A plea for advice from a fellow writer, echoed a thousand times over from almost every country in the world: ‘How can I be – feel – creative in these awful times? I can’t concentrate. I have time and space, the words should be pouring out, but I’m stuck.’
My answer is to repeat my top favourite refrain: ‘Stay inside your story.’ It’s something I say over and over again to the writers I work with. I elaborate: ‘You’re creating characters with complex histories and fierce attachments, with desires and aspirations. Remain with them, keep as close as possible to their consciousness, to their journey along the path dictated by the goal they’re straining to reach. Face obstacles with them. Share their pain and frustration. Laugh with them.’
From within this bubble of enchantment, it is possible (I tell them) to ignore judgment and distraction: the dismissive voices that say they can’t write, their failure to incorporate weighty themes, the paltriness of their efforts compared with ‘the greats’ …
It works for fiction. In normal times. I’ve overseen its effectiveness over thirty years of creative writing teaching.
Yet even now, in times that are far from normal, the same mantra can apply – to life as well as to art. Here we are, scattered all over the world yet curiously united by an invisible yet potent outside force. Each of us in our bubble – forced into it, yet constantly disturbed and terror-stricken by the invisible might of an overwhelming viral army. ‘Remain at home.’ ‘Keep safe.’ The orders cascade upon us, with fearful consequences if we disobey. So we listen and, from within our Covid-induced bubble, we tune in constantly to an ever-succumbing world. We’re distracted, paralysed by our sense of helplessness, overwhelmed by the noise, the constant alarming babble in the wake of our silent enemy.
While of course we can’t ignore the impact of Covid19, we cannot (beyond remaining at home, keeping safe) affect it. So my refrain holds: ‘Stay inside your story.’ I’m referring to the piece of fiction you may be creating, which can be a brave and positive thing to come out of our times. I am also referring to the small-scale story each of us is living in our various lockdowns or lockups. Some of us are alone, dealing with solitude. Others are in pairs, unused to the constant company yet finding a way to rub along. Families are discovering things about one another that perhaps they’d rather not know but may lead to greater understanding in the future. Or not. Interesting, illuminating, whatever the outcome. At heart, it’s all about survival. And I believe that the longer, the harder, we work at staying inside the manageable scale of our stories, both real and imaginary, the stronger our chances will be.
These are supportive and helpful words. Writing in these times is not a distraction but a means to engage, to use energy and talent to navigate the strangeness of the situation we find ourselves in. The novel with which Shelley has been supporting me over the past months, focuses on a time when Ireland was impoverished, torn apart by war, ravaged by surges of disease, had no national framework for social support and was struggling to establish an identity.
My writing is important in and of itself, but also reminds of my good fortune – my agency as an independent woman, who can work to support herself, who has access to food, healthcare and education. Writing with this perspective about the struggles of my protagonist reminds me that I am fortunate, not just by comparison with the impoverished of history, but the impoverished of the present, who face this epidemic without the resources I have available to me.
So, by staying inside my protagonist’s story, I stay inside my own story and emerge each evening with a renewed sense of gratitude. And a determination to write again tomorrow.
Thank you for such a thoughtful and gratifying comment, Elaine – I’m delighted that my words resonated so strongly with you. Do keep staying inside your fascinating story – Shelley
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