Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year. He is rich who owns the day, and no one owns the day who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety. Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt crept in. Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. This new day is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on the yesterdays.
Great words from Ralph Waldo Emerson, but how do we possibly keep this positive -and preferably creative, too- as writers and illustrators in the new lockdown?
This isn’t a blogpost full of my amazing lockdown secrets of success. Like many people, I’ve barely coped with much of it. But I asked a few friends, writers and children what had helped them, and I’m determined to steal anyone’s suggestions if they work (I’m hoping you might leave what’s working for you in the comments). So here are some tips from others -and me- which I hope might be useful.
And after one of those difficult days, when we feel we could have done it very differently, we can at least wake up the following morning and “not to be cumbered with my old nonsense of yesterday”…
Someone recently introduced me to Dan Siegel (a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA)'s Window of Tolerance. It's the optimal zone of arousal in which each of us is able to function and thrive (see the diagram below). Environmental changes (amongst other things) can push us out of that window into hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal, and for many of us, we've been pushed into one or other (or both) in response to the fear surrounding the pandemic. There's a useful, short article on people's Window of Tolerance in relation to the current pandemic climate: you can read the article here
And there's a really clear video (though six minutes’ long) on what a window of tolerance is and how to get back into your window here:
Pre-covid, I think I had a reasonably large window of tolerance within which I operated in quite a calm, effective way:
Relatively large window of tolerance
During the pandemic, that window has shrunk considerably:
Many of us would like to get our larger windows of tolerance back and here are a few of the ways we might do it…
BE KIND TO YOURSELF
Just to make clear, being positive or productive doesn’t have to mean our usual level of positive or productive. It might just be more than you’ve managed in a while, or better than yesterday, or just anything at all… It’s important to be kind to ourselves and others and to remember that for many of us (see the red writing):
For an interesting, short read from Mars Vista on the pandemic seen through Maslow's hierarchy of needs, click here:
I really find that letting go of days that haven’t gone well (a la Ralph Waldo Emerson) has helped. Fellow PB Denner, Natascha Biebow says on being kind to yourself: “You might not be able to write or illustrate as much as you'd like during these times, but maybe you can read or snatch a moment to daydream ideas whilst doing a chore. Often, I find myself challenging my brain to solve a plot problem or figure out another story quandary in the minutes before I fall asleep. It's something!”.
Take those somethings!
YA author, Olivia Levez, provided lots of practical tips for staying positive but also says: “On days I’m feeling a bit low, I coddle myself as if I’m my own child, with snuggly blankets, hot water bottle and cosy socks, my comfiest clothes, an indulgent bath”. Things she avoids: waking up to newsfeed, catastrophising, being relentless with goals, tasks, targets, and things that help: listening to birdsong, saying, ‘I’m feeling x’ instead of ‘I’m x’, writing negatives on one page of a journal and turning them into positives on the other. And when fellow PB Denner Jane Clarke’s creativity “goes awol, I turn to jigsaws until it returns”.
One of our Christmas jigsaws, and we did finally find the missing piece (in case it was bothering you)...
Be kind. We need to have basic needs met before we can feel as creative as we might want to. In these extraordinary times, many people's safety and other basic needs are not being met and we may not always be able to create as we would like. But in case you’d like to try…
Most people mentioned how having a structure helped them. One child always writes down what she plans to do the following day before she goes to bed. She writes it on a fresh piece of paper each night, rather than in a notebook, so that each piece of paper feels like a new day (very Ralph Waldo Emerson!).
YA author, Olivia Levez, also finds that: “structure helps. I curate my day to give plenty of treats between writing sessions: yoga, hot chocolate and biscuits, a walk with a friend.” One of my daughters and I have started going out for a half-hour walk before coming home for school/work and it’s lifted our spirits and started the day feeling energised and ready for it.
