw him in the coffee shop and gave him a hello hug, I realised I was shaking and on the edge of tears at realising I was back with familiar faces. I think it was a precursor to knowing I’d get to see my family the following day.

Since coming home, I’ve learned that I’m not the only person to have experienced this while on that particular residency. US writer Lauren Russel wrote her post-residency open letter about that feeling of aloneness in a foreign place. Olivia Sudjic published Exposure: a long personal essay that begins with her recounting her loneliness while staying in that very apartment in Brussels.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing – it’s just something I wasn’t prepared for. All the previous residencies I’d done had involved a group of people being in residence somewhere together, and suddenly finding yourself on your own in a foreign city – especially one you’re only in temporarily – is a big thing.

(I should mention here that all the staff at Passa Porta were utterly lovely, and very welcoming; they just all had their own jobs to be getting on with. I also met up with a couple of friends while I was in Brussels, and these few occasions were probably the saving grace of my sanity!)

I learned a lot about myself during this residency, and some of the things I learned have helped me over the past six months, as so many of us have had to negotiate a whole new type of isolation.

Isolated writing in the time of coronavirus:

Back near the start of lockdown, I wrote a blog post about how I was struggling to write. There were a number of things going on there (including jet lag and some sort of illness that may or may not have been Covid) – but there was also enforced isolation. At one point, I realised it had been over two months since I’d touched another human being.

And yes, I felt anxious. Of course I did – there was a deadly pandemic sweeping across the globe and everything was turning upside down. Vivid dreams seemed to be affecting people across the country, and there were days when I couldn’t remember whether something had really happened or if I had only dreamed it. I had insomnia. I felt restless. Everything about my body felt arhythmic and reactive. With the anxiety came some of the worst period pains I’d ever experienced.

But unlike in Brussels, it didn’t grind me down. Perhaps it was because what was affecting me was so definitely external, and something everyone was facing across the country, but this time, my anxiety felt distant. As though a separate part of my mind were looking down on my body, subjecting it to scientific observations. It was as though the whole country were sitting an exam, and I was one of the few people who had revised for it.

Laptop on a round blue metal table in a garden shed, looking out over a sunny garden

Two of the first things I did during lockdown, after I’d got over the worst of my maybe-Covid illness, were to clear my writing desk and reorganise my garden shed. (My neighbour calls it a summerhouse, but personally I’m not sure I spent enough money on it for it to have such a fancy name.)

Previously, I’d always worked at my kitchen table, but my kitchen chairs aren’t that comfy for sustained seating, and I’d learned from Brussels that it was important for me to vary up my writing space. Denied the possibility of writing in cafes (my usual go-to when I get fed up of being in one space) or going on any of the residencies I had planned for the rest of 2020, I created four separate writing zones: my kitchen table; my desk; my garden shed / summerhouse; and my sofa.

Like a lot of the rest of the country using their government-allotted exercise time, I went for walks. As in Brussels, I paid attention to the world around me. Gradually, I started to find myself writing.

Brussels also taught me about the need to spend time with friends, and the need to spend time think about things other than writing. Among other things, I’m now part of a regular Zoom quiz group, which I think would have been an amazing thing to have had during my Brussels residency.

As the months have progressed, the lockdown anxiety hasn’t really gone away, but I’ve been able to watch it as though from a distance. I can keep one eye on it, while focusing the rest of my attention on writing.

straight road leading away over the horizon - long grass on either side and a blue sky overhead

A bit like my walks around the park in Brussels, this isn’t to say that any of this is a cure-all. I don’t believe that all you have to do is reorganise your space, take part in a Zoom quiz and go for walks, and then suddenly you’ll have no issues with anxiety, and / or be able to write an entire novel during lockdown. We all have our own challenges, and I can’t even begin to address the work-life balance that has come into play for families working from home.

But for me, building on what I learned through my residency in Brussels, this has worked. At least so far. As for whether it will keep working as the seasons change and we’re threatened by more local lockdowns? Well, I’ll just have to wait and see.

4 Comments

  1. Your descriptions of the loneliness you experienced during your residency in Brussels reminded me SO much of how I felt while on a research fellowship at Monticello in Virginia. Similarly, everyone there was lovely but they just had their own projects/lives to be getting on with. I do think experiences like that really make you realize how important ‘normal’ social interactions are (having a coffee with a friend, getting a drink after work etc.). We sort of don’t realize how important they are until they’re gone – which I think is what so many felt during lockdown!

    It’s nice to read about some of strategies you’ve developed to work through that loneliness. As you said, everyone is different but always useful to get tips like this! Hope you’re having a good week. I always look forward to reading your blogs!

    • Thank you so much Carly! I’ve been wanting to write about my Brussels residency for a while, but I didn’t know how to frame it. I didn’t want to write about it as a negative experience, because I had some wonderful times there, and wrote some poems I’m really proud of, but I couldn’t really talk about it without mentioning the loneliness either. It’s such a weird thing, isn’t it, not being able to meet up with people casually? Also writer in residence at an organisation is such an odd position – kind of half in and half out of the stream of things. Hope you’re doing ok, and managing to write during all of this. x

    • Thanks Kathy! I think it’s something to do with enforced versus self-selected isolation that makes a difference. Though I’m glad you’ve managed to adjust. I’ll never cease to be amazed at the human capacity to adapt to new circumstances. And thank you – hope your writing’s going well as well!

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