The Trouble with Writing in Lockdown

The tension of feeling unable to write when there is so much to write about.

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The global scale of human tragedy and economic disruption caused by the ongoing pandemic places writers in a position of responsibility. Future readers will expect to find a response to all that is happening in this time within our work. The political turmoil, the unrest, the fear, the experience of isolation, not to mention queueing for depleted stocks of toilet rolls and flour (well, maybe not that specifically!)

Writers can choose whether or not to fulfill the expectation, but whether you respond by directly dramatising the pandemic, purposefully ignoring it, or by letting it seep in more abstractly, it cannot be erased from the context of our lives. If you write, then the pandemic will be part of your writing in one way or another.

But there’s a more immediate problem: we’re stuck at home. There are no conversations to be overheard, nothing much to see outside. For those fortunate enough not to be impacted by the illness, or financial difficulties arising from it, life is similar to taking an endless drive along the motorway on Christmas Day, or going for a walk in the middle of the World Cup Final. There is a sense of emptiness, a lack of people, a lack of chatter, and interaction. All our first-hand experience has been reduced to four walls and a string of supermarket visits, where the density of people is thinned.

The conversations we do have are about the pandemic and what we’ll do when it’s over. All the other experiences are filtered through the media. Writing groups are now online, there is no passing round the biscuits, no stapled stories. Our work is being starved of the ingredients it needs to thrive.

There are big stories out there, which are in need of preservation and emotional interrogation, but they are too raw and too current to heartlessly fictionalise.

I hope there will never come a time again when refrigeration lorries are used to store bodies in New York City, or when children are separated from parents, and people from their lifelong partners, in their final moments. It is a world filled with stories of lonely endings; a strange place for the writer who is forever responding, as many are, to the general malaise of western living, to be thrust into a mass pandemic, and an altered reality arising from without rather than from within.

Perhaps we should hand over our pens and paper to the doctors and nurses, and those who have suffered the most. They have the first-hand experiences that we do not. But writing is an art that we’ve been practising our whole lives and we have the skills to transform our current context in ways that might help make sense, now and in the future.

If you are struggling to write during this time with a lack of interaction and inspiration, if a sullen mood has overcome you, then you are not alone, but I would urge that you find a way back. If not writing, then at least recording, making notes, saving news articles, preparing for some future, perhaps filtered or indirect, reference to our context, because writers are needed who will respond to this. You are not without a role, even if it feels like that at present; faced with horrors larger than we could’ve imagined would ever come true, our writing can feel inadequate, mine certainly does, but this is a reason to change and adapt, not surrender.

Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.

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