I've been surprised, but really pleased, to find that this first week of school lockdown has actually been productive. I’ve been struggling to feel motivated for a while now, but with the children working hard in their rooms all day with live lessons, I’m actually finding it easier to be focused than when they were at school last term. Not wanting to slack off whilst they can’t has really motivated me.
WORKING TOGETHER, REMOTELY
Our local SCBWI group used to have a write-in once a week. We’d meet together somewhere (usually at mine), and just write together. Clearly we can’t do that anymore (although the children have been a bit of a proxy for that), but it’s possible to recreate it to some extent online. Early on during the first lockdown, I did some online write-ins with fellow picture book writers from my local SCBWI group. We’d log in on zoom, say hello and what we were planning on writing, and then just write. I could look up and see them writing away and they could see me. Sometimes it’s easier to stay writing when someone can see what you’re doing! After a bit writing slump, I think I’m ready to start doing it again. If you haven’t tried it, it’s worth a go…
CONTACT WITH OTHER WRITERS
Jane says “I live on my own and online meetings are keeping me going… [and the] meet ups with fellow authors and children’s poets keep creativity ticking over as we set each other small writing challenges every week”.
Every time I meet online with other writers I remember how much it sustains me. In a normal year, I’d see writers in person most weeks, have monthly local meetings, weekends away in small groups of writers I know well, and in bigger groups of writers I know less well. These events are such an important part of my life. I live with three teenage children whom I adore, but spending proper time away with adults is so important, and surrounding myself with writers is great for writing but also for the inspiration and energising. I forget so quickly how important it is (because I’m thinking of practical day-to-day things for the family) but talking to other writers on video calls regularly, whether it’s one to one or in a group is a great way to feel positive. And I know we still have to wait for it, but we’ve started talking tentatively about writing weekends away later in the year when it’s ok again. It’s still a way away but just talking about it makes it feel real and gives us something to look forward to.
Natascha says: “I've recently re-connected with my critique group and we've decided to make each other accountable by meeting every month and sharing our work. Having a friendly group or even just another person to help you focus and spur you along is very encouraging. (If you don't have a critique group, I'd recommend joining the SCBWI for a supportive and welcoming community)”.
Like Natascha, making myself accountable to someone else really helps me keep going. I’m very fortunate to have a brilliant accountability partner, fellow picture book author Rebecca Colby, and we meet weekly online. We’re discussing something that’s really important to both of us, and I always come away feeling more inspired, even if I’ve not got much done.
DIFFERENT WAYS TO BE CREATIVE
Maybe have a go at a different kind of art. Children's author Mo O'Hara says: “I have discovered that writing books is not my only way to be creative. I’ve written poems and songs and loved it! I’m also allowing myself to be interested in exploring drawing and crafts too. I’ve always been too scared of being terrible to try but thanks to extra time in Lockdown and the ‘Zero f***s ‘ to give attitude that comes after 50 I have decided to let myself have a go even if it turns out I am terrible. Who will ever know?!!!”
Most people I asked talked about exercise, including yoga (both online and alone). I’ve just started my first ever online yoga course and even though I never ‘got’ yoga before, it’s working for me now. If you’re like me and need more motivation than normal, you could try doing it with a friend (it really helps that mine’s run by my sister-in-law and I know some of the other people doing it).
I also copied my accountability partner and got an exercise bike with a laptop table on it
which means I can cycle during our accountability sessions, phone calls or watching any zoom events that don’t require my looking or sounding professional
And I copied my sisters and got a fitbit! Prior to the first lockdown, I’d hardly done any exercise (apart from countless school runs for years) in twenty years, so that’s definitely something positive I’ll take from this… (I’ll take all the positives where I can!). And we’re even doing some Just Dance (which I’m terrible at but is lots of fun).
Most writers I spoke with talked about the importance of nature for them.
Mo O’Hara says “I am making myself go for long walks” (note the making myself. It’s the same with me. I have to make myself because I don’t generally want to. That’s where structure works for me. Anyway, Mo continues:
"Connecting with nature is a great way to re-centre yourself… I had no idea there were soooooo many parakeets in London parks!!!!”
