Learning the craft is hard. Voice. Characterisation. Setting. Pace. All these skills must come together, push back against one another with enough resistance. Getting these forces to align is thrilling. Frustrating, excruciating even. But thrilling, nonetheless.
Unfortunately, there are forces beyond the student writer’s control. They turn up as uninvited callers, knocking at the door with heavy fists. They call themselves ‘Stressors’ and, if you don’t open up, they’ll force entry. More often than not then, front door handles get depressed. The stressors burst in with muddy boots. They walk all over the new cream carpet.
Should a writer wish to use these immediate stressors to inspire their writing, they are more than welcome to. But what happens when the world is gripped by one shared stressor, when all and sundry are plunged into lockdown? What does one write about? What does it matter?
For the more fortunate student community, the pandemic may feel more of a distant threat than other life stressors. Hopefully, no-one they know has been directly affected by this brutal virus. But even if the immediate effects remain at arm’s length, students do themselves a disservice should they say that they’re unaffected. They will soon be caught between graduand and graduate status, perhaps remaining in social distancing limbo until a vaccine is found. Anxiety bubbles, and the student writer isn’t exempt from feeling this intense pressure.
‘What you been doing?’ asks a Zoom user.
‘Not a lot. I’ve written a new poem,’ the student writer says, while cursing the third video call of the day. These started in the afternoon, slipped into evening and now infiltrate the night.
‘Oh right,’ feigning interest. ‘Just one?’
‘Yeah, I’ll do more tomorrow,’ a pledge made to the keyworkers who are working flat out, while the student writer scrapes together a few words for submission. In this context, writing seems to pale into insignificance, and that only increases the pressure to offer a more sizeable contribution.
As one of the student writing community, I’m fortunate to have a release from this pressure. I have a greenhouse to escape to. Or one I’ve commandeered, at least. Every afternoon (sometime after three), I flee the confines of one space (the house) to be held by the limits of another. But there is an important distinction. The greenhouse has become my space, my thinking pod and, occasionally, my writing shed. I sit in a wearied patio chair, almost holidaying with ‘Runner Bean x’ immediately to my right. It looks as though the tray of them is blowing me a kiss, but on closer inspection the x is there to denote the number being grown. The soil level disguises how many companions I’ll have next week but, for now, six have poked their heads into the world. I sometimes think about how future novels, poems, scripts will be affected by lockdown, but more often than not I leave those thoughts at the threshold. Inside, I tend to study the runner beans, the hopeful tomato plants, the early signs of courgettes, and admire how they’re busy growing in spite of the pandemic. And the pressure eases somewhat.
There will be others who don’t have the luxury of a greenhouse. Don’t have a garden. Are isolating alone. Seem to have no escape. But a Douglas Dunn poem reminded me of the hope that we can find in humanity’s fierce spirit. Taken from a series of observations made about the lives of Hull residents, Dunn writes in ‘A Removal from Terry Street’ that a man comes out of a house ‘pushing, of all things, a lawnmower. / There is no grass in Terry Street. The worms / Come up cracks in concrete yards in moonlight. / That man, I wish him well. I wish him grass.’ The poem may have been published in the late-sixties but it still resonates. Putting aside one reading that points to the imbalance of wealth and materialism, the man emerging from his front door with a ‘lawnmower’ (despite both his and the family’s anxieties) is spectacular. He might not have been able to use it on Terry Street but hope springs eternal. He’ll carry/lug/wheel it until he finds grass and the freedom it brings. He is resilient. He won’t be beaten.
The time is 16:09. I’ve resumed my privileged position. My knowledge of runner beans is modest at best. I don’t even particularly like them. And my writing output is equally modest. But I’m not going to worry about that today. I’m going to be thankful for the thinking-pod-writing-shed-greenhouse and remind myself that’s it okay to sit. I enjoy staring through its clear skylight windows. And I hope the man with the lawnmower finds comfort. I believe that he can find release.
John Rogers is a student on the MA Creative Writing at NTU.