Did the pandemic inspire a writing renaissance?

Jen Herron’s writing benefited from the lockdowns. But not everyone did. And all paid a price

I won’t lie. Parts of the pandemic­ – I’ve enjoyed. You see, I’ve always been a grafter. Aged 12, I started my first job on the paltry wage of £1 per hour. No – not Dickensian England, but 1990s Larne. I toiled evenings and weekends at the newsagent on our housing estate, selling pick-n-mix, porn mags and cigarettes.

Over the years, I’ve worked in offices, shops, kiosks, supermarkets, bars, and the pièce de résistance – filling cream horns in a bun factory. Finally, I arrived at the toughest job of all – teaching.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my school. But teaching is hard work. I often restrain myself when someone makes a sarcastic comment about our holidays, disappointed by how little they value what we do. But I’m not here to convert the doubters. Teachers everywhere work too much. So do other occupations ­– and for far too little.

There’s something off-balance about the way we live. We feel it in our stooped shoulders. It lurks in headaches, heavy limbs and broken sleep. It fuels the surge of dread on Sunday evenings. It’s etched on our prematurely ageing faces. For me, the lockdowns provided space to reconfigure.

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Firstly, I was spared the daily, lengthy and expensive commute. I no longer got up at 5.30am. Lessons went online. I taught from my living room with my dog at my feet, wearing jogging bottoms and drinking peppermint tea. I lit the stove. Burned cinnamon candles. I can neither confirm nor deny I wore underwear every day.

I had break times in peace without someone knocking on my door. I cooked lunches from scratch, forgoing my usual plastic-wrapped garage sandwich. I went to the toilet when I wanted to. Bliss.

After lessons, I planted veg, read books, listened to podcasts, studied, and most importantly, wrote. In fact, I wrote a lot. Some of it was terrible. Some not-so-terrible. I experienced a slower, peaceful pace of life, giving me the energy to create. And I loved it. But then, my bubble burst.

My best friend was recovering from cancer. Pre-pandemic, she’d been steadily getting back on her feet, investigating a return to university to do a course in screenwriting. Creative endeavours weren’t central to her youth, but she sought to remedy this later in life. That’s how we first met – in a movie-making workshop at the local library.

My best friend and I made a pact we’d communicate daily. Living alone, we often lamented that one of us could take a tumble without anyone noticing. Sadly, this turned out to be prophetic.

In February 2021, I turned 39 during my first lockdown birthday. Like many others, I spent it alone, stuffing my face with a self-baked birthday cake and a bottle of cheap prosecco. It was grim. I was also upset she didn’t send me a birthday card. We had our brief, daily text chat, and I didn’t ask her how she was, so aggrieved was I at the lack of said birthday card. That was the last time we spoke.

When I texted her the next day, she hadn’t responded by dinner time. Something was wrong. My stomach was in knots. So, unable to settle, I drove to her house and let myself in.

My best friend lay dead at the top of the stairs, having suffered a fatal blood clot. It was the shock of my life. She was 48-years-old. My best friend was buried during my half-term break, and I was back at work the following Monday, putting on a brave face in front of the children.

I’m not alone in this experience. Many, many folks I know have experienced loss during the pandemic. The suffering is immeasurable. We’ll be digesting its impact for decades in ways we don’t yet understand. And whilst I initially enjoyed the slower pace of life the pandemic created, it equally reminded me of life’s fragility.

Now things seem to have returned to a relatively ‘normal’ structure, whatever that is. But after several years of upheaval, I’ve found it difficult to settle. There’s an unspoken vibe we’ve been through a collective trauma no one wants to talk about. We got sick of the C-word, put it in a drawer and closed it. But I will never see things in the same way again.

I know it’s a cliche, but the pandemic made me appreciate the value of time and how I spend it. Do others pine for personal pursuits pursued during lockdown? Or have paintbrushes and pens been set aside as we struggle to pay for petrol? I took to Twitter to find out.

The next morning, I had over 50 messages. In a panic, I deleted my tweet to focus on what I received. But I did wonder how many books were written during the lockdowns. Especially based on a sizeable response to a call-out from a Twitter nobody. If only I had the time and resources to find out, I think writers’ experiences during the pandemic could be a book in itself.

Back to my research. Although I’m an English teacher, I’m partial to a wee pie chart. I used Google forms to help with my experiment and collate responses.

Former teacher Caron McKinlay said she’d never have written her first novel, The Storytellers, if it hadn’t been for the lockdowns. The Scottish author said the book offered “a new lease of life and a new identity”.

“I had just retired a year before lockdown and lost my sense of self. If I wasn’t a teacher anymore, who was I? I tried many things like going to the gym or gardening, but they all felt like chores. Was I to resign myself to just being Granny now? A role I adored, but what about the professional me? Was she gone forever?

“When lockdown came, I thought I had nothing to lose, so I started to learn how to write. I gained an agent, a publishing deal, and a huge range of publishing friends. Other debuts like me. I came out of lockdown not only safe but also with a new identity and career.”

Similarly, half of the writers who responded wrote their first work during the lockdowns.

English author Royston Vince, who writes in Italian, fell into this category. “I was in a very privileged position of being at home on full pay. In brief, I had a sense of time expanding and being able to dedicate time to every detail and angle of my book.”

Royston now plans to write full-time. “I think the pandemic shifted the thinking of many people. To take one example of many, I feel my age group (I’m 53) are less willing to slog away at a job they don’t like.”

Writer and artist Joshua Jones found the pace of life easier to manage. “As an autistic person, getting through a ‘normal’ day zaps my energy. During the pandemic, I suddenly had a lot of time and space. I tried out new creative practices such as collage and painting and realised I am a visual artist and writer. The lockdowns provided a rare moment to slow down and do what you actually want to do.”

Most writers said they would have written their works eventually. But the lockdowns offered the most important commodity of all – time.

Michelle Moloney King, however, credits the lockdown with the rise of her poetry career. “There is no way I would be a poet if it wasn’t for the pandemic as family life, job, mortgage, and everyday life would have taken over.”

Michelle has since set up her own publishing company, Beir Bua Press, while her writing has achieved notable success. “I received a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2021 and have been published in the coolest experimental poetry journals and even have three poetry collections published.”

But success doesn’t come easily. Many of the responses shared the negatives of writing amidst a pandemic. Erin Slaughter’s short story collection, A Manual for How to Love Us, was written despite personal difficulties. “My mental health fell into the worst place it’s ever been during the pandemic, specifically spring and summer 2020, which was when I wrote most of my book.

“It wasn’t easy, and usually, depression stalls my creativity. But in this case, writing gave me a much-needed outlet to put my experiences and fears into words, even if reframed in fiction.”

And the American writer’s pluck paid off. “Having this book deal has completely changed my life, even though it hasn’t been published yet. Besides the impact of validation, which helped my mental health and confidence, it’s opened up access to a new level of my career and the professional outlets available for future projects.”

Similarly, poet and author, HLR, experienced success and hardship. “Since the first lockdown in spring 2020, I’ve been published in over 100 literary journals. I’m a commended winner of The National Poetry Competition 2021, something I never dreamed was possible.”

But behind the scenes, she was struggling. “Living on my own and not being able to see anybody, make new friends or even meet my new neighbours meant I was completely isolated. So, my alcohol and drug use spiralled in private. The sad truth is alcohol and drugs helped me write my book.”

Poet Abigail Lucy also had difficulties. “I worked as a carer during the lockdown and did a lot of palliative care over the summer periods. I was exhausted, and writing was at times the last thing I wanted to do, whilst also being my solace.”

Most writers said the lockdowns provided more time to write. This wasn’t the case for Lucy, who completed a creative writing degree whilst working at the coalface. “Writing became a coping mechanism in a way it never had been before. My creativity came from a much darker place in the lockdowns. It came as a result of necessity rather than desire. For this reason, it felt a little jarring to see my poem published after the lockdowns ended.”

Northern Irish writer Bernie McGill can relate. “I was one of a team of family and NHS carers for my elderly aunt and uncle, and we lost both at the beginning of the pandemic. I was recovering from surgery at the time. That was very difficult: I wasn’t able to attend either of their funerals.

“By the time I had recovered from surgery, all of my upcoming work engagements had been cancelled. It was a very worrying time, personally and financially. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland Resilience and Emergency funding was very welcome.”

But Bernie endured and adapted. She mastered Zoom and now works for the Royal Literary Fund, facilitating online workshops and giving back to those on the frontline. “In the last two years, I’ve worked with the Royal College of Nursing, with WAVE, Usdaw NI and an organisation called Doctors in Distress which looks after the wellbeing of NHS workers.”

Likewise, Dromara writer Maggie Doyle used her writing for philanthropic purposes. All proceeds of her lockdown book, Mountain Notes, go to the donkeysanctuary.org.uk. Maggie has supported the charity for over twenty years. “The sanctuary provides shelter for abandoned, neglected and abused donkeys here and around the world – I really wanted them to benefit from my book.”

American author KB Jenson also turned her negatives into positives. “During tough times, you fight back with your art. Carving out time to write with friends on Zoom helped me focus on creating and revising. Without the pandemic, I don’t know I’d have written or finished my new book, Love and Other Monsters in the Dark.”

Yet, she added, it’s hard being creative under pressure. “I don’t blame the people who didn’t write a book during the pandemic, who didn’t create. The anxiety and fear took a toll on my mental health, making it hard to get motivated at times. It ebbed and flowed. It was really my family and friends who kept me going.”

Irish writer Patrick Chapman went further, offering a sobering reality. “The pandemic isn’t over. Lockdown wasn’t a gift, or a holiday, as so many millions of people died around the world. It’s hard to think of it as anything other than a total disaster.”

