Two years after the first UK lockdown, writers Shamini Sriskandarajah and Elodie Barnes reflect on how the restrictions (and opportunities) of Covid-19 have altered and shaped their creative practices.
Shamini: It’s a cliché to say, but time has been such a weird thing during the pandemic, hasn’t it? Right at the start, it felt like the longest March I could remember. But then, the next few months zoomed by.
Elodie: Time has completely changed! It was one of the first things I noticed, because I left my job at the start of the pandemic. Perhaps on paper it wasn’t the best timing, but lockdown gave me the impetus I needed after months of wanting to but not quite having the nerve. My original plan had been to go travelling again for a little while, but of course that didn’t happen and so suddenly not only were we in lockdown, but my days were completely my own in a place that I hadn’t planned on being.
One of the first things I noticed, though, was that time no longer seemed to drag. You know those days when you look at the clock, convinced at least an hour must have passed but it’s barely five minutes since you last looked? Those ended for me. Time seemed to smooth itself out, and I lost the constant feeling of lurching towards the evening, or the weekend, or my next holiday period. Every day was the same. I know so many people found that aspect of lockdown incredibly frustrating and difficult, but after four years of effectively working shifts, “on call” for whenever the business needed me and not really being able to plan much ahead, I actually found it very soothing despite the circumstances surrounding it. And being able to set my own schedule made a real difference to my writing.
Shamini: That does make sense – it took me a while, but eventually I appreciated the opportunity lockdown gave me to dedicate time for writing every week, rather than snatched moments writing on the train or when I was early for work, and occasional trips to the library or a cafe. But it hasn’t been easy to sustain! I remember an exercise from the Write & Shine Summer Salon that we both attended, where host and author Gemma Seltzer got us to write our own list of Writing Dos or Don’ts, and I still find those really helpful when I feel like I’m flagging. Here’s my list:
- Do treat it like a part time job, and find “shifts” that suit you and are realistic and reasonable, and stick to them as if you had an employer.
- Do allow for sickness, annual leave, weekends and bank holidays, as a good employer would.
- Do have committed writing-only time, where you briefly note anything you want to research or check later. Then you can do the checking or go down a research rabbit hole later for a treat!
- Do consider how to make tasks different and enjoyable, maybe different music or locations for writing, for editing, for researching.
- Do get a drink and a snack and go to the toilet before you start (that way you can avoid breaking away from your writing mid-flow because you really need a drink/food/the toilet!).
- Do try to limit the things that you know sap your energy and hope, e.g. social media, uncaring/unsupportive people.
- Do remind yourself of the good and great and fun and silly writing you have done in the past, going way back to your stories when you first learned how to make up stories. You are a writer. You never stopped being a writer; you just stopped writing sometimes.
- Do put your devices on “do not disturb” if possible while you’re writing.
Elodie: I love your list of dos and don’ts! I can’t find mine now, but I do remember two of them: “All life is art; remember you are creating even when you aren’t writing”, and “Not everything should be published, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t need to be written.” Sometimes I find myself getting sucked into the cycle of writing, submitting, writing, submitting, and not only does it take the joy out of writing, I sometimes end up submitting pieces that aren’t ready or that I’d really rather keep to myself. So I keep those ‘rules’ on a post-it note on my laptop!
Shamini: Those are wonderful! And I remember you talking in the salon about how everything is art, the way we love someone, even the way we dress – I thought that was a gorgeous statement.
Elodie: I actually stole that from Helena Bonham Carter! The full quote is:
“I think everything in life is art. What you do. How you dress. The way you love someone, and how you talk. Your smile and your personality. What you believe in, and all your dreams. The way you drink your tea. How you decorate your home. Or party. Your grocery list. The food you make. How your writing looks. And the way you feel. Life is art.”
It’s such an inspiration to me, I have it printed out and stuck on my bookcase. It’s been a good reminder over the last two years to try looking for beauty and creativity everywhere, even – or perhaps especially – where it’s not obvious or when writing is difficult.
