Coronavirus and Creativity

For those of us who write, being in isolation isn’t too much of a problem. You shut yourself away, call up the Muse, and by hook or by crook, get your 500 words done or whatever your target is. Sometimes the words come tough, but you push on through. You’ve made your voluntary commitment to be alone and work.

Now that Covid-19 has struck us, isolation feels like a whole different thing. On the face of it (and I hope I’m not sounding flippant by saying this) those who work in solitary creative fields should be able to carry on despite living in what is a once in a generation pandemic, the sort of thing historians will be evaluating years from now. It’s an extraordinary situation – bars and restaurants closed, people advised to stay indoors, and working from home is the new norm. Public gatherings are not recommended, people should stay 6 feet away from each other when outdoors, and those over 70 or with underlying health conditions shouldn’t be going out at all. All of which is a huge hit to the economy, and the likelihood of a full-scale lockdown isn’t too far away.

So, unprecedented stuff. With millions now isolated at home, talk turns to how to stay occupied, and writing is near the top of the list of activities to get through the days. I’ve seen many say they are starting a diary to record the times we are living in for posterity. Others talk of learning a new skill or reacquainting with an old one – letter writing, poetry, and drawing are popular ones I have seen.

But I fear these well-founded ambitions are likely to remain unfulfilled. On the face of it, spending hours at home frees up time to get loads of writing done, but for me, this is the first work I’ve done since the outbreak. I think this is because the whole situation is pretty terrifying. I live with my elderly father, who is in the high-risk group of catching the virus. He’s fine, and has pretty much been indoors the last week, but I’m anxious about him nonetheless. And the everyday tasks are proving more difficult. I’ve spent two fruitless shopping trips trying to buy toilet paper thanks to the stockpiling idiots, and these setbacks play on the mind. I’m very conscious of not coming into close contact with others on these trips, and on the whole outings are somewhat nerve-wracking. My sister lives abroad and I worry about her too. So when I’m at home I want to escape with a Netflix show to take my mind off things rather than try and write, which feels like a huge task at the moment. This is without turning on the news and getting a daily dose of worry as the worldwide case and death numbers continue to spiral. Low-level anxiety is not conducive to anything, let alone good writing.

I appreciate this comes across as a first-world problem when our heroic NHS workers are putting themselves on the line every day. I wanted to take a break after the first draft of State Line, and I am having one. Maybe I will settle into a better mindset as the weeks pass, and I can at least do some editing of previous drafts to keep ticking over. I guess we all have to bear in mind that this global pandemic is something none of us have ever experienced before, with its inherent dangers and restrictions. We’re all feeling our way forward, trying to do our best. It will still be there in the morning.

Nearing the Fifth

So my 40th birthday is fast approaching, and its seen as one of the most momentous of a lifetime.  ‘Life begins at 40’ is a well-worn cliche that crops up every time this milestone is reached, and personally I think it’s a load of crap.  At least I hope it is, otherwise the preceding years have been a bit of a waste of time! But it does offer opportunity to reflect, and I’ve been mulling over my reading and writing life to date, and trying to get a handle on what I think about it all.

I believe that the greatest gift I got from childhood was a love of reading, and as I went through college and university, of literature. Everyone knows someone who says they don’t have time to read, and I’m grateful that I’m not one of them.  When I think of all the thousands of life-changing books that people are missing out on it makes me shudder. I appreciate I probably do have more time as I am single and childless, but there’s always time if you try.  I carry a book with me everywhere I go, and read whenever I have a spare moment. It’s a constant source of pleasure and I get great satisfaction from it.

Say I’ve been reading since the age of 10, that’s 30 years, probably a book a week on average since the age of 15, well, it’s got to be close to 1500 books so far in my lifetime.  Millions and millions of words, and I feel I’ve hardly scratched the surface.  There’s genres I rarely read, great classics to get through, and all the brilliant books that haven’t even been thought up yet.  Hopefully I’m not halfway through my life yet, so I figure I’ve got at least the same amount of books left to read, if I can.  What an amazing thing to look forward to.

On writing, I’ve said before that creating fiction is when I’m at my happiest, and I believe it’s pretty much saved my life on occasion.  It’s where I’m most expressive, more thoughtful, and hopefully dynamic and challenging as well. It’s also one of the few things I’m really proud of, being a novelist. I knew from an early age I wanted to write a novel, and probably made my first naive attempts at around 16. Many get to that stage and give up, through fear or lack of time or real life getting in the way. I did too, to start with. But I didn’t let it beat me.  I forget how old I was when I finally got a novel written.  I think 23 or so. That seems impossible to me now, that I had the drive and focus to do it.  I was such a young man in so many ways.  There’s still aspects of that novel I like, too.