So, where should writers go from here? Whilst most contributors have continued to write, some said their productivity has decreased since the lockdowns.

Moreover, American poet Rodd Whelpley hasn’t written much at all. “I’ve gotten off track with my writing since lockdown. Once, I valued my writing nook in the basement as my own small creative space. When that space also became my workspace, I grew to resent it. Now, even though I’ve returned to work full time, I resent going down to my writing space. My output since the lockdown has thus suffered.”

Personally, I haven’t written as much. The past school year has been manic and one of the most difficult of my career. And whilst I enjoy my teaching job, the lockdowns showed me what it was like to have more time for writing. Moreover, the fruits from my lockdown labour have been juicy. And I want more.

I’ve considered a career break, with a possible return to university to complete a PhD in creative writing. I asked Dr Frank Ferguson, research director of English Language and Literature at the University of Ulster, if applications for creative writing courses have increased since pre-pandemic figures.

“We’ve found that applications for creative writing at MA and PhD level have remained buoyant for the past couple of years. We’ve also noticed an increase in interest for critical/theoretical degrees at postgraduate level.

“While part of the increased interest in creative writing has been down to Covid, there has also been a general upturn in people wanting creative writing as either a standalone degree or a pathway within a general English literature degree in the UK.”

So, does Ferguson think the pandemic has inspired a writing renaissance? “I think the pandemic helped people tap into a surge that was already building in the desire to write and engage in several creative pursuits. It gave many people the time and the space to follow up on things they’d been planning to do but perhaps would never have had adequate time to do so.”

Certainly, the lockdowns reminded us of the importance of the arts for our wellbeing. But let’s face it, it’s not the most lucrative career for many writers. Did Ferguson believe the rising cost of living threatens creative industries?

“Some, with very obvious and quite heinous ideological agendas, are wondering if these degrees equip students with the employability factor they require.”

“If we lose our storytellers, and indeed those who can understand, critique and explain decisively what a story is about, then we will lose a major part of what constitutes what we term as civilisation and independent human thought. Creative industries, like creative people, are vital to society, and we will do immense harm if we consider jettisoning them.”

I don’t know what the future holds for my writing career. But I don’t want to waste time. I think of my best friend often and wonder what she’d be doing now. Would she have gone back to uni? Written a stellar screenplay? Ironically, I still find it hard to talk about her loss in person, but such is the catharsis of writing. You can type it all out and have a wee sob behind the screen. Hers was the most influential friendship of my life. And I am a better person for knowing her.

Final thoughts – did the pandemic inspire a writing renaissance? No, I don’t think so. But it did make us realise what’s important. That’s something unique for everyone. All I know is – it’s the first day of my school holidays, and I couldn’t wait to draft this article, pandemic or not. Sideline writing is better than no writing at all. And even if I do end up teaching for the rest of my life, it’s better than filling cream horns.

With thanks to the participants of my questionnaire:

Yvonne Banham, The Dark and Dangerous Gifts of Delores Mackenzie, Firefly, 2023

Amy Barnes, Mother Figures, ELJ Editions, 2021

Charlotte Barnes, All I See Is You and Sincerely, Yours, Bloodhound Books, 2022

Leena Batchelor, The Language of Fans, Black Pear Press, 2021

Alex Benedict, Cattle and Yezo Garland, betweenthehighway, 2021 and 2022

Patrick Chapman, The Following Year, Salmon Poetry, 2023

Andrea Deeken, Mother Kingdom, Slapering Hol Press, 2022

Maggie Doyle, Mountain Notes - A Nature Diary, magysfarm.co.uk, Biddles Books, 2021

Nikki Dudley, Volta and Fanny B.Mine , Aurora Metro and Beir Bua, 2021

Jonathan Gibbs, Spring Journal, CB Editions, 2020

K.B. Jensen, Love and Other Monsters in the Dark, Crimson Cloud Media LLC, 2022

Joshua Jones, Local Fires, Parthian, 2023

HLR, History of Present Complaint, Close to the Bone, 2021

Abigail Lucy, Sarah. Sabina, Us, Vortex Literary Journal, University of Winchester Press, 2022.

Bernie McGill, This Train is For, No Alibis Press, 2022

Caron McKinlay, The Storytellers, Bloodhound Books, 2022

Sarah Little, The Lachrymatorium, Roaring Junior, 2022

Michelle Moloney King, Another Word for Mother, Survision Books, 2022

Terry Newman, Harry Styles and the clothes he wears, ACC Art Books, 2022

Réaltán Ní Leannáin, Inní, Éabhlóid, 2022

Erin Slaughter, A Manual for How to Love Us, Harper Collins, 2023

Mikey Swanberg, On Earth As It Is, Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2021

Royston Vince, Le canzoni che non suonano mai alla radio, Progetto Cultura, 2021

Rodd Whelpley, Whoever Said Love, ELJ Editions, 2023