Social media under lockdown is full of posts about the baking we are doing, and full of posts of the writing we can’t bring ourselves to write. It isn’t completely surprising that writers in lockdown find themselves unable to write, we are almost always unable to write, not being able to write is almost a condition of being a writer, except that unless we sometimes succeed in writing despite being unable to write we are not likely to think of ourselves as writers, only as wanting to write. To think of ourselves as writers we have to at least have written, which makes it all the more disquieting not to be writing now, when at last we have time. I think it is something about time itself that is causing the difficulty. As much as I am reading about writers who find themselves unable to write, who are asking other writers if they are able to write, who are forgiving themselves and excusing each other from writing, I am reading too about a shared feeling that we are experiencing time unusually, that whereas the days had been going more slowly than the years, now the days, for all the time we have, seem to be moving oddly quickly, and at the same time, the weight of time is felt more pressingly. Sarah Laing wrote, “time is laggy and elastic and simultaneously as heavy as a bag of wet compost and light as… as… well, it floats away and I have nothing to show for it.” She has more to show for it than most of us, a comic a day, which, as someone commented on her blog, is the novel she hasn’t written, is the work of art she is unable to produce. We can’t write, but we can keep diaries, and people’s COVID diaries are what we want to read too, or I do, following diaries like Sarah’s kept day by day, and looking up, too, those collections of people’s accounts of life under lockdown from around the world, compelled to read about how different these experiences around the world are in some ways, how similar in others. There is something very daily about how we are experiencing the pandemic, and I think this sense of time as “laggy and elastic” has something to do with the need to bake. When we bake, time is experienced very directly, very much in terms of present time rather than in terms of longer term goals, and very materially rather than abstractly, not as minutes ticking by on a clock (or phone face) but as dough rising, as an oven heating up, a loaf taking shape, becoming bread. I think this is a response to more even than our disorientation as we lose the usual routines that have structured our days, and have to find new structures. I think we are disoriented too in our relation to ongoing time, to history and to the future. How we live has changed so completely and rapidly, it is hard to imagine the future, and even representations of the very recent past are strange, stranger in some ways than representations of a more distant past. It can seem more startling when strangers kiss each other in greeting on a television show, when characters in novels expect to be able to just meet up with each other, in a cafe or library, than when Romeo and Juliet are kept apart by a family feud, or Antigone argues with her sister about breaking the law to bury her brother (which side would you be on now?). Perhaps to write we need to feel connected to the past, and to the future, a future we cannot yet imagine, and do not know yet how to work towards. Fleur Adcock at 86 describes her lockdown routine cheerfully, “I’ve had my good times,” she acknowledges, and there are ways to get through the days, and it is only towards the very end of the interview she observes, almost as an aside, that “one thing missing from this routine is any inclination to write poetry,” which seems to her now a “frivolity,” a “self-indulgence from the olden days,” the olden days of a few weeks ago. And she wonders “if I’ve been to my last book launch.” We can’t write, but I think we need to write, and I think the difficulty of imagining the future is our most urgent task now, because decisions are going to be made very quickly, almost as quickly as our slow-rising loaves of bread.
20/4/2020 02:39:16 pm
Thanks for this Anna - lovely! I'm writing wee paras in my journal, not for publication, just for my journal. That seems to be a way I can feel I'm doing something but without the pressure of 'doing something'.
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These are paragraphs without essays or books to go in.