But you can always be accused of being a one-hit wonder, so I set out to see if it was a fluke.  And it wasn’t. The genesis of Playing with Fire and the effort it took are well-documented on this blog, and that feeling when the last word was written is one I’ve never forgotten. Almost like tapping into another world and being privy to something so extraordinary it makes the process seem like it was enchanted.  If nothing else, I’ll always have that moment.

And since the words have stagnated at times but on the whole kept flowing. Another novel is under my belt, some short stories and a novella, which is not a bad output of work. I’ve got content available for purchase in various places, and I’ve been published.  Whilst I’m proud of that achievement, I’ve come to realise that it’s not the be all and end all. It’s the craft that matters, the response from the people closest.  Having my novella Momentum discussed at my old book club was one of the kindest appreciations of my work, and that’s what keeps me going, not being published necessarily. Learning to appreciate that has given me a nice sense of calm, and has made me more immune to the midlife crisis, I hope. Besides, I write because I can’t not.  It’s a fundamental part of who I am. So I’m going into my fifth decade with less trepidation than I might. For there is so much more left to read, and many more words to write. I can’t wait to get started.

Sharing the Love

There is a brillant bit in Nick Hornby’s classic novel High Fidelity where our hero Rob has just broken up with his girlfriend Laura, and the first album he listens to at home after is Yellow Submarine by The Beatles.  The reason? Because it’s the only album he owns that doesn’t remind him of anything. Not of his lost love, of any good or bad times, nada. Just a piece of music that he can listen to, enjoy on its own merits, wallow in the nostalgia, and package up for the next time, untainted by the vagaries of the human heart.

Now Rob is more than a music aficionado, he is something of a snob.  Which is fine, if you’re passionate about something, it’s almost inevitable.  And I have definitely become the same about books, that’s for certain.  But the reason I haven’t gone full snob is for the same reason as Rob above. I’m terrified of having my favourite books remind me of anything other than my love for them. So I tend to keep my all-time favourites to myself, to wax lyrical about them but encourage others to seek them out themselves if they so wish (which doesn’t tend to happen very often as no-one is a more avid reader than me in my social group) and move the discussion on to other books. Be protective, secretive and precious about them, basically.  To avoid an all-time great being tarnished by a bad memory.

High Fidelity is a good case in point, as it happens. I have currently lent that to somebody (who already loved the film so it wasn’t too much of a punt), and if I’m honest, there is a small part of me that regrets it.  Because I’m running the risk that the book will always remind me of her, and if something bad happens between us, I won’t be able to read the book without thinking about her.  And I would be genuinely upset if that happened.  I think it will probably be OK, mostly because we have a shared appreciation for the novel which has actually enhanced the book for me a bit.  Also I have a long history with the novel and it has infuenced my life in countless ways which are deeply entrenched and for which I will remain forever grateful. I don’t think the biggest emotional heartache could completely rid me of that feeling.

But you have to be so careful, with music or literature, anything creative that is special to you, really.  It’s the great balancing act; spreading your love of something that changed your life, in the hope that it inspires others too, against the great worry that that action will fundamentally effect your appreciation of the work.

Higher States of Confidence

An affliction that I think affects many creative types is being slightly embarrassed or even unwilling to talk about their work and sell themselves.  I’ve had a couple of conversations with a friend recently (an artist who designed the front cover for my novella Momentum) about what to say when asked the age-old question, ‘So, what do you do for a living?’ by somebody you meet for the first time. And we agreed that we would both mention in the first instance what we did for the day job, rather than what defines us as human beings.

But why? In my opinion, the question is loaded from the start. There are thousands of people like us whose number one passion is not something they can make a living from. That’s a simple fact. Even published, established authors make money on the side. So for some, how they make money is not actually that important in the grand scheme of things. But yet I would still say I work in ecommerce if somebody asked me the question.

A better way to express it would be to say ‘what do you do?’ which takes the financial aspect out and gives the opportunity to say, ‘Well, I write.’ But even then I’d be reluctant to do so. The main reason for that is a lack of confidence, I think. Which is stupid, and my friend agreed. Why not big up the fact? Writing novels is not something many can say. People have paid to read my work, which means I am an author and that is no word of a lie. My friend does stencilling and art all the time for people and charges a fee for it, and he’s incredibly talented. This creativity is not an impulse, it’s at the heart of everything I do. How I pay the bills is not.