Shamini: And there have been so many times when writing has been difficult. When we first thought about doing a joint piece after that week-long Summer Salon in 2021, I was full of excitement and enthusiasm, but a bunch of rejections and end of summer blues poured cold water over my writing. There was also the privilege versus diversity issue that came up in August, when passages were shared of a memoir that contained language that was racist, anti-semitic, prejudiced against children who are disabled, autistic, working class, considered fat or unattractive, and described actions that felt like safeguarding red flags. I felt utterly despondent, and gaslit by people in the publishing industry who defended the book and attacked the women of colour and the autistic writer who had critiqued it. (And the whole battle has resurfaced now, almost echoing the gaslighting of the government. As if to say: You think you have all this evidence, but we’re in power and we’re going to shout the loudest, so shut up and stay in your place.)
I get disheartened easily, but I eventually pick myself back up. I keep reminding myself that there are decent people in publishing who actually listen to the struggles of others, and for whom diversity isn’t a meaningless tick-box issue (like the people who signed the Bad Form open letter). And I’d like to think I’m mindful of language when I write – I created a style guide when I was an editorial assistant that included how to write sensitively about different issues – but it’s reiterated the need to have my writing checked by other people. When I write academic articles that are from my intersectional feminist perspective, they are double blind peer reviewed, and that process ensures my writing is still balanced, fair and respectful. I don’t see why we can’t use a similar process for non-academic writing.
Sorry, I’m digressing!
Elodie: Not at all! It’s so important to have these discussions. Issues like this keep repeating themselves and it’s so frustrating. I know it’s very naive and unrealistic to expect the situation of the pandemic to have made much difference to people’s prejudices and bigotry, but there was also a small part of me that thought if we can’t be a better society now, then when? Like you, I found I was getting quite despondent. It was certainly a difficult time in which to write.
Shamini: That makes sense but I wonder if you’re more of a glass half-full person than me. I try to be hopeful, but I’m naturally quite cynical!
Getting back to the writing process during the pandemic, I was on a DIY four-day writing retreat in Brighton when we started this joint piece in November 2021. As a carer, it gave me the physical and mental space to focus, without constantly stopping and starting or keeping an ear open for my sister. There’s something about dedicating a short week to writing – it’s a good length of time, I think, useful but realistic. The Royal Society of Literature brought out a report a couple of years ago for Dalloway Day called A Room of My Own, about what modern writers need in order to be able to write. The main requirement is still physical space.
It was also lovely because I was there when Arachne Press held their online book launch for Where We Find Ourselves, and it was so nice to join and read my poem to the other writers and editors, and my friends and family, with fireworks going off in the distance (I’d like to think they were for Deepavali, but I suspect they were for Guy Fawkes’ Night!). Cherry Potts, the director of Arachne Press, usually bakes a cake for book launches, so I made sure I was caked up!
Elodie: Cake is always good! A four-day DIY retreat also sounds wonderful. Is that something you think you’d do regularly, if you could?
Shamini: I’m not sure how regularly I could manage it, mainly because of the cost (I’ve been unwaged for a couple of years; I only started receiving Carer’s Allowance at the end of 2021) and the guilt of leaving my parents to look after my disabled sister by themselves, but once or twice a year would be great. I just got a rejection for my first application for Arts Council England funding, but I will get back on the horse and try again!
Elodie: Oh, good luck second time around! The idea that physical space is still so necessary really resonates with me. I don’t have caring responsibilities, but I live in a small one-bed flat with my partner. There’s no space for me to write other than at the small dining table (which is in a corner of the living room) or on the sofa – and I think that was my biggest challenge in writing over the past couple of years. With cafes and libraries shut for a good part of it, there was literally nowhere else to go. I remember last summer becoming so desperate for somewhere else to write that I took my laptop to the beach, in the rain, and sat in the car with it! I’ve spent some time recently making that corner of the living room into “my” space. I moved my bookshelf there, bought a proper desk chair (that I can store in the coat cupboard when I’m not using it!), and moved some pictures around so that my favourites are there. And even that’s made a massive difference to how I feel about it. It’s not ideal, but life very rarely is.
