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15 July 2020

Why lockdown has left me terrified that I might never create “great art”

Do we really want to write books, or do we want to have written them? This is something lockdown is forcing me to reckon with.

By Amelia Tait

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in the dark in the spare room, crying while eating a bowl of plain rice and staring at the moon. On his way to the kitchen, my boyfriend stopped in the doorway and asked in alarm, “Why are you sitting in the dark in the spare room, crying while eating a bowl of plain rice and staring at the moon?” If you thought those last two sentences were embarrassing, they’ve got nothing on the next: I was sitting in the dark in the spare room crying while… rice, etc, moon, etc, because I was worried I would never make great art.

I resisted the urge to put “great art” in inverted commas in that last sentence – a decision you’ll disagree with when I tell you my tears were prompted by pop sensation Taylor Swift. Whether or not you think Swift is a great artist is up to you (though don’t come back to me until you’ve karaoked “Wildest Dreams” with four strawberry daiquiris in your belly) but her songs are certainly good enough to make thousands of people feel an entire spectrum of emotion.

To paraphrase some more great art: as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a writer. I have an exercise book from when I was roughly seven years old, and on one of the first pages, I’ve drawn an orange blob in a blue top and pink skirt (me) brandishing a yellow pencil the size of my arm. “This is a picture of me writing a story,” reads the caption. It is easy proof, should you need it, that I’ve always wanted to write. That I have known for as long as it is possible to know these things that I want to be an author.

But here’s the big, soggy rice, poetic moon problem: the world has been shut down for more than three months, and I haven’t written a novel. I haven’t even really tried. I have written the (very) start of four novels, and I also finished a (very) short story about a boy who eats sticks of butter that (somehow) didn’t win first (or any) prize in a competition I entered. It feels pathetic and embarrassing to talk about this – I’m not going to pretend it’s top of the world’s problems, or even top of my own – but it’s a scary and sad thing to be given all the time in the world and not even come close to fulfilling your dreams.

Of course, I’ve read the same inspirational posts you have about authors who didn’t write their first book until they were 50, or who were rejected by the first ten publishers they approached before becoming disgustingly successful. Last year Blackburn resident Margaret Ford became the world’s oldest debut author when, at 93, she published a book based on the love letters she and her husband sent each other during the Second World War. I don’t think my time is up, and I’m happy to wait and practise and wait and practise and somewhere along the line, hopefully improve.

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But why didn’t I use lockdown to do so? A few weeks ago, on these very pages, I lamented that we shouldn’t put pressure on ourselves to be productive during a pandemic, and that it’s permissible – nay! even desirable – to watch Neighbours reruns and forget the very concept of a bra. I still believe this, and I forgive myself, but a voice in the back of my head is muttering, “If not now, then when?” If I can stare down another day of sofa, kitchen sink, park, sofa, bed and still not pick up a pen, when will I?

In 2015, a YouGov poll of 15,000 people found that 60 per cent would like to be an author, and women were 7 per cent more likely than men to want the job. A similar oft-cited stat from 2002 claims that 81 per cent of Americans want to write a book – if the same holds true today, that’s 265 million people dreaming of getting their words on a printed page. Why do so many of us want to write books, particularly at a time when the average British author earns just £16,000 a year, while book sales fell 5.4 percent in 2018? It’s likely most of us think we’re interesting and have interesting stories to tell, and thanks to social media, nearly all of us are used to publishing our words in some form. Many people undoubtedly also want to tell the story of their own lives – literary memoirs are currently hugely popular, and even when authors’ works aren’t autobiographical, their skill can remind us of the literary merit of being Normal People. But do we really want to write books, or do we want to have written them? This is something lockdown is forcing me to reckon with.

Aside from laziness, or fear, there is also the issue of time. Last December, American-Australian journalist Chloe Angyal put it best in a viral tweet that was liked nearly 40,000 times: “As I apply for writing residencies, I’m continually struck by how what they offer – peace and quiet, meals cooked for you, limited domestic labour to distract from your “real” work – is what so many men authors have had forever by virtue of having a wife.” For me, lockdown wasn’t a writing residency – there were too many dirty dishes.

I’ve finally struck upon a silly story that’s getting me to write more often than I have throughout lockdown – maybe it’ll be abandoned, maybe one day it will have a gold-foiled cover obscured with a big red “NOW HALF PRICE” sticker. I’ve had a lot of time (so, so much time) to think about it, and I’ve realised I’d rather write something I love than create inverted-commas great art. No! I am not Taylor Swift, nor was I meant to be.

I’ve always liked the sort of books that have happy endings, and one thing I’ve come to terms with during lockdown is that I don’t need to create a masterpiece. With some self-examination, I’ve realised I just need to create, full stop. Since crying in the dark/spare room/rice/moon, I have accepted I don’t need to make great art – any art will do.

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This article appears in the 15 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine