Monday, May 23

Writer’s Block: After a Year in, Novelists Struggle to Write | Books

In early February, after a month of blackout, William Sutcliffe wrote on Twitter: “I have been a professional writer for over twenty years. I have made a living with the resources of my imagination. Last night I had a dream about unloading the dishwasher. “

If the first block consisted of finding space to write (along with a lightning spirit and a Tesco delivery space), then the second has been much darker and more difficult for creativity. Whether it’s homeschooling, the very four walls, or the anxiety caused by the news, for many authors, the stories just don’t come.

“Stunned is the word,” says Orange Award-winning novelist Linda Grant. “The problem with writing is that it’s just another screen, and that’s all there is… I can’t connect with my imagination. I cannot connect with any creativity. My whole brain is busy with processing, processing, processing what is happening in the world. “

Grant describes waking up in the fog and wanting to do nothing but watch trash TV. His mind is not relaxed enough, he says, to connect with his subconscious. “My subconscious is basically screaming, ‘Get us out of this,'” he says, so there is no room to create fiction. “I don’t have the emotional and intellectual energy to give these shady people out of the shadows.”

Time for self-reflection… William Sutcliffe.
Time for self-reflection… William Sutcliffe. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod / The Guardian

Sutcliffe, who is married to novelist Maggie O’Farrell and has three children, has been dividing his time between writing and homeschooling, which they share. During the first confinement, he was in the middle of a novel and found “a relief” to have his turn at the keyboard. In the second, he has been trying to dream of his next book, and “that kind of work is really, really incompatible with the confinement and with this stage of pandemic fatigue.”

After making that call on Twitter, he says, “I was inundated with responses from other authors who were struggling.”

Science fiction writer Jon Courtenay Grimwood sees the irony: “It’s strange as hell. We spend our lives saying that if we could just be locked in a cave, inspiration and deadlines wouldn’t be a problem and then it happens and it’s a disaster. ”

Sutcliffe agrees: “Of all the people who complain about not being able to work, writers feel like the strangest bunch, because compared to the rest, our lives have changed the least. It’s interesting to see why he has lost so many. “

While they add caveats about being thankful for warm homes and roofs, many will say that childcare is proving to be the biggest challenge. Novelist Natasha Solomons sends me a photo of her five-year “co-worker,” with whom she now shares an office.

“She mainly hates her hearing aids, so I have the other 26 five-year-olds screaming their phonetics as I try to write a new dark delights novel. Trying to write a sex scene at 9am is never my favorite, but with my daughter by my side yelling ‘Do you have nouns on your desk, Mom?’ it is practically impossible. Above all I have to give up, “he says. “It reminds me of when children were little babies, and I greedily wrote in desperate bursts when they slept. It is like trying to reconstruct a novel into fragments. But I think that’s how we all feel right now, like we’ve broken into hundreds of pieces. “

When writing, “you want spaces, those moments in which something opens inside you, a pause, a breath,” he says. “But now there are no spaces. They’re full of snacking, anxiety, tears, number bonds, and desperate, brainy hugs. “

Life is 'just a sea of ​​gray, of timelessness' ... Linda Grant.
Life is ‘just a sea of ​​gray, of timelessness’ … Linda Grant. Photograph: Suki Dhanda / The Observer

Author Holly Seddon, who has four children, has turned her laundry room, which is “a little bit bigger than a closet,” into a mini office. The constant noise, he says, is what is crushing his creativity. “It’s hard to let my characters speak to me when someone always asks me to print their stuff, or what’s for lunch or where things are. It’s difficult to paint a fictional setting when the constant hum of my real setting is stirring my thoughts. ”

Others, like writer Gillian McAllister, are most affected by the lack of chance glimpses of other lives. “I think the authors are very inspired by things like the clothes a stranger is wearing, the smell of their perfume, their body language, seeing a couple interact in a bar,” he says. “I have to draw my memories of these things, which are less authentic and lack a specific kind of detail that I like to write about in normal times.”

Grant has also felt “completely cut off from the material.” “I felt forced to enter this interiority, when there was no exterior, there was no exterior with which to interact,” she reflects. “You don’t have those conversations you hear on buses, there’s no encouragement. It’s just a kind of sea of ​​gray, of timelessness. “

Holly Watt, author of the thriller To the lions, has found the last year challenging. “I’ve found that I make a lot of my friends’ jokes and I need the conversation of normal life,” he says. “The other day my partner and I had a pretty long conversation about the different noises the dishwasher makes. I don’t think that’s the kind of thing my heroine would notice. I’ve learned to accept that some days, I just can’t write. “

Thriller Phoebe Morgan, who is also an editor at HarperCollins, is finding the difference in creativity between last year’s crash and this year’s very hard. “I don’t have children, but the endless cycle of washing / cooking / chores, combined with trying to move house, definitely seems like it’s stifling my creativity as a writer and editor as well,” she says. “I find it much more difficult to properly focus on reading exciting new presentations because I feel like my brain is dull from the constant claustrophobic feeling of being on the same four walls.”

You will sit down to write (your next book is due to your publisher on May 1) and you will notice a corner of the floor that has not been vacuumed, “as if my mind is concentrating on these silly worldly details rather than doing what it is supposed to do and putting the words on the page ”.

And how to investigate, when libraries are closed and travel is impossible? Children’s author Tom Mitchell’s next book is set in the “wild countryside,” but he “ended up having to go to Google Maps for inspiration and take a break from looking out my spare bedroom window at the little garden below.” Mitchell , who is also a teacher, is married to a teacher and is the father of two young children, says this “does not help.”

As Grant points out, this is “a unique example on the blue moon that all writers are affected by exactly the same situation.” “Not even World War II was the same, because men and women were affected differently. But this affects us all, ”he says.

So is it likely that a year from now, we will be inundated with closed room mysteries or stream-of-consciousness novels about how to unload the dishwasher? “It’s a huge problem for contemporary novelists, most of whose novels are set in a non-specific version of now,” says Sutcliffe. “You can write a novel set in 2013, 14, 15, but 2019, 20, 21, these are three completely different worlds. We can’t have all the novels about the pandemic, but [assessing] the degree to which you recognize it is really difficult. “

And will people want to read about it? “Maybe in a few years,” Grant muses.

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