Criminal Leanings #10: Musings on writing (and reading) during the Lockdown.

I’m aware I haven’t done one of these in a while. I had a blog post planned for early March (pre-Covid, which seems a lifetime ago, there was so much happening in my writing, and I was so looking forward to sharing). Then the pandemic hit, and the world turned upside down.

In most ways, I have to say that my life as a writer more or less ground to a halt within the first two weeks of the pandemic. As most of you know, as well as being an author, I am Head of the Social Care Department in Waterford College of Further Education. When things are in their normal state, I teach for half the week and write for the other half. The pandemic changed that in one fell swoop.

As anyone involved in teaching will tell you, Covid shattered the status quo and I ended up manning the pumps of my department not just Monday through Friday, but out of hours and over the weekends too. Many students were deeply distressed, unsure of how they would ever qualify with the colleges closed. There was about three weeks of constant emailing, phone-calls and Zoom and Microsoft Team meetings trying to set a new world order in motion for my college. I have no doubt that many of you had similar experiences in your own work.

I spent an insane ten days scanning student work so it could be externed electronically. I performed interviews for next year’s bunch of social care students by phone, and I developed open-book exams so this year’s batch of students could finish the tremendous work they’ve been doing all year.

On top of this I tried to look after my own family and those particularly vulnerable within it. For the first month of the whole thing I was terrified: would I bring this plague back into my home, or maybe infect my parents-in-law, who I was also shopping for? What if I became ill myself? How would that impact the people around me? I’ve always been reasonably healthy, but I was seeing videos and stuff online about athletes half my age who’d ended up in intensive care…

In the end, I pretty much stopped using social media other than to discuss movies and music – I reckoned that art was a distraction we all needed. I avoided the panic and the debates about whether or not we should be scared (seeing as I already was, I didn’t need encouragement), and just tried to keep going. Running my Department was tough, but it was concrete and achievable. So was cutting the lawn and planting vegetables and cooking food.

When time allowed, I tried to write, but I found that very little would come. Book 2 of my audiobook series, Stories From the Margins (this one is called The Bad Place) is complete and has been going through some very minor edits. Those were easy – I love editing anyway, it feels very practical and is the real craft of writing.

Book 3 of Stories From the Margins (which is called Ceremony of the Dead) is half-finished, and was to be delivered at the end of May. That, I’m sorry to say, isn’t going to happen. I also have about 50 pages of the first in a new fiction series written (the book is called The Dark Archive, and it’s horror-crime), which I need to get working on too.

But every time I sat down to focus on either of these books, I found my mind drifting. I started thinking about college stuff, or jobs around the house or garden that I needed to do.

I wasn’t blocked – I knew exactly how the stories needed to develop and what was supposed to happen next; I just didn’t have the drive, the fire in me to write. My mind felt numb.

My great hero Charles Bukowski has a famous quote, which I often trot out myself: if it doesn’t pour out of you, don’t do it.

It wasn’t pouring. In fact, it wasn’t even dripping. So I stopped trying to force it.

And it wasn’t just writing that stopped, either. During Covid I’ve struggled to read. I began half a dozen books, but found myself going over the same paragraphs again and again. I tried all genres, even attempting to re-read some old favourites: I dug out some Dickens and some Robert B Parker and abandoned both. Finally I gave up.

I’ve heard this referred to as Lockdown Stress, or Covid Syndrome. The sense of unreality begins to pervade everything, and you go into a sort of segue state, like a computer in sleep mode. I decided to just roll with it. I reckoned I was working through this crisis in my own way, and normal service would resume eventually.

About a week ago, I felt something in me change. Maybe it was getting back up to the mountains as the distance we were allowed to go for exercise was extended. Maybe it was the numbers of deaths lessening each day. Maybe it was the knowledge the academic year was drawing to a close and that despite all the obstacles, my students had made it through.

The return to feeling better started with reading. One morning I decided it was time to shake off the fog, and I downloaded some graphic novels. In the space of a couple of days I consumed Sweet Tooth, by Jeff Lemire (I’ll do another post about what I’m reading, watching and listening to tomorrow), and it felt as if a weight had been lifted. Isn’t it incredible how beautiful writing can be truly purifying? I felt the words and images that book created literally washing through my consciousness, and everything felt brighter and fresher.

I moved straight onto another book, and before I knew it, my hunger for words was back.

This morning, I sent my agent an email, outlining my progress on the various projects we currently have on the go, and informing him that, as of next week, I’m back in the saddle. It feels good to know that my writing is waiting for me. All those stories, the characters involved, the worlds they exist in, all have been paused, just as the physical world has, but it is time to breathe life back into them. I know they’ll respond when I call.

Today I feel hopeful. I truly wish you all do, too.

2 thoughts on “Criminal Leanings #10: Musings on writing (and reading) during the Lockdown.

  1. THANK YOU, Shane! I’ve just finished writing a blog post, (three ripped up) scheduled for my website tomorrow, and your feelings about the pandemic pretty much mirror my own. Had I been expected to write a new story, it would have been a non-starter. As for books to read for pleasure, forget it! Now, as you say, the fog is clearing, things feel a bit less scary and I picked up a novel for pleasure yesterday. I hope you continue to feel better. Onwards and sideways, if not entirely upwards…

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    1. Thanks for those kind words Eve. Writing is a task that uses such a huge part of everything we are. I think that times like this drain that energy. But yes,we’re on the home stretch now. Time to look forward.

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