Writing in strange times


Follow our rolling blog from a WM isolated workspace

Isolation day six

By the time I sat down to work at 9 yesterday I’d walked a mile up the road and back to collect the cat’s prescription from the vet and gone shopping for my mother on the way