This year, though, I’ve also discovered that a lot of my writing happens during everyday life, and not at a desk at all. I’m thinking about writing when I’m walking, when I’m doing yoga, when I’m cooking…During the first months of the pandemic I tried to stick to some kind of daily “sit down at the table and write” routine, but quickly found that it didn’t work for me. It was also impossible to stick to after I had Covid – it was several months before I had even half of my previous energy back, and I just didn’t have the stamina to sit and work for extended periods of time. Now I’ve learned that most pieces get drafted several times in my head before they ever see the page, but accepting that has been its own challenge. Our society has such fixed ideas of what work should look like, and I had no idea how ingrained those ideas were in me. But I have the pandemic to thank for those realisations. It’s given me space and time to figure out what works best for me, which I would never have done had I still been in my job and working in that corporate environment. But, having said that, I did find the structure of the summer salon incredibly helpful. I don’t think I couldn’t have sustained it for very long, but for that week it was wonderful to have the time set aside to be inspired with new pieces or work on old ones.
Shamini: I’m really sorry to hear you got Covid and suffered so much afterwards. But I’m so pleased you invested in a proper desk chair and have created a proper desk space. That’s such a significant change to your work life.
Writers on Twitter warned me about back problems when I admitted to writing in/on my bed most of the time during the first year of the pandemic. But I did feel less embarrassed when The Guardian ran a lockdown series called “The Bed Office” where advocates included Jeremy Paxman and Keeley Hawes, and I think Vikram Seth wrote the whole of A Suitable Boy in bed! In the second year, I started using a table or chest of drawers, and on New Year’s Day this year I started writing in a tidied-up corner of the shed, which is better because it has a proper office chair and separation from home. Even when it’s cold, it feels cosy writing in front of a heater with my metal thermos of tea that I bought years ago after I read Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. Maybe it will inspire some beautiful writing like hers!
I can’t drive but I love the idea of driving somewhere beautiful like you did and writing in the car, even when it rains. Working in a car sounds familiar! I did my Zoom interview with the literary agent Judith Murray for the Greene & Heaton mentoring programme in a car because it was the quietest place to talk – luckily, Judith was so friendly and thought I was being practical (rather than weird). She emailed an hour afterwards to say she wanted to mentor me. I was thrilled!
Elodie: Getting onto the mentorship scheme is amazing, congratulations!
Shamini: Ah, thank you! I also understand that process of beginning to understand your own writing and your own ways of working. In the last few years, for example, I’ve come to accept the fact I’m not good at making up a brand new story. I can take something from real life and turn it into something that walks a line between fiction and non-fiction. I can come up with new fictional ideas occasionally, but I can’t sustain them for a whole short story. Now, though, I’ve reached the point where I feel more positive about focusing on life writing and poetry (which almost feels like a different form of life writing to me), and I don’t feel like I’m not a “proper” writer because I struggle to write fiction.
I enjoy the variety of projects I work on – I’m quite butterfly-minded – but the downside is I juggle too many projects sometimes and I don’t stay with one for long enough. I find Nina Mingya Powles incredibly inspiring – she describes herself as a poet who writes essays on the side, whereas I feel like an essayist who writes poetry on the side – and when she spoke at the salon I was interested to hear how she integrates the different parts of her identity and her life (her ethnicity and the places she’s lived and that feel like home) and food. Food is so bound up with memories and emotions and people.
It sounds like you also juggle a lot of different writing projects. Do you enjoy that, the variety of work, or are there some types of writing you’d prefer to focus on?
Elodie: I am also butterfly-minded (that’s such a great way of putting it!), and in the past I’ve found that I can’t concentrate on one writing project for too long. At the beginning of the pandemic I was moving between lots of different things: editing the Life in Languages series at Lucy Writers, writing poetry and flash fiction, and dabbling in some more personal nonfiction. I was flitting between writing styles, and I felt quite torn about that! When I was writing one thing I always wanted to be writing another. I didn’t really have a ‘project’ or a goal as such, either. I had ideas for longer works but could never stick with them long enough to see them through properly, and now I think it’s simply because I was still experimenting, finding my voice and the form I’m most comfortable in. I was very new to writing and, having never studied creative writing or English Lit or anything even remotely related, was very much trying to find my own feet. I still am!
