A post about anxiety, cultivating creativity, and online resources for writers.

Three weeks ago, after passing through three major international airports in my attempt to get home from the Falkland Islands, I went into two-week self-isolation. Except that it doesn’t feel like three weeks ago. It feels like two days – and also about seventeen years. I don’t know whether anyone else has experienced this, but for me, time seems to be in limbo. The days just roll over one another, and it would be far too easy to spend them all staring into space, or at a screen, or at the birds in the garden. (NB: I have definitely done all of these things since lockdown began.)

Let’s start by saying that this wasn’t the post I was expecting to write for today. The one I’d scheduled was an update on how travelling for multiple consecutive weeks was affecting my writing process.

Obviously, I’m not currently travelling. I got about halfway through my epic trip (Argentina, Uruguay, Antarctica, South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, and Australia), before coming home. In fact, I was en route to Melbourne when Australia closed its borders, and I had to spend a frantic hour at Dubai airport, trying to persuade the Emirates airline staff to put me on a flight back to Manchester instead. (Luckily, they did – and when the lovely woman at the desk handed me the ticket, I actually burst into tears. But that’s another story.)

Aeroplane wing over the Falkland Islands

So now what?

Right now I should have been in the middle of a 3-week writing residency at the KSP Writers’ Centre, in Perth. Part of me wanted to host my own in-isolation residency at home. After all – I don’t have to go anywhere, and isn’t that one of the joys of a writing residency? But I’ve also been finding it difficult to focus over the past few weeks. Which begs the question:

Should I be using this lockdown time to write?

I’ve seen countless posts about this on twitter. People saying that the lockdown represents ‘ideal writing conditions’. People saying how much writing they’ve managed to accomplish now they’re not having to go to work. People commenting how they’re finding it impossible to write right now. People despairing that suddenly stories hold no interest for them any more, as how can fiction compete with our current reality? People clinging to stories and poems as lifelines.

In short: there is no right answer.

There was an excellent Anne Enright quotation doing the rounds on twitter a while ago, from an article in the Guardian:

‘Honestly, there is a lot to be said for tooling about all day, looking up recipes and not making them, not bothering to paint the living room and failing to write a novel. In the middle of the messy non-event called your mid-afternoon, you might get something – a thought to jot down, a good paragraph, a piece of gossip to text a pal. Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you. Try not to confuse the urge to get something done with the idea that you are useless. Try not to confuse the urge to contact someone with the thought that you are unloved. Do the thing or don’t do it. Either is fine.’

So let’s talk about solitude.

As writers, we often crave solitude. That time away from work colleagues or family or friends, where we can just be on our own, inside our own head, to write. Some of us travel hundreds of miles to go on residencies, just to get some of this solitude. Some of us usually find it in a public park, or in the middle of a crowded café.

Because solitude isn’t necessarily the same as being alone.

As Anne Enright says: ‘Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you.’ And solitude is a kind of boredom. It’s a state of mind that writers can spend years learning to cultivate. It isn’t just sitting on your own at a desk, with nothing else you’re supposed to be doing. It’s a way of shutting off the critical part of your brain, to make room for the creative bit. It’s sitting with the door open and waiting for the ideas and thoughts and words to arrive. It’s an active and a passive state at the same time. Solitude, the way a writer needs solitude, is a way of being alone with the universe.

And it’s difficult to make room for creativity, when your head is full of external anxious thoughts.

Notebook and laptop on a kitchen table from above, with coffee, breakfast and a candle

Let’s talk about anxiety.

I mean anxiety with both a capital and a lower case ‘a’. Because these times are tough. All the clichés that have arisen over the past few weeks are true: this isn’t normal; these are difficult times; the world is upside down; it’s too big to process; we just have to get through this day by day.

There are times, sitting at my kitchen table with my notebook open and a pen in my hand, that I could almost imagine there’s nothing untoward happening outside my own four walls. There are days when I’m bored – in both the positive, creative, Anne Enright sense of the word, and in the listless, sour sense of it. And yes, I cultivate both of these. Because if I didn’t, I couldn’t cope.

At the time of writing this, the UK death toll has almost reached 10,000. And that’s just the figures for hospitals – it doesn’t include all those people who’ve died at home or in care homes. Hospital staff and other key workers are going without adequate PPE. There are thousands of people who won’t get proper funerals. Who are dying alone, their loved ones having to say goodbye over skype. There are nurses sitting with dying patients, holding their hands, to stop them from dying alone.

