Written to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, writer and editor Mike Pinnington considers the realities of trying to remain creative and productive in lockdown…
I’m a writer. I write mostly about art: exhibition reviews and previews for newspapers, websites and magazines, the occasional catalogue essay and other bits and pieces. I’m also editor-in-chief of arts criticism and cultural commentary publication, The Double Negative, but paid work mostly comes from freelance commissions. It can be a precarious existence at the best of times, never mind during a global pandemic. But I love what I do, and the day I agreed to write the piece you’re reading now, I was slap bang in the middle of an upsurge in productivity. Coronavirus aside, things were ok.
It seemed every time I pitched an article, I got a response back in the positive, and unsolicited work was coming my way, too – not unheard of, but always a pleasant surprise. In fact, so productive and fortunate was I feeling, that a bit of guilt started to creep in. Was I profiting from the virus when all around me were in dire straits? Had I somehow too successfully managed to use the restrictions of lockdown as the framework to create and thrive? The short answer was no. Our lives are rarely a straight line, especially right now, and productivity eventually gave way to something else.
Momentum was displaced by doubt, indecision, procrastination. That unholy trinity, allowed to breed, can lead to writer’s block – something I usually try to dismiss as simple doubt, indecision, procrastination. Ridiculous. Until it isn’t. By the time I sat down to write this piece, I didn’t know how or where to start. “What can I tell anybody about writing in a pandemic?”, I asked myself. How do I convey the difficulty of effectively producing ‘content’ right now? Writing in lockdown, it’s fair to say, has been an unpredictable series of peaks and troughs, resulting in a kind of all-or-nothing state. Much like my mood during this period of uncertainty, there have been very few moderate days.
If you’ve returned unscathed from doing the big shop, you’re doing ok. I’ve accepted – and try to remind myself – that this is a time of extremes rather than moderation.
Early on, though, it had been a welcome opportunity to catch my breath. I was receiving fewer spam emails and, as the pace of life seemed to slow, so too did the racing thoughts. Like my inbox, my mind gradually decluttered; I felt energised. On other days, though, I’d wake up worrying about how I’d organise my time. Where’s the structure without the meetings and the exhibitions to visit? More worrying: did I have enough work to see myself through this? Too much? How was I going to keep on top of it all, and could I really face another awkward Zoom meeting? The thoughts had started to race once more. Throw in one of the least helpful biproducts of this thing – those spouting nonsense along the lines of ‘if you don’t come out of lockdown with a book, a new language or skill, you’re doing something wrong’ – and it’s no surprise, really. But you can’t afford to be too hard on yourself. If you’ve returned unscathed from doing the big shop, you’re doing ok. I’ve accepted – and try to remind myself – that this is a time of extremes rather than moderation.
Allied to this, I’ve tried to keep a few general rules of thumb. These include using the initial one hour of sanctioned exercise a day as a stipulation, especially with some of the better weather we’ve had. I stopped watching rolling news, opting instead for the radio. (In fact, I’ve been listening to more music than I have for years. Try it if you’re not already.) I also began a regular film club on Twitter, watching a film on terrestrial TV, All4 or the iPlayer, so that everyone who wants to can join in. It’s not going to replace a trip to the cinema with friends, but it’s been great. I also subscribe to a couple of newsletters (I can recommend The ICA Daily and Nikesh Shukla’s Writing Tips), thus guaranteeing emails I’d want receive. All of which has given me a new routine, of sorts.
If you’re struggling, the key is to build slowly, gradually. The writing equivalent of putting one foot in front of the other.
In terms of more practical writing advice, something I’ve been doing for a while, is testing out thoughts, lines and
ideas, in Tweets. Somehow, putting stuff out there on so throwaway a platform removes much of the fear associated with the blank page. It’s a short form means of gauging the purchase of an argument or point of view in a handful of characters as opposed to a full-blown essay. Some of this piece began life drafted in a thread written in this way.
It got a few likes, which was encouraging; I felt like I was on the right track. Sometimes it’s all you need. If you’re struggling, the key is to build slowly, gradually. The writing equivalent of putting one foot in front of the other. Before you know it, you have a beginning, then a middle (sometimes, more appropriately, a ‘muddle’) and, eventually, an end. I almost always write this way – even in the best of times, when the words, sentences and paragraphs are flowing with relative ease. It’s something that I’ve found works for me.
Just as I felt I had a better grip on things, the gears of capitalism started to whir, and the message is coming loud and clear that we must get back to ‘normal’ – I received an email recently which began ‘In readiness for the end of lockdown.’ With no vaccine imminent, it was unwelcome, to say the least. Certain aspects of the lockdown have, paradoxically, been broadly beneficial – the slowing down (for some) of life, the increased bird song, the reduction in traffic. So, the impending return to life as we knew it is posing its own anxieties, but I’m aiming to combat it with some of the lessons learned during this time. Principally, let’s try to remember to be kind to ourselves and to look out for each other.
Mike Pinnington is a writer and editor based in Liverpool. He is editor-in-chief of The Double Negative, an online platform for Arts Criticism & Cultural Commentary.