Struggling to read, or write? How to be creative in lockdown

Are you finding it hard to concentrate, or don’t know where to start? Michael Frayn, Marian Keyes, Richard Osman and more share their tips

Richard Osman: ‘Give yourself two hours today to sit and write’

So you’ve had the idea for a couple of years. Perhaps it is about the sexual awakening of a young farm boy during the endless Dordogne summer of 1936? Or perhaps it is about lawyers in space, and all the judges fire laser beams out of their eyes? But work has got in the way, or kids have got in the way, or, more likely, the doubting voice in the back of your head has told you not to bother. Who do you think you are?

Richard Osman.
Richard Osman. Photograph: Hal Shinnie/Channel 4

That’s certainly how I felt when I sat down to write The Thursday Murder Club. I knew I liked the idea. It had been waking me up early, keeping me company on the bus, and interrupting me during meetings. However I would only have to read a wonderful novel by Kate Atkinson or Ian Rankin to lose heart. I could never write like them.

But then I made a deal with myself, and you will need to make this deal too. I chose to ignore the doubting voice for a month. Just one month. I made myself sit down for two hours a day and write. For me it was 1,000 words at a time. I didn’t go back and revise the previous day’s work. I didn’t fuss over the opening sentence. I wrote 20,000 words in that month, and, honestly, at that point there was no turning back. My story existed, my characters existed, and I had a routine I knew I could stick to.

And that’s how I continued. I told no one, except those closest to me. And I showed no one. As things progressed I would spend more and more time going back into what I’d written, editing, revising, improving, but the word count kept slowly rising. It wasn’t Atkinson or Rankin, but I came to realise that was a good thing, because they already exist.

Around 18 months later, there it was: 90,000 words; an actual novel. The proudest, and hardest, creative achievement of my life. A long, difficult, painful, frustrating, exposing process. But achieved two hours at a time, 1,000 words at a time.

Of course, as lots of people will tell you, you really don’t have to write your novel at all. No one is walking into Waterstones and saying: “I tell you what this place needs, another book.” I mean, no one’s walking into Waterstones at all at the moment, but you take my point. But no one else is going to write the book that’s in your head right now. Which seems a shame. So why not have a go? Sitting here, halfway through a sequel, I can’t begin to describe the buzz. Which should give you an idea of my skills as a novelist.

Perhaps just give yourself two hours today. Sit and write: 200 words, 500 words, 1,000 words, it doesn’t matter. Begin at the beginning if you want, begin in the middle. Describe the heat of Dordogne, or sentence someone to death on a distant planet. Then tomorrow do the same thing.

And good luck. I look forward to reading it.

Marian Keyes: ‘If you have a vague idea, just start with that. Anything is better than nothing’

Marian Keyes.
‘If you think: “I’ve got to write an entire book and work on it all today,” that’s way too scary’ ... Marian Keyes. Photograph: IBL/REX/Shutterstock

My advice is very pragmatic. If people are thinking of using this time to write, it is work. I don’t know if people want to hear that right now, but books don’t write themselves. If somebody wants to write something they need to agree with themselves that they’re going to devote a certain amount of time each day to trying to produce words. I promise myself either that I’ll write for an hour a day, or 1,000 words a day. At the moment the hour is easier because it’s smaller, and often by the time the hour is up I’ve managed to get into it and I can keep going. If you sit down and think: “I’ve got to write an entire book and work on it all today,” that’s way too scary.

You don’t have to start with the structure. And you don’t have to start at the beginning. If you have a vague idea of a sentence, a scene, a paragraph, the storyline, just start with that. Anything is better than nothing. It doesn’t have to be chronological and it doesn’t even have to make narrative sense at the moment. If you write something and you’re not really sure where it’s coming from, go with it anyway and see if it’s telling you something about a different direction that might be worth exploring.

Kerry Hudson: ‘Don’t feel the need to complete a huge project’

Kerry Hudson
Kerry Hudson. Photograph: Iain Masterton/Alamy

I am “high risk” for the virus so am leaving the house only twice a week ... suffice to say, I have never been more grateful for my work. So, some tips: do what makes you feel good. Don’t feel the need to complete a huge project. These are frightening, uncertain times and you don’t need to put more pressure on yourself.

Use this time to do something completely unique and out of your comfort zone. If there is ever time for wild creative abandon and “play” the time is now. I still have deadlines and bills to pay but in my own time I’m finding real pleasure in pushing the boundaries of my writing without expectation of success or outcome.