When I think about all of this, I freeze up. It’s too much for my brain to handle. Possible, reading this, you’ll see this as me turning a blind eye. As choosing to live in my own (honestly quite beautiful) bubble, of sunny Cumbrian walks, and baking banana bread, and reading books. And yes, of course I choose that. When choosing between a meadow and the abyss, who on earth would elect to fall?

That doesn’t mean I don’t care. But I know what anxiety feels like (big and small ‘a’). I recognise those heart palpitations. The sweats. The sick feeling. The vertigo from looking over the cliff-edge inside your brain. Even writing this post has got me feeling all of that, feeling dangerously close to the edge. And if I let myself get stuck in those thought-cycles, I’ll be no use to anyone.

So I steer myself away. I try to read, when I can focus on it. On better days, I try to write. I bake. I make soup. I get in shopping for my parents. And, sometimes, I try to avoid looking at the news.

Freshly baked carrot cake muffins on a cooling rack

So how is my writing going with all of this?

Of my first three weeks in isolation, I spent the first one writing absolutely nothing. I figured that was fair enough. I’d just come back from a massive round-the-world (or half-way-round-the-world-and-then-suddenly-home) trip. I was still jet-lagged, not to mention just generally tired. I needed time to adjust to what I keep seeing referred to as ‘the new normal’. And, to top it all, I had an exhausting cough that may or may not have been coronavirus. I gave myself the week off.

During week two, I also wrote very little – though I did find a way to ease myself back into creativity: Tania Hershman’s Arvon Short Story Challenge. The challenge consisted of five daily prompts, each designed to help you into writing a short story. What worked for me was that the prompts themselves only took about 20 minutes each, so I could do them without feeling like there was great pressure to spend hours in a state of focus, or to write something meaningful. It was like doing physiotherapy exercises after an injury, working a muscle back into life.

I did write a short story from the exercises. It took me two weeks, rather than one, but that doesn’t matter. The point is, the exercises opened a door.

That doesn’t mean that everything’s back to normal. There’s still that difficulty in focusing, and I’m still tired a lot of the time. (I don’t know if this is a hangover from the maybe-coronavirus cough, or just a reflection on my constant state of low-level anxiety.) But I’m managing to think about writing, and to write little bits. I’ve made a promise to myself that, during the weekdays of what would have been my Perth residency, I’m going to write something every day. It doesn’t have to be a lot. One day last week, I wrote 200 words, and I’m counting that as a success. The important thing for me right now isn’t volume – it’s keeping the engine running.

I’m currently working at between half and two thirds of my usual capacity – less for the creative stuff, but more for the practical and administrative side of things, which tends to require less head-space. Also, apart from writing this post, I took a full two-day weekend this week, and honestly it’s made a world of difference. I hardly ever do this, and this weekend has made me realise that I ought to do it more often. After all, writing is work, and it isn’t good for us to work 24/7.

So all in all, I’m doing surprisingly ok. Blips here and there of course, but getting through each day as it comes, and managing to think creatively, which is what I hold onto.

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

A few online resources:

Stay safe & well – and happy writing, or not-writing, or whatever you choose to do with these lockdown days.

Kitchen table, with notebooks, pens, coffee and a vase of flowers. In the background, theatre seats and the bottom of a set of wall-mounted bookshelves.

A couple of years ago, I listened to Liz Lochhead being interviewed on Desert Island Discs. One of the songs she selected was Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Some Days There Just Ain’t No Fish’ – a 1947 song written by Bob Russell & Carl Sigman.

I’ve used a fishing metaphor on this blog before, when talking about submitting work to magazines & competitions, but it applies equally well to the actual creative process, too. The more often you sit down and try to write – the more often you cast your line – the more likely it is that inspiration will catch.

‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ – Picasso

Which is all very well and good, and a useful maxim for forcing yourself to write when you think you’re too tired / hungover / busy / distracted etc etc. But what about when there’s something deeper going on, that’s in some way blocking your creativity?

I’ve talked a little bit before about what I think are the different types of writers’ block: the ‘I don’t really fancy writing at the moment’ type, and the ‘there’s actually something major that I need to deal with in my mental health that is completely prohibiting me from writing’. (Clue: the first one is much easier to solve, and basically just requires discipline; the second one is much more tricky.)

