Two years next month, I was sitting on a beach in Western Australia, bathed in sunshine and trying to take in the fact that a) I was a lucky dog to be there in the first place and b) that given my good fortune so early in the year, the rest of 2020 could only get better.
I was in Australia as a result of a book project I’d completed a couple of years previously. During the course of the project the client and I had become friends. He has a place near Perth, and I’d been invited out to his birthday party, which lasted a full two weeks. My sister came along for the ride, and together we enjoyed meeting new friends, seeing the sights and hanging out together in a way we haven’t done since we were kids.
The pay is lousy but there are perks to being a writer, and this was most surely one of them. Plus, when people here what you do for a living, they’re genuinely interested. I’m not the world’s shoutiest scribe, admittedly (hence the meagre number of blog posts..) but like everyone, occasionally my favourite subject is me, and it’s genuinely lovely to meet people who are interested in what you do and/or have read some of it.
So far, so smug….. On the way back to the UK, and even with news of a coronavirus arriving in Europe from China and every member of the cabin crew masked to the hilt, I still refused to take off my rose-tinted specs. I certainly wasn’t alone. The phrase, ‘We didn’t see that coming…’ has never been more apt and the rest, of course, is history – history we’re still living through, and look likely to for a while to come.
With the rest of us, I was shaken out of the sweet-jar of routine comfort and privilege and into the New Weird. Given that I’ve worked from home for 15 years, nothing much changed in that respect after March 2020. But where were all my existing clients with projects in the pipeline? What had happened to all the agents and publishers I’d been dealing with? The mass going-to-ground that occurred after lockdown resulted in unreturned phone calls, unanswered emails and cancelled projects. Suddenly I had no income and as I battled with the Universal Credit system (staffed by people who get far fewer accolades than they deserve, I should add) I wondered how a writer like me should respond to such dramatic circumstances.
The answer was – or should have been – easy. Be a bloody writer! So I tried to keep a lockdown notebook (managed about eight pages) and I wrote a few blog posts for a friend’s mental well-being site (until I realised I was as fucked up and lost as my readers). I took a lot of long bike rides and reflected on my situation. What would I do now? How would I adapt? At the beginning of the year (just before the trip to Oz) I’d held the first of what I hoped would be a series of writing workshops, and after lockdown I was advised to take these online via Zoom. Even then, however, I knew it wouldn’t be as good. The magic that comes from individuals working on their creativity and talent in the same space could never truly work online and, frankly, never will. So that was out, at least for the moment.
Instead, I took a left turn. I volunteered to deliver groceries to those shielding and I helped a friend haul a couple of tonnes of rock up to a garden terrace project his builders had abandoned at the start of the pandemic. A few months later, as luck would have it, a nurse who’d previously been in touch about an idea for a book about palliative care contacted me again. She and her team had been reassigned to a high-dependency covid ward in a Big London hospital smack in the centre of the first deadly wave of the virus. Was I still interested in her story? You bet, and after negotiations with a forward-thinking editor at Bonnier Books, we struck a deal without any of us ever meeting in person or even the editor seeing any written material. It was a leap of faith for us all, and out of it came ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ by Kelly Critcher, one of the very first books from the front line of the pandemic.
From there, things returned to a kind of normal. I worked on a few small projects, eventually picking up a commission to write the life story of a guy from Surrey currently living with a terminal illness. This sounds bleaker than it actually is: Robin is engaging, controversial and scabrously funny too, with a great story to tell. He made me laugh a lot (much needed) and I delighted in his incredible garden which, given its proximity to one of the UK’s busiest airports, is a haven of peace and healing.
So….back to normal. Or was it? Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to engage with the mindset I had about writing pre-pandemic, nor indeed with the industry that is meant to support people like me. A couple of submissions that seemed to be dead certs got nowhere – the main reason being that the story wouldn’t sell ‘enough’ copies (which is a bit like refusing to run a bus service because it isn’t consistently full of passengers) or – and this seems to be the bigger one, post-pandemic – that the author didn’t have a big enough ‘platform’, i.e. they weren’t glued to Twitter or Instagram 24 hours a day, courting followers to whom they could flog thousands of copies of their book. Now, I get why publishers’ marketing departments are delighted to discover a ready-made audience for their prospective authors, taking all the hard work out of their jobs, but it also means that many of the people I’ve worked with, like Kelly, might no longer get a look in because they haven’t got time to constantly tell people how great they are. They’re too busy doing the extraordinary things that have made them interesting subjects for a book in the first place.
The other thing is – apologies, it’s cliché time – that lockdown gave me pause for thought. At that point I’d written 22 books in 15 years. By any standards that’s quite a lick but if writing is your job and you need the money, that’s what you will do. Nevertheless, there was always going to be a price for this level of work and for me that was a distinct drop in energy levels plus a desire to either slow the pace of work or vary it so there was time for other things. Given that deadlines are, and always will be, sacrosanct, the only option was to get out and smell the roses for a while. Which is what I have done, literally, by accepting a few hours here and there of paid gardening work. As well as enjoying the fresh air and the physical graft, the time spent outdoors has given me some perspective about my writing life, the gist of which is this: smaller steps all round, less ‘busyness’ and a focus on the future that doesn’t demand that I’m constantly running just to stand still.
As I type this with fingers reddened from soil, I’m pleased to say that as ever, I’m still open for book projects, commissions, mentoring, teaching, short bits of writing, long bits of writing, speeches, eulogies and scribblings on the back of cig packets. I don’t really know what 2022 holds for me yet, and if I’m honest I don’t much care either. The last two years has proved to us all that the future is unwritten, and that careful planning and expectations of what ‘should be’ are quickly upended by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. So be it.