Michael Frayn: ‘Keep it all nice and simple’

Michael Frayn.
Michael Frayn. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

There’s nothing I can tell you – you know it all already. You wrote those letters home describing your adventures on your travels. You told those stories about the people you work with that made everyone laugh so much. So just write another letter home, but this time about some adventures you didn’t have yourself. Tell us a story about some people you don’t actually work with. Yes – invent a few characters, and they’ll be so grateful to you for bringing them into the world that they’ll do things off their own bat and make up their own dialogue, which will spare you a lot of hard work. And they’ll be a bit of company for you in your isolation. Then just choose the right start point and get everything in the right order – exactly the way you did in your letters and stories – and you’re pretty much there. Keep it all nice and simple, and have a good time doing it. If you enjoy it yourself, just possibly someone else might, too.

Sara Collins: ‘Taking a break usually unlocks something’

Sara Collins.
Sara Collins. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

If I had a pound for every time someone said: “Well, at least now you can write your novel” … It’s frustrating because A, all of my other work has disappeared, and B, it’s not exactly premium concentration time, because working on a novel actually requires discipline and isolation.

I’m the kind of writer who’s superstitious about my routine: starting with coffee and music. So I am going back to all those rituals and structuring my time like a normal working day. For me it’s eight until lunch, then until about four or five, and then physical activity of some kind.

We may think of the house as ours during the day, and we’re now going to have share it. So it’s important to try to carve out some space. If I am stuck I can still go for a walk or call a friend for a chat. Taking a break usually unlocks something because you suppress thinking about the work and your subconscious bubbles away at it. The aim is a bit of relaxation; to stop actively thinking about whatever creative problem you have. Your subconscious works away at it while you’re doing something else.

Jessie Burton: ‘Disable your internet for an hour or two’

Right now we need the sense of connection the internet can provide, but I would say if you want to write then try to disable your internet for an hour or two. Where I write in the house I can’t actually get a signal. It’s a completely different rhythm, quieter, more internal. But that doesn’t happen immediately.

Jessie Burton: ‘I’ve been working alone for seven years now and you do have to reach out to people.’
Jessie Burton: ‘I’ve been working alone for seven years now and you do have to reach out to people.’ Photograph: Lara Downie

Many people are panicking about not being with colleagues. I’ve been working alone for seven years now and you do have to reach out to people – I keep in touch with friends via WhatsApp – and it’s important to have proper breaks.

The reality is you will be fighting against other demands on your time. Many writers are more disciplined than you’d think. They have regimes more like accountants than bohemian wastrels. We can be fairly boring people who sit and finish the book.

Kit de Waal: ‘There’s a lot to be gained by not writing, but thinking’

Kit de Waal.
Kit de Waal. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

The obvious thing for me is to not put yourself under pressure to be creative, because that never produces your best work. If you’re sitting and thinking: “Why can’t I write?” well, you can’t write because you’re not paying the rent, or you’ve got three kids at home, or you’re lonely. So I would say it’s not the end of the world if you do jigsaws for the next two months. I haven’t written anything since this crisis started, but I know it will come back.

There’s a lot to be gained by not writing, but thinking. Not catastrophising, but contemplating a piece of work that you’ve done that maybe doesn’t work or hasn’t worked in the past. Ask yourself, what is wrong with this? Can I talk to someone about why it doesn’t work?

One exercise I did on my creative writing MA was to write a parody of another author. So if you haven’t got anything to say, or you’re not sure where to start, write about 500 words describing your living room as Ernest Hemingway would describe it, or Jane Austen. It’s not going anywhere. It’ll probably never see the light of day, no one’s going to read it, but it will keep you working.

Joe Dunthorne: ‘Read less news’

Joe Dunthorne.
Joe Dunthorne. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

In the beginning, I read my phone constantly. I took it to bed with me, scrolled minute-by-minute pandemic updates before trying but failing to sleep. It probably didn’t help that my wife is about to give birth. Needless to say, I didn’t do much reading or writing at this time.

Since then, I’ve been trying to regain some distance from the crisis. The most helpful thing was the most obvious: reading less news. I discovered you can use the “adult content” settings on your phone to block specific websites. So now, if I want to read about the pandemic on my phone – or watch pornography – then my wife has to type in a secret pin code. I can confirm this is an excellent deterrent. There’s also the challenge of trying to concentrate in the presence of a disruptive housemate or, as he insists on being called, my son.

Even when I do manage to find some uninterrupted time, editing seems more appealing than writing. I can happily spend an hour moving a few commas around. But nothing can compete with the true relief of slumping numbly on the sofa. On that note, I want to thank the editors of BBC iPlayer for putting the Indiana Jones film Raiders of the Lost Ark right there on the front page, beside the link to Newsnight. Blue pill or red pill? Naturally, I took the soothing blue pill. And I did manage to take away an aspirational life lesson. As an archaeologist, Indiana Jones proves that, if you find something you really care about, it’s possible to concentrate under even the most extreme pressure. Look how he admires an ancient Egyptian headpiece while poisoned spears are flying past his head.


Richard Osman, Marian Keyes, Kerry Hudson, Michael Frayn ,Sara Collins, Jessie Burton, Kit de Waal and Joe Dunthorne

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