Writing in extraordinary times
Writing can be an amazing way of recording what is happening around us with each poet giving voice to their own particular experience. This coming together can document the time, resonate with others and produce a collective, artistic record. But what if this new lockdown left you feeling numb and unable to move forward?
Sarah Salway, what guidance might you give a fellow poet who feels creatively deadened by the lockdown?
I still go cold when I remember those initial memes and ‘motivational’ advice about how we should be like Shakespeare who wrote through the plague, and how this was finally the time to finish our great novels because I can’t be the only one who felt like a failure!
One of the things I’ve noticed creatively is how much I miss the random surprise of going to an exhibition and seeing a painting that inspires new thoughts, going to the theatre, people watching, or talking easily to strangers in a pub or poetry reading. So I think the solution is that we all have to be kinder to ourselves at this time and rather than worry about output we should gently be proactive about our input, if that makes sense. Some ways I’ve done this is through:
- weekly online writing workshops with two poet friends where we have been giving each other prompts to finish within a week. The joy is that they don’t have to be perfect, and following someone else’s prompts means I’m not going over my old ground.
- I’ve organised silent writing sessions with other writing friends so we all click into the same Zoom room and write together but silently, apart from a quick hello and goodbye at the end. Strange, but it is nice to look up and see someone else hunched over the page. Also the accountability makes me turn up to the page!
- There’s a wonderful organisation someone told me about called Street Wisdom. You download their app and it helps you formulate a question as you walk, and then you look for answers to come up through what you notice. It’s one of the things I’ve been using it to get ideas for stories and poems, because it’s amazing how many random things I might have missed otherwise without this focus.
- Actually I guess that’s the three main things I’d offer to someone who feels deadened – be prepared for imperfection and try to have fun with your writing, give yourself some accountability, and to throw a frame or focus over your walks. Oh, and to be kind to yourself.
Do you think writing a little and often could help, or should we wait for the muse to find us?
What was it Picasso said? ‘Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.’ I’ve certainly found that the act of writing always helps me write more, even if it’s freewriting or notes. It really is the ‘act’, rather than whether it’s good or bad. I’ve been asked so often for suggestions for freewriting prompts that I designed a free 30 day challenge, ink and inspiration, on my website – https://www.sarahsalway.co.uk/free-stuff/ink-and-inspiration. It’s a little lockdown gift for other writers, although I do use it myself and I absolutely loved putting it together.
I think we can get too hung up on what ‘writing’ is. Does it have to be brilliant and publishable in order to be ‘writing’, or can we just enjoy doing it? I suppose that’s why I keep thinking about the process of doing it. I mostly write with pen and journal so it really is tactile, but god, I miss writing in cafes. With drinks I haven’t made myself.
If we feel we cannot write, is there something else we could do to nurture ourselves?
I think so, but all suggestions are going to be so individual. I love long baths, but my partner considers them the devil. His idea of nurturing himself is a cold and muddy walk, preferably scrambling over dangerous terrain!
One of my favourite writing and wellbeing activities is the list of 100 – there’s something magic about that number because the first 30 will be predictable, the second 30 will be more stretching, but the final 40 will be often where the juice can be found. The trick is to do it quickly – it should take you about 20 minutes to finish all 100 and repetition is encouraged because it tells you something.
So perhaps one thing we can do to nurture ourselves is to write a list of 100 things we (not anyone else or what we think we should do) would like to – and can – do right now. However odd. However small.
The link between wellbeing and creative writing is well documented. Do you think there is a way we can use creative writing during lockdown to help ourselves through this difficult time?
Well, the list of 100 above is one, and I hope my 30 days of prompts is a way of having fun and surprising ourselves, but I also find there’s something about writing about what we’re going through right now that is helping me.
I feel so hopeless and angry about the Government, the situation, everything, but just writing about it makes me feel I have a voice. And stops it going round and round in my head. It certainly helps me more than just shouting at the news!
I haven’t been keeping a diary as such – although now I wish I had – but I have been writing vignettes about some of the odd things we are doing now and treating as normal. Thinking about language helps me too, and all those words we casually drop into conversation – lockdown, furlough, PPE – that we’d never heard of before. Writing it all down helps me notice the oddness of it all, and that feels important. I don’t want to get used to these times.
Last March you became seriously ill with Covid and the recovery time is long and slow. How did this experience change the way you perceived things in general, and creativity in particular?
Yes, it was a rough time. I was hospitalised on oxygen for six days, and although luckily I didn’t get Long Covid, I have noticed differences. I think I’m fully recovered now (touch wood) but I got so tired for a long time and also had such bad brain fog that I couldn’t remember even basic words, not ideal for a writer!
I’ve had a lot of help – my local hospital, Pembury, have been brilliant, and the respiratory physio there actually told me to read as a way of regaining concentration which was interesting. I can see the benefits, reading stops me doomscrolling on social media – doomscrolling, there’s another word I hadn’t heard before this year.
When I got ill, I’d been working on a novel about an 18th century gardener, but it seemed ridiculous to be writing about the past when what was happening right now was actually where my heart was. I started writing blog posts as a way of helping other people, but also making sense for myself about my experiences.
And then I felt a real urge to write poems. I think this was because the shape worked as a container for a lot of difficult emotions, and also because it helped to lose myself in choosing the exact right word, line break, and even rhythm for what I wanted to say. There was an element of organisation in the writing that I wasn’t finding in my life!
Recently though I’ve been loving reading and watching TV for escapism, and I keep finding myself thinking about my handsome Georgian gardener so who knows! To go back to your original question, maybe this is the answer – to let ourselves follow what we need to do right now.
As well as her six books, Sarah’s writing has appeared in a number of publications, including the Virago Book of Shopping, the Poetry of Sex (Penguin Books), Poetry London, the Financial Times, Psychologies magazine, and has been commissioned by BBC Radio 4.
She loves teaching creative writing, and is so passionate about words that in 2018, she did a TEDx Talk above..
She is a Hawthornden Fellow, former Canterbury Laureate, and has twice been awarded international residential Fellowships from Virginia Center for Culture and Arts in the US. She has taught in Universities for many years, and as the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science for three years, she supported students and staff with their academic writing. She currently runs a long-standing Reading Group in Kent.