Blocking writers: after a year inside, novelists are struggling to write | Books

IIn early February, after a month of confinement, William Sutcliffe wrote on Twitter: “I have been a professional writer for over twenty years. I have earned my living from the resource of my imagination. Last night I dreamed of unloading the dishwasher.

If the first lock was to find a space to write (with a blitz spirit and a Tesco delivery niche), the second was much darker and harder for creativity. Whether it’s home schooling, the same four walls, or anxiety over the news, for many writers the stories just don’t come.

“Stultified is the word,” says Orange Prize-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 can’t connect with any creativity. My whole brain is connected with the processing, the processing, the processing of what is going on in the world.

Grant describes waking up in a fog and wanting to do nothing but watch shit TV. Her mind isn’t relaxed enough, she says, to connect with her subconscious. “My subconscious is screaming, ‘Get us out of this,’” she said, so there is no space to create fiction. “I don’t have the emotional and intellectual energy to give these dark people to bring them out of the shadows.”

Time for introspection… William Sutcliffe. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod / The Guardian

Sutcliffe, who is married to novelist Maggie O’Farrell and has three children, divides his time between writing and home schooling, which they share. During the first confinement, he was in the middle of a novel and found “a relief” to spend his turn at the keyboard. In the second, he tried to imagine his next book, and “this kind of work is really, really incompatible with containment and with this stage of pandemic fatigue.”

After making the appeal on Twitter, he said: “I was inundated with responses from other struggling writers.”

Science fiction writer Jon Courtenay Grimwood sees the irony: “It’s weird as hell. We’ve spent our lives saying that if only we could be locked in a cave inspiration and timelines wouldn’t be a problem, 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 everyone else our lives have changed the least. It’s interesting to see why this has caused so many people to go off the rails.

While adding caveats about being grateful for the warm homes and the roofs overhead, many would say that child care is proving the biggest challenge. Novelist Natasha Solomons sends me a photo of the five-year-old “colleague” with whom she now shares an office.

“She especially hates her headphones, so I have the other 26 five-year-olds who are also shouting their phonemes as I try to write a new dark delight novel. Trying to write a 9am sex scene is never my favorite, but with my daughter next to me yelling “Do you have any names on your desk, Mom?” It is almost impossible. Most of the time I have to give up, ”she says. “It reminds me of when kids were tiny babies, and I wrote greedily in desperate bursts when they slept. It’s like trying to piece a novel together in fragments. But I think that’s what we feel. all right now, like we’re shattered into hundreds of pieces.

When you write, “you want spaces, those moments when something opens up within yourself – a pause, a breath,” she says. “But there are no more places now. They’re entirely filled with snacks, anxiety, tears, digital ties, and desperate, brat 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 bigger than a closet” – into a mini-office. The constant noise, she says, is what crushes her 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 their stuff is. It’s hard to paint a fictional setting when the constant buzz of my current setting blurs my thoughts.

Others, like writer Gillian McAllister, are most affected by the lack of fortuitous glimpses of other lives. “I think the writers are inspired by so many things like the clothes a stranger wears, the smell of their perfume, their body language, seeing a couple interacting in a bar,” she says. “I have to dig into my memories for this stuff, which is less authentic and lacks some kind of specific detail that I like to write about in ordinary times.”

Grant also felt “completely cut off from the material”. “I felt compelled to enter into this interiority, when there was no exterior, no exterior with which to engage,” she recalls. “You don’t have these conversations overheard on the buses, there is no stimulus. It’s just a kind of sea of ​​gray, of timelessness.

Holly Watt, author of the thriller To the Lionesses, found it difficult last year. “I realized that I took a lot of jokes from my friends and needed the conversation of normal life,” she says. “The other day my partner and I had a pretty long talk 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 there are days when I just can’t write.

Thriller writer Phoebe Morgan, who is also an editor at HarperCollins, finds the creative difference between last year’s lockdown and this year’s lockdown. “I don’t have kids, but the endless cycle of washing / cooking / chores combined with trying to move makes it feel like it’s stifling my creativity as a writer and also as an editor.” , she says. “I find it much more difficult to focus properly on reading exciting new submissions, as I feel like my brain is numb with the constant feeling of claustrophobia of being within the same four walls.”

She’ll sit down to write – her next book is due out to her publisher on May 1 – and will find herself noticing a corner of the floor that she hasn’t vacuumed, “like my mind is concentrating on those mundane details rather silly than doing what it’s supposed to do and putting the words on the page ”.

And how do you do research 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 bedroom window. friends the little garden below. ”. Mitchell, who is also a teacher, married to a teacher and a father of two young children, says that “doesn’t help.”

As Grant points out, this is “a unique example of a blue moon where every writer is affected by exactly the same situation.” “Even World War II was not the same, because men and women were affected differently. But we are all affected by it, ”she said.

So, are we likely to be inundated, a year from now, with mysteries of locked rooms or conscience novels about unloading the dishwasher? “This is a huge problem for contemporary novelists, most of whose novels take place in a non-specific version of now,” says Sutcliffe. “You can write a novel that takes place in 2013, 14, 15, but 2019, 20, 21 are three completely different worlds. We can’t have all the pandemic novels, but [assessing] the degree to which you recognize it is really difficult.

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