I also discovered the same in my local park in Birmingham (where do all those parakeets come from)?!
(anyone else reminded of Cockatoos, here?)
Jane also goes for regular walks: “seeing nature continuing and even flourishing through all this is uplifting”.
When we had snow on Friday morning of last week, we knew it might be our only chance so we left the house in the dark and took the sledges to a local park and the children sledged quickly before coming home, eating breakfast and starting school at 8.45am.
We’re snatching moments more than we would have done because we need that buzz to keep us going. One of my children met up for a five-minute snowball fight (socially distanced, of course) with her school friend and neighbour during breaktime. I love the spontaneity for joyful activities and it’s a brilliant reminder to me, too, to enjoy unexpected things.
And specifically thinking of creativity, something that’s quick and structured (it happens every day in January) which is great for boosting creativity is:
I’ve been doing Storystorm and its predecessor, PiBoIdMo (created by the wonderful Tara Lazar) for years now. If you’re struggling to feel creative, there’s a daily blogpost that encourages you to come up with a new idea every day. I've not started properly yet this year (unlike other years) but I’m hoping that this blogpost will encourage me to practise what I preach. I read my first Storystorm post of the year today (Day 10 as I write) - and not only did it get me thinking creatively –which is nice, I came up with three ideas, and the topic of the post was so relevant to what I’m writing today. It’s just what I needed to hear, with Kirsten Pendreigh finding joy in the journey. She was talking about process over product and I'd urge you to read the post. It’s just what I needed to hear.
If you’re looking for other ways to get motivated (or re-motivated with your story) and you’ve been questioning the point of it in this current climate, listen to this short video by Teri Terry, who wrote to herself in the first lockdown to get her back into it:
Mo O’Hara talked about an unexpected positive of covid insomnia: it gives her more time to read! “I’m getting through my ‘To Be Read’ pile much faster because I’m reading more late at night”. But has anyone else been struggling with reading? I was, massively–at least until a couple of weeks ago.
I’ve been really distracted, and wanting distraction (with background noise on all the time). Reading didn’t feel distracting enough, and it was too quiet. So a couple of weeks ago I started with distracting noise in the background, and tried reading again. The joy of writing picture books is that reading picture books is part of the job, so I started by reading a few picture books, then a few more, and within a few days, I was reading children’s novels again, and nonfiction, and a week later, I’m reading Victor E Frankl’s Yes to Life (In spite of everything) which feels extremely relevant at the moment:
And the distracting noise? It only took about five minutes before it go really annoying and I was ok to read in silence. Last night, I put on a yoga Spotify playlist, and that was a great background to reading when I didn’t want silence but wanted something calm. If you’re struggling with reading, I’d really recommend it. It’s helping, creatively, too.
We can look for the small things that make it a bit easier. I’ve bought a really cheerful furry blanket cover for my bed so my work space –which is my bedroom- looks less like a bedroom. But it also doesn’t look like an office. I’ve taken out the desk, and put in a small sofa and some plants so it feels really calm. And it helps!
I’ve also discovered the calmest place in the house –in my daughter’s bedroom:
And my lovely daughter has kindly allowed me to sit in it and read/reflect.
We want to be within our window of tolerance so we can cope with everything that’s going on around us, but also so we can flourish and be creative and help others navigate these difficult times. I hope that some of these suggestions are helpful in expanding your window –if it’s shrunk like mine certainly has- and helping to bring you back into it when you’re pushed out. I’d love to hear what works for you –and any tips you have so please do leave a comment if you can.
Be kind to yourself. This too shall pass. x
Clare is the author of over 35 books, including eight picture books. Her website is www.julietclarebell.com.
Clare is the author of over 35 books, including eight picture books. Her website is www.julietclarebell.com.