Why I didn’t write my novel in lockdown
A year ago I started a poem titled ‘100 Reasons Why I Didn’t Write My Novel In Lockdown.’ One year later and I never got further than the first 22 reasons. When lockdown started and I moved back to my parents’ house I kept telling everyone it felt like I was a teenager again. And when I was a teenager, I would stay up ‘til 2 am on a school night to finish zines. I would scribble fiction on the bus, in the back of maths classes, snatching any moments that I could. I filled up Moleskine journals with collages that described exactly how I was feeling, shared five detailed blog posts a week. Then I planned how to turn these passions into a career; traded fevered zine-making all-nighters for late nights in the library, fiction for fashion journalism, collaging for scanning Twitter for ‘scoops.'
Last spring there was a month where I had no work. I imagined that all this time all I had needed was time. I thought lockdown would spark a kind of personal creative renaissance free from the pressures of turning all this into a career. So I decided to fill the month of no work with poetry, painting, and making zines. I downloaded Adobe Creative Cloud in a fit of naïve optimism thinking I would finally teach myself InDesign and Photoshop. After three hours of YouTube tutorials, I gave up. I’m still paying for the annual plan today.
I bought a watercolour kit then realised I didn’t have the patience for painting either. I’ve always known I’m not a visual artist. Even when I listen to music or wander round galleries I always cling to the words. Before lockdown, there was comfort in believing I was too preoccupied with making a career out of words to do anything more creative with them.
Spring turned into summer and magazines started accepting my pitches again so I put down the paintbrushes and shuddered at the thought that I wasn’t an artist but a journalist. I got some dream commissions and enjoyed writing knowing that my words would be shared on platforms that people actually followed. The path from pitch to publication isn’t always straightforward but most of the time there is some certainty that the work will be shared promptly after it’s written. I wasn't just shouting into the void anymore which is how it felt when I pursued anything more creative.
The problem with my futile attempts at making zines, painting, and even poetry was that I wanted to make something I could share straight away. The truth is that I bought watercolours not because I was seized by a desire to paint but because I thought a watercolour background might make my poems look nicer on Instagram. Around the same time, I tweeted asking if anyone knew any publications accepting fiction and when no one replied I never finished any of the short stories I started. I spent so much time on Twitter that at first, I started comparing myself to writers 5 years older than me and then 10 years older than me and asked myself again why I hadn’t used lockdown to write a seminal piece of literature.
All this time I thought I needed time but I didn’t need to gain anything at all. I needed to lose something; the expectation that the finished work had to do anything more than just exist. Those early weekends in lockdown I would get drunk and sit in bed reading stories and poems I wrote when I was younger. Sometimes this made me feel old, but mostly it was comforting. Some of these pieces have been published but even if the others stayed unread on my laptop until I died – or, more realistically, until they disappeared forever when my laptop breaks because I’m rubbish at backing up files – they had a purpose in that I was relating to them now.
In July I watched Xavier Dolan’s Matthias and Maxime. I was so moved by it that I came up with an analogy about love and art. The next day I went for drinks with some friends in London and later went to a party. I was trying to tell everyone about this epiphany as if I’d discovered something new and I probably sounded like a dick but I guess that’s what four months of no social contact and a Mubi subscription does to a person. I felt that connecting to art was like falling in love but making art that someone else connects to was like being successful. Love and success are both worthwhile goals but they are not equal. When I read my own short stories, I was comforted but the comfort was finite because the words had come from myself alone. The thing that makes connecting with art so special is knowing that someone else feels/has felt the same as you.
In lockdown, the spaces where artists would usually gather, either on their own or as a group, have become inaccessible. Our screen time has gone up and social time, which diffuses creative frustrations and births new ideas, has dwindled. Social media can feel like the beginning and end of creative expression. On warm days I sit in the park with friends and we talk about how our goal in life is to be so successful that we can come off social media altogether.
When I was a teenager, I couldn’t write dialogue. I tried and tried but it always sounded fake. Then I got older and realised the reason why was that I hadn’t had enough conversations yet. I got better at writing the way people actually speak but in lockdown, I forgot all over again. It’s not easy to write when you’re isolated. The other week an editor told me a piece I’d written needed to be 'more irreverent' and I felt sad about it for days because I knew she was right. I'm not in London and I feel out of the loop. Nothing worth writing about is happening which is why I decided to write this blog post about not being able to write instead.
I am trying to be less self-conscious about my work. I don’t expect to write a best-selling novel but I want to write something that 30-year-old me can reread and feel comfort from. So, I started therapy. I tried magic mushrooms. I fight back urges to check Twitter a hundred times a day. I try not to compare myself to others. I still don’t have a solution. I need social media for my job. But I do know that if I decide to escape to a remote island in 10, 20, 30 years’ time to finally write my novel I will enjoy the isolation and the calm because it will be my choice. And I will turn off the Wi-Fi, hoping that finally, words will flow like I'm a teenager again.