Shamini: I’m glad I’m not the only one who has a grass-is-greener problem with my writing! This is the downside to having different interests and projects. I love that meme about unfinished projects versus the allure of a new project idea.
At the start of the pandemic, I opened up a new document and started writing about the weirdness. I had just finished a four-week life writing and ethics course at Goldsmiths and the last lesson was surreal – there were fewer than half of us because the others were being cautious and self-isolating, we were spaced out in a lecture theatre instead of huddled around tables in a small room, one person was worried about their freelance work stopping and we were all worried about one person who’d emailed us about their relative getting Covid. It was the last time I went out without a mask, and soon after that I would be shielding for months. But I kept writing new vignettes about mundane stuff like going to the supermarkets when the shelves were empty, angry stuff about the way the government was handling things, and the paranoid feeling that their plan was to let the elderly and disabled and vulnerable take the brunt of the death toll.
Elodie: It was so weird, wasn’t it? Horribly weird, and terrifying. So much of it – the terminology, the new habits and routines – became normal, but the fear and the anger were still very much there. I will admit that the language we started to use fascinated me. Terms like “self isolation” and “social distance” were forced on us, and I remember thinking that “isolation” and “distance” would have worked just as well. Adding “self” and “social” seemed to just be a constant reminder of the things we were losing.
I didn’t write about it, though. I sometimes wonder whether I should have done, even just for myself, as a kind of journal of what was happening, but I think it was all too immediate for me. I needed my writing (and reading) to be more comforting.
Shamini: That’s a good point about the language of the pandemic. I can understand the reluctance to write about the pandemic when it was/is happening – it feels too unsettling so why would you want to think about it more than you have to? I did have escapism, too – I had been working on a travel and city writing book, and I found it comforting to reminisce about my travels over the last twelve years or so, big trips to Canada to see family and friends, work trips to European cities, and weekends in British cities. The travel writing balanced my mood and was an escape from the reality of spring 2020!
It’s something I’ve continued to work on during the pandemic. I submitted to a few call outs from agents or editors (it always helps me to have a concrete deadline!). I got feedback early in 2021 that the best chapter was the one about visiting my sister in a care home a year after my wedding was cancelled, because there was a lot of heart, but the chapters about just going to a city for work or pleasure didn’t have the same impact. That was hard to take at first, because I had put so much into this project, but eventually it made sense, and really it was telling me what I already knew. There’s a balance in the chapters that are about people I love or loved – pain and heartbreak and tenderness – which means the bits about me going for a lovely dinner by myself have more resonance, because maybe it feels like the happiness is earned. I’m hoping I can revisit this project with writer and academic Jenny Chamarette, who is my brilliant Lucy Writers’ What the Water Gave Us mentor, and inject a bit more heart and soul into it.
Elodie: Before the pandemic most of my writing inspiration also came from travelling, not just from the places I went to but from the actual experience of it: the feeling of being away from home, the sense of in-betweenness and not really belonging anywhere, and the searching that seems to be inherent in travel, always looking to the next place. During the first lockdowns, I felt a bit lost without that. I started to read a lot of travel writing, and got very attached to a Paul Theroux quote (from his book Fresh Air Fiend): “Travel is a state of mind. It has nothing to do with existence or the exotic. It is almost always an inner experience.” I found that very inspiring during 2020. It was almost like an invitation to travel within the confines of the home for the first time, to make the effort with different daily walks, to pay attention and notice things around me even when I really didn’t want to or would rather have been somewhere (anywhere!) else. I live in a rural area surrounded by nature, and I started a personal nature journal that simply recorded where I’d walked, the plants and birds I saw that I taught myself to identify, the slight changes each day as the seasons shifted. I don’t think I ever used much of it as “proper” writing, but it still felt like an important thing to do, and I took a lot of photos too.
