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A Writing Life in Singular Times

Photo by Sophie Masson

Even before I was published, writing, which to me has always been about the weaving of stories for other people, has been part of the very fabric of my life and my being.  Since my first book was published, thirty years ago precisely, I have felt lucky, indeed, blessed, to earn my living doing what I’ve always felt I was born to do. Aside from my public work, working emotions out through writing them down in journals and diaries has always helped put things into perspective in times of personal crisis.

Two horrors happened in quick succession where we live last year: severe drought and wildfires. In an earlier Writer Unboxed post, What Do You Save? [1] I wrote a bit about that—the first time I’d been able to write anything public about what it felt like, despite having written a fair bit about it in my journals. It had taken months to process those feelings into anything properly coherent, and during that time I also turned to a childhood love, painting. The feel of the paint on the paper, the sweep of the brush, was a calming and helpful thing, and as non-public as the journal writing. Then the fires stopped and the rains came, ending the drought. Everything turned green, gloriously green, and the joy of it ran in my writing veins like that life-giving water. It didn’t last long, that joyful respite. All around the world humans are facing another kind of horror, invisible this time, but more dangerous, unpredictable and baffling. Strangely, it’s reversed the previous situation for us here in one way: drought and fires made our home feel unsafe; now the pandemic can make our home feel like the only safe place.

Like most writers, I’ve always worked from home, at my messy desk in the lounge room. I have never had any problem with disciplining myself, or had writer’s block, though there are times when I’ve written more than others, or less, depending on what else was going on. Flexibility has always been part of my modus operandi. When working from home is no longer a choice for you but an absolutely must, and your family scattered far and wide, your friends, and indeed everyone else you know must do the same, even if they normally go to offices or other separate worksites, then it changes the story. Played out within a wider global plot-line of nightmarish intensity and bizarre, surreal twists, and against personal worries for the safety, health and economic well-being of loved ones, friends, neighbors and local communities, this story of a writing life transformed might seem little. It is the one I know best, though, and certainly the only one I feel qualified to expand on publicly. Here are some of the impacts that these singular times have had on my own writing life, and how I’ve tried to deal with it. I offer this in the hope it might help other writers struggling with similar things.

*A sense of irrelevance and purposelessness led to the novel I’d almost finished coming to a stuttering halt seven weeks ago. Its setting and theme suddenly seemed of another time. How on earth was I going to end it in the all’s-well-that-ends-well mode that I’d planned. Should I change that, or somehow fold in a mention of the pandemic? Wouldn’t that be an ignoble cashing-in? For almost six weeks, it stayed in total limbo—and I only restarted it a week or so ago. I think I’ve found a solution—but I’m not sure yet. I’m advancing cautiously, painfully slowly. But at least I’m advancing again. Before the pandemic I would have felt impatient about it; now I’ve accepted it, because I’ve allowed myself to understand that it’s okay to press ‘pause’ in a time that is so very far from normal.

*After a couple of weeks of finding I couldn’t bring myself to write in my normal journals (a family-centered one, and a books-centered one) I decided to start a specific journal, a kind of ‘ journal of the plague year’. This one’s specifically about my personal experience of the present situation, and for it I used a special journal I’d been given a few years ago by a publisher, which ironically enough I’d always kept ‘for a special purpose.’ I’ve gone back to my childhood love of scrapbooks with it, and so it’s got all sorts of bits and pieces stuck in it too, as well as writing. At the beginning, I needed to write in it practically every day, to try and exorcise the bad feelings and highlight small moments of beauty and grace. Now I am much more relaxed about it, and I often miss days at a time, then go back to it, and it feels easier to write in it. I can now also write in the other journals without feeling obscurely guilty…

*The novel might have been set aside for a while, but a sense of urgency overtook me, not only around possibilities for my own work, but also the situation for parents suddenly having to home-school. This led to me turning into reality some ideas that had been knocking around in my head for a while: such as producing, in collaboration with an illustrator friend, creative activity packs available online [2], and recording an illustrated talk about the inspiration and process around several of my picture books [3]. I worked on these over several weeks and that helped to start up the stalled novel again. They were fun and creative to do, and while working on them I was in that other world, not thinking about the pandemic. Collaborating with Kathy on the creative activity packs was truly an uplifting thing for both of us, and so was the warm, positive response from people who accessed them. Though it took a lot of time and wasn’t paid work, it was a worthwhile investment of time in terms of potential new paid gigs.

*A sense of sympathy for authors and illustrators whose new books came out during this period of shrinking publicity opportunities and closed bookshops, as well as for those who, like me, were trying to reinvent ourselves in various ways, led me to reach out in a few ways. I offered guest post spots [4] on my blog to authors with new books, and made directory listings [5] for the creative activities and resources other people promoted. I’m very much a book-buyer in normal times, but right now I’m buying even more books. This supports authors and our wonderful local bookstore [6] which, despite closing its physical doors, has innovated in delightful ways, such as free local delivery to my mailbox. It’s quite an event in these stay-at-home-times, to see their orange and white Kombi drawing up at my door and finding the beautifully wrapped book parcel in my mailbox! An added pleasure is that I’ve been making moments of book-parcel-joy myself for the dear little people in our lives, who are far away from us in Sydney.

*A sense of needing another creative outlet led me to not only continuing the experiments in painting I’d started back when drought and bush-fires were the horrors haunting us, but also creating little objects such as eccentric painted postcards to send to family and friends, making models out of Sculpey clay (inspired by the activities created by my friend and collaborator Kathy Creamer [7]), and other bits and bobs. That was fun, pure play, without any pressure to be anything else at all. It’s what I do on the weekends now, along with reading, walking around our neighborhood with my husband, and talking to family and friends on the phone or on Zoom. For too long as a full-time writer I’ve allowed the weekend to simply be rolled into my work-from-home schedule; now, suddenly, that’s changed. And that’s definitely something for the better, as is the sense that I’m rediscovering certain things from childhood: like the scrapbook-making, and the enjoyment of creative play, and deep-dive reading, and the anticipatory joy of the mailbox. Small things, perhaps, but a comfort.

Over to you: how have these ‘singular times’ impacted on you as a writer, literary professional, or as a reader—or indeed, all three?

About Sophie Masson [8]

Sophie Masson [9] has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors [10].