So we’ve decided to be more honest with everyone we meet about who we are. Not only is it the truth, it’s far more interesting than the 9 to 5 job. And being more open about it can provide opportunities, it’s good networking, to use that horrible business speak, and you never know, I might get a few more sales out of it. And being an author is cool, right?! That’s what I’ve always thought. So it’s a win-win all round.

46,15

That’s the number of days and hours I went without drinking. 1119 hours, to be precise. I wrote last month about my struggles with alcohol and wrestling with making some major changes to my relationship with booze. That meant sobriety to clear my head and give myself a break. Now the real challenge has begun – to see if I can maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol or if complete abstention is the only way forward.

I’d sort of pencilled in yesterday as the day when I might have a beer. I was up in London at a Don McCullin exhibition (an extraordinary photographer who is a creative hero of mine) and after doing a lot of walking and sightseeing I found myself thinking about the pub as the sun was beginning to set.  I was tired and if I’m honest, enjoying the thought of having one. So I found a decent pub serving decent beer, and bought a half.

It was strange for the first minute or two. I had the glass stood on the bar in front of me, and I just looked at it. I waited for someone to tap me on the shoulder and ask what the hell I was doing, but nobody seemed bothered. It looked like beer, with a bit of froth running down the side of the glass and that pure golden colour picking up the last of the sun coming through the glass. I knew what it would taste like. But still I hesitated. I did have a fleeting moment where I was going to walk out. I thought of the 46 days I’d accrued. Whether this drink was going to set me on a downward spiral or be a nice relaxing, solitary beer to end the day. Then I drank some. It tasted fine. I waited for the buzz of alcohol to hit. It took a few more sips. I finished the glass and left.

As it turned out, that wasn’t the only drink I had. Indeed, I had a couple more than I was planning to. I stuck to halves, but did myself a disservice by buying a couple of cans to see me through the train journey home. That’s always been part of the problem, stopping before the night is over. I drank one on the train and the other at home after dinner. so the pace was leisurely and sensible. Only 3 pints in total, but deep down I know it’s not ideal. Still all the hallmarks of the old bad habits.

Today I haven’t felt too fantastic either. On the lighter end of the hangover scale, but still noticeable. I did an hour’s walk and felt slightly nauseous on my return, and definitely dehydrated. I haven’t missed this side of it, that’s for sure.

So what have I learnt? Not much, I’d wager. Those 46 days weren’t too bad, once the hangover and guilt had dissipated. I know I can put together similar runs in the future, which is something I didn’t know three months ago. I hope my wild drinking bouts are over. But in reality I’m not sure. I think I will continue to drink for the rest of this year at least, it’s my 40th in November and I can’t imagine being dry for that, but beyond then, well I just don’t know. I have a feeling my drinking days are numbered, now. But that prospect doesn’t fill me with dread anymore. So maybe the end of the road is somewhere on the edge of the horizon.

Dark Days and Drinking

In the writing game, the propensity for substance abuse appears to be higher than in other parts of society, particularly alcohol. A number of my favourite writers all had problems with the bottle – Stephen King, Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler to name but three. As King brilliantly articulates in On Writing, the idea that creative endeavour and booze or drugs are somehow connected and necessary in a world of emotional isolation and despair is a myth. Alcoholics drink because they are addicts, anything else is just another excuse.

Which brings me to my own battles with the booze. I’m obviously far from the standard of the legends I’ve mentioned, but I’ve used that excuse for my own excesses on occasion. And in the last few months the excesses are starting to get out of control. I drank heavily over the Christmas period, culminating in an ill-advised solo drinking session on New Years Eve which resulted in a substantial blackout period and one of the most savage hangovers I’ve ever experienced. I spent the first day of the year sleeping and puking and swallowed in a sea of self-loathing and guilt. Twenty six days later, I sit here and write, and I’m still sober.

I’ve been drinking for all the wrong reasons for a long time. It’s my fall back pastime when my mental health takes a tumble, which is the worst possible solution for that problem. When I’m bored, I drink. When I’m lonely, I drink. When I’m sad, I drink. When I can’t get the words down right, I drink. And on and on and on.  That my life is so much harder than anybody elses and I deserve to drink as some kind of a reward. It’s pathetic, really. I have friends with serious family stuff going on, life and death situations, and I get drunk because I feel I’m worthless as a writer or because I’m lonely. What a self-indulgent load of nonsense that is. Like I’m inviting the despair on to give me an excuse.