I find, though, that when nature does creep into my writing I have the tendency to go for the abstract rather than realistic. I did an online taster workshop a few months ago with Beyond Form Creative Writing, and one of the prompts from Declan Wiffen was to take a piece of nature (a flower, or a stone, or a leaf, something small like that) and simply to describe it, without putting anything personal in, or using metaphors, or linking it to anything beyond itself; a little bit like Derek Jarman did in his diaries, where he describes the Dungeness coast and his garden so beautifully. I found that surprisingly challenging, and a great exercise for when I feel like my writing is getting a bit too ‘out there’!
Shamini: That’s such a beautiful way of reframing lockdown – being invited to travel within your home and your local area.
I love the idea of nature writing, because I’ve trained and worked as a florist, and in summer 2021 I qualified as a Social and Therapeutic Horticulture Practitioner. But I struggle to write about nature in a way that I’d want to read. For example, I loved Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, because so much was about her relationships with her family and her grief and being a woman, and I felt like I was with her as she walked the Pacific Crest Trail. But I couldn’t connect with a few well-regarded nature memoirs because they seemed too literary or philosophical. I don’t know how to explain it, exactly. Maybe not grounded enough, which doesn’t sound right, because nature is grounding!
When we did the Summer Salon, there was an exercise where we wrote about water to the sound of a waterfall. I wrote about two visits to the Lake District, because the sound reminded me of a stream I saw there. But those two memories are so strong because of the people around me, not the nature itself. One was a school trip which I’d paid for, but by the time the trip happened I’d dropped out of the sixth form. The other was a trip with my dad, and was the first time I’d gone on holiday with just him. I’ve been to many beautiful places, but I don’t remember most of them as vividly because there wasn’t the same connection with relationships and events in my life at the time.
Elodie: That’s interesting – I also struggle with reading a lot of nature writing, but my own most vivid memories are always of the place itself, not the people I was with at the time! I often travel solo, so maybe that’s why. Some of my best trips (and longer walks) have been alone and in the middle of nowhere. Wales is a particular favourite – I’ve never felt so happy and free as I have walking along the cliffs on Anglesey, looking back towards Snowdonia in one direction and over the sea to Ireland in the other. It feels like I’m on the edge of the world, and I’ve craved that feeling more and more over the past couple of years! It’s ironic, I suppose, that I still want that even after so many months of not being allowed to see people, but the pandemic has really shown me the difference between loneliness and solitude, between isolation imposed from outside and isolation I choose for myself.
During the last half of 2021, though, I found it increasingly difficult to write anything, even that nature journal. I think I was still recovering from the illness and bereavements that made up 2021 – as well as having Covid, my brother-in-law died and we also lost an uncle. Over the summer I ended up writing a very strange, very surreal, very nature-focused piece on grief, and that drained me a little. I couldn’t focus on much after that, and I also didn’t want to keep writing about the same things. I needed a rest and I needed some new inspiration.
So I made a conscious decision at the beginning of November to not write. Or, at least, to not write unless I really wanted to. There were a few opportunities – this conversation included! – that came up that I really wanted to do and so said yes to, but they really were the exceptions, and I never thought that not writing every day would be the relief that it was. I didn’t even want to read, and so I ended up watching a lot of films instead. I also watched plays online, and from those I found my way to YouTube videos of actors talking about their craft, particularly characterisation (the videos of the late Helen McCrory talking about her roles as Medea, and as Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea , both at the National Theatre, are my favourites). I used to love the theatre when I was younger, and – as well as feeling good to reconnect with that side of myself – it gave me a whole different perspective on my writing. Despite being more of a ‘solo’ person who likes their own company, I am fascinated by the intimate relationships between people: as family, lovers, friends, even strangers that we share moments with. How do we navigate those, what are the emotions that play out? What is it, within us, that makes all these relationships possible, and how can we portray that?
This year, I’ve been working on some short stories. It feels a bit daunting after writing so much flash fiction and poetry – taking a story above 2000 words felt like I’d entered uncharted territory! – but the stories that I want to tell now need more words and I’m happy to go with the flow. It’s good to be writing again whatever it is, and ultimately my goal is a short story collection.
What are you working on now? Are you finding your writing has changed with the easing of lockdowns and things opening up more?