So what do you do if you’re experiencing that second type of creative block? If you’re turning up to the writing desk / kitchen table / cafe / train commute every day with your notebook and pen, and it doesn’t help? If you’ve found a stack of writing exercises to work your way through, but nothing comes out right? If you’ve been keeping a writing routine for weeks, waiting for that inspiration to come and find you working, and yet you still feel blocked?

This is the sort of thing some writers have nightmares about. When I was younger, I used to be one of them – I saw writers’ block as some mythical disease, like a witch’s curse that could descend on me at any time and leave me unable to string a sentence together. But the truth is, as I’ve got older, I’ve learned a bit more about my own brain, and about how my mind works. And I’ve learned that writers’ block isn’t so much a disease as a symptom of something else.

About three years ago, I started to experience some pretty hefty anxiety. I say ‘started to’, but it had sort of been there all along. I just hadn’t been able to recognise it for what it was – partly because I just didn’t know enough about anxiety, or about my own brain, but also because up until then it had always been a kind of low level burn, like the sound of a waterfall, always there in the background and sometimes louder than others, but never enough to make me stop and pay attention for very long. Then, at the start of 2016, there came a flood, and suddenly I was drowning in it.

For six months, I barely wrote anything. I tried. I really, really tried. I’d just left one of my two part-time jobs to give myself more time for writing, but whenever I sat down and tried to write something, it felt like someone had put a cement mixer in my brain.

Eventually, I went to the doctors, and refused the offer of pills (I knew that wasn’t what I wanted, and while they are absolutely the right course for some people, I knew that I wanted talking therapy instead). I was referred for therapy – or rather, I was given a piece of paper with a phone number on it and told to refer myself. I never rang the number.

(This isn’t a blog post about how the NHS, for all its strengths and qualities, is hugely lacking when it comes to supporting mental health – though if it were, I might point out how I told the GP that the very reason it had taken me several months even to go to him was because my anxiety kept preventing me, and so this tactic of asking me to jump through that appointment-making help-seeking hoop again was highly flawed. But that’s another argument.)

After 7-and-a-bit months, I got over my period of anxiety. No, that’s a lie. I didn’t ‘get over it’ (hateful phrase) – but the flood-rush subsided and the waterfall went back to its normal level, and the words began to return. A number of things helped me with this, particularly friends and books. I read an awful lot during that time, and although I didn’t realise it then, this reading was feeding my creativity. I might not have been producing anything, but the creative process was still going on, under the surface, building my understanding of story, of language, of creative thought.

But the real turning point came that summer, when I travelled to America to do an enormous road trip up the west coast with two friends. We spent three weeks on the road (as well as a week or so either side and my friend’s house in Oregon), and it threw me out of myself in exactly the way that my brain needed at the time.

In his book, The Idle Traveller, Dan Kieran talks about travel as the process of forcing your brain to pay attention. When we’re surrounded by the unfamiliar, our survival mode kicks in, and we’re forced to notice everything around us. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is about assessing the new environment for potential dangers, but it also serves the mind creatively. We have to be switched on. We have to exist in the moment, and to really pay attention to what’s around us. In other words, we have to be mindful.

While travelling up the west coast of America, we stopped in San Francisco. Sitting on a bench on Pier 39, sharing fish & chips with the two wonderful friends on either side of me, listening to the buzz of people and seagulls and the distant slap of water against the docks, I burst into tears. They were happy tears. For the first time in over half a year, I felt happy. Completely and utterly happy. I was able to be absolutely 100% in the moment: that almost meditative state that’s so important for mental health and for the creative process.

That evening in our AirBnB, I jotted down a couple of lines for a poem. Back at home a few weeks later, I started writing the poems that will hopefully form my first full-length poetry collection. A couple of months after that, I wrote the first scene of my novel.

So what’s the lesson here? I’m not trying to tell you how to cope with anxiety or any kind of mental ill-health, because all our minds work in different ways, so that’s going to be different for everybody. But what it taught me is that, whenever I feel blocked in my writing (as in, really truly blocked, not just procrastinating because checking twitter is easier), there are things I can do. I can read. I can go for a walk. I can travel. Not necessarily a long way – even a day trip somewhere local will do, as long as it’s somewhere I don’t know well, somewhere that I have to be fully present in.

So I guess the lesson, if there has to be a lesson, is that it’s ok not to be writing all the time. There are so many other things we can do to feed our creativity. Whether we’re writing a poem every day or just giving our minds a fallow period – as long as we’re stimulating our minds, that creative process never really stops.

And although at times you get a messful
Other days are less successful
Some days there just ain’t no fish