That’s not to say my mental health problems shouldn’t be acknowledged, far from it. But alcohol is not the way to do it. Once the fog cleared I made some enquiries and will hopefully be going back into therapy soon. I spent the best part of three years seeing somebody a decade ago and it really helped. More fool me for thinking I can do it on my own. And I’m sure that if I can keep my drinking under control my creative output should remain constant, and everything else will improve both physically and mentally.  I’m already sleeping better. My skin feels clearer. And its lovely to wake up in the morning without having to wonder how I got home. Simple pleasures.

It would be nice to get to the stage where I can enjoy a beer again, make it an occasional pleasure rather than a habit. If I can’t handle that, then it probably is time to give up for good. But I know now that I can’t go on as I have been, and that’s revelation enough.  I can not drink and be cleaner and happier, and still be able to write and live.

 

Falling Short

So another year is drawing to a close, and the title of this post sums up how I’m feeling at the moment about my creative year. I said confidently in my last post that by Christmas I would have finished the second draft of my novel. Well guess what, that hasn’t happened. I haven’t been lazy about it, either. Virtually every night I’ve been working on it. I’ve done less than I thought as work has proven pretty crazy in the run-up to Christmas. Moving operations to a new warehouse and offices in early December probably wasn’t the best idea, but that could be why I’m not a manager. Still, it has meant I’ve been very tired in the evenings and haven’t been able to edit as much per session as I would like. It’s quite a laborious process and I want to do it well, so when fatigue sets in I call it quits. About halfway through, so we’re looking at sometime in January before its fit for human consumption.

Outside of that my only other creative writing was the short story One Night Rebellion I published back in March. I’ve read it again and I’m pleased with it – the writing come out fresh and clean and quick, and I like the yearning tone of it. Other than that it’s been stops and starts. A couple of pieces never got off the ground although there is on I may revisit, so the next thing I write will be something I have yet to uncover. Hopefully it will come sometime soon!

Away from writing, my reading has been disappointing this year. I set myself the lowest Goodreads target ever for 2018 and I’m not going to make it. Worse, I have struggled to find books that have blown me away, which is unusual, for my radar is usually quite good. I did read one of my favourite books in years at the beginning of this month, one that filled my heart with joy and melancholy, a combination which only the greats can provide. All will be revealed in my 2018 reading year post which will be up sometime after Christmas. I also set myself a fun TV challenge, rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (two favourite TV shows of my formative years) which I’ve failed miserably too. Barely seen any good films, either. Had a stark lack of inspiration from the glass teat this year.

To sum it up I would say it’s been a rather dreary year creatively. That spark of wonder and fulfilment you get from writing good prose or seeing/reading something that knocks you out, it’s been largely absent, with only the odd ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds. That’s not to say it’s been a waste of time, just more of a slog than in the past. Could say the same about getting old, I suppose. On that cheerful note, a Merry Christmas to all!

Repetition

I’ve been having a read through my posts from 2018 and it’s fair to say that since the completion of my third novel first draft I’ve been feeling a little flat. I think it’s natural to have a down period after undertaking such a feat, but I’ve been surprised at how long this creative lethargy has lasted.

The editing of the novel continues apace – three or four pages are edited every weeknight, and I’m probably about halfway through the manuscript now. Other than that, there is nothing to report on any new pieces of writing, and my reading slump has continued. I’ve had a couple of further breaks in the last month, my sister’s wedding in Germany at the beginning of September and a few days in Dorset in the week just gone, and usually being away kickstarts my reading if I’ve fallen into a rut. Not this time – in fact I haven’t read anything new for ages. Sometimes re-reading an old classic will give me the spark back but that hasn’t worked either. I haven’t dared to check my Goodreads challenge for 2018 as I fear I’m 5 or 6 books behind schedule, and that’s pretty depressing as I’ve got a much smaller target than in previous years.