Shamini: Yes, I found my pandemic memoir was full of fear and frustration in the early months, stressed about shielding with my disabled sister and extremely clinically vulnerable father, feeling very angry with and let down by the government and social services. I felt like it was some of the best writing I’d done in a long time – it was so raw and immediate, there was no over-thinking sentences or worrying about the reader. But over time, it slowed down and became less frequent and spontaneous. I wouldn’t write for weeks, then I’d write a long piece about going to the supermarket for the first time in months, or meeting a friend outdoors for lunch, and I also felt more of an obligation to write. Like: this was significant, I should write about it. I was taking much longer and overthinking things like I used to. I also found it harder to write about very upsetting experiences, because they were affecting me physically and mentally and I just didn’t want to go over them.
Somehow, though, writing well about happy or positive experiences feels a lot harder than writing about anger, sadness, frustration, or confusion. I read my “happy” writing and it feels more descriptive – this happened and that was nice because, then this happened and that was nice because – and not as engaging.
In 2021, I had some success with my poetry and life writing about being a sibling carer, and the enforced separation during my sister’s five months in a care home in winter 2020/21 – highly commended in the Poetry for Good competition and shortlisted for the Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize – and it’s been eye-opening to realise that something so specific to me and my sister has the potential to engage and move strangers. The reactions when I read my poem ‘My Sister’s Care Home Promises’ at the Where We Find Ourselves launch were incredible – I was so touched.
Now I’m trying to focus on longer works of memoir. Having a literary agent as a mentor is a huge incentive for me to commit and get a finished manuscript written this year! I feel very lucky to have Judith’s support – she’s incredibly sensitive and warm, but also practical and honest, and it feels like she’s the right person to guide me with this project.
With the help of Martyn Crucefix, who is a wonderful poet and Royal Literary Fund Fellow, I’m also reworking poems I wrote a few years ago and writing new ones about female friends who died of cancer. What’s been encouraging is seeing how many of my new poems are stronger than the ones I wrote at the time of the deaths. Maybe that’s not surprising to seasoned poets, but it is to me. I never considered myself a poet; I thought I was a writer who tried to write poems. I guess I’m finding my poetry voice now, and twice I was reminded of Wordsworth’s idea of “emotion recollected in tranquillity,” which was comforting – the notion that I can write about events years later, finding new ways to express painful emotions when the intensity has lessened.
All of these mentorships and advice sessions have been free, by the way! Like many writers, I have a lot of shame about my lack of income, but during the pandemic I’ve become more confident in applying for things like free entry for writing competitions.
Elodie: That’s so inspiring! I’m also unwaged since I gave up my job, and often struggle with sourcing things like free entries, grants, mentorship schemes and so on. But I am reaching a stage in my writing where I’m ready to look into those things more seriously, so it’s good to hear from someone else who is in the same situation!
Shamini: I’m sorry you’re unwaged as well, but it would be great if you felt inspired to apply for free things for writers! I’m also hoping to work with Jenny on an idea that came up during the Summer Salon, especially the sessions on water and the body. I enjoyed one exercise about swimming, because I thought about how I can’t swim but I love baths – the cosy feeling of being surrounded by warm water and floating a little, without anxiety about drowning.
Elodie: That sounds wonderful! I’m so excited about What the Water Gave Us – it’s such a wonderful opportunity for me to be working on it as a facilitator and editor, and I really can’t wait to see the finished anthology. It seems like a really positive start to 2022 (very different already to 2020 and 2021) and a good way of moving forward after the last two years.
About Shamini Sriskandarajah:
Shamini Sriskandarajah is a therapist, bereavement counsellor, florist, writer, and editor. She writes poetry and fiction about the intricacies of loss, friendship, and family. Shamini also writes non-fiction about floristry and gardening, culture and society, and mental health and inequality. Follow Shamini on Twitter via @FlowersShamini
About Elodie Barnes:
Elodie Barnes is a writer and editor. Her short fiction and poetry has been widely published online,and she is one winner (alongside Erin Calabria) of the 2020 Sundog Lit Collaboration Prize. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, where she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women and non-binary writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. Find her online at elodierosebarnes.weebly.com.
Feature image: Cold Dark Matter, An Exploded View, 1991 by Cornelia Parker, under fair use.