So it feels like I’m going over old ground, really. My posts in 2018 have had the consistent theme of a lack of creative output in all aspects of my life, and I wish I could say something different right now. It would give me something else to write about on here, at least! Still, October is a quiet month for me. Work will be as busy as ever, the nights are drawing in and I’ve got little planned for the weekends. So it’s time to get my head down, work hard, focus on completing the second draft of the novel and maybe I might have something exciting to write about in my next post. Which will be better for me and certainly better for you! We shall see…

 

Wellbeing

Just read my last post and to be honest, things haven’t changed much since then. I’m still not writing very much. The novel sits idly by waiting to be looked at. My enhusiasm for reading has continued to dwindle. What I would say is that my general mental wellbeing has improved somewhat. I’m certainly a little cheerier than I was. There are a few reasons for that, I think. The main one has been the sunshine. It really is amazing how much the simple pleasure of being outdoors in the sun can improve my mood. I definitely think I suffer from that seasonal syndrome or whatever it’s called. Living in the southern hemisphere where the sun shines every day, I got used to warmth and long, light evenings. Coming back to Uk winters and darkness at 3pm really affected me. Now we’re in the height of summer I feel a bit better.

And I’ve had some lovely distractions. In the last few weekends I’ve caught up with various friends I haven’t seen in a while. The World Cup is on, which is criminal for my writing time but has been enjoyable so far (and England are showing their potential, which is somewhat exciting). I’ve also got some good times to look forward to, another Germany book club coming up which I always enjoy, plus I’m getting away for a few days in Cornwall at the end of July, and I can’t wait for that.

I’ve decided to use that trip to begin the edit of my novel. I figure it will be a nice place to start. I have booked a quiet apartment near the beach where I can fully get into it, and have unfamiliar terrain to explore when I need a break. It will be my first real holiday in a while and I’m determined to use the time to properly refresh the batteries. Read some books, maybe do some painting, get into a creative headspace and hopefully that will give me some momentum to get working on the various short story strands I’ve got in various stages of completion, and get something fit for public consumption whilst I continue on with the epic novel re-write.

So I haven’t disappeared off the face of the earth, I suppose you could call this the downtime whilst I get mentally prepared to dive in. I hope to have more to say and write about as we get into the second half of 2018.

 

Malaise

I’ve been in a creative funk since my last post, and even after years of ups and downs with my writing output and general mental health I still can’t predict when it will come. I don’t want to call it writer’s block, as I think that’s a lazy and overused term.  I’ve written a little bit, but it’s all coming out flat. Perhaps this is because I’ve fallen back on the old adage of ‘writing what I know.’ This phrase is nonsense and deserves to be treated with scorn, it’s anti-imagination at its very core, but I’ve gone and done it anyway. Reason being I actually wanted to write something about a sport that I play, and explore some of the feelings I’ve experienced in my years of playing. Nothing too horrendous there, I don’t think. Sport is a metaphor for life according to everyone who’s ever played any, and I approached it with some enthusiasm. But it’s not flowing as I would have liked, so the story is currently on the back burner. Sigh.

Some of this of course is to do with a slight downturn in my mental health. I’ve been in a mild state of depression for quite a while now. Part of it is my job, which is time-consuming and stressful and has a knock-on effect of exacerbating my insomnia. Which doesn’t help. I feel like I’m in a rut career wise, but have no choice but to put up with it as I’m saving for a mortgage. Most of the time I can see the greater good, but on occasion I get a horrible dread, a suffocation, that I’m trapped and going to be until I retire or lose my rag, and the darkness descends for a bit and I need to regroup. Loneliness has crept in too, which is unusual for me as I’m solitary by nature. All this is not the best cocktail for productivity.

I feel a bit whiny, just saying all that. It’s been worse, far worse. I had wild bouts of heavy drinking and self-harm in my twenties, and there were moments when I contemplated suicide. I got in an awful, awful mess, and at that time I was writing a novel, on and off. It almost felt like a bipolar episode – days when I could barely get out of bed mixed with partying, copious amounts of alcohol and attacking my arms and chest with knives and cigarettes. I’m not in that place, and touch wood never again will be.  But even then I was still writing something. This malaise feels different, like its seeping into my bones and sapping my creative energy. Often reading will help, a brilliant book will give me a jolt, but that isn’t working either. My reading rate is way down on last year, as it happens. So another aspect of life that usually brings joy has ground to a halt.

Ahh, I don’t know.  Maybe it’s just the fucking miserable weather.  Guess I could tell my boss to shove it and then I’ll have plenty of free time to bash this gloom out of me. I’m going to have to push through and write, no matter how bad it is or how much I don’t want to, and the sun will break through the clouds eventually.  I just wish it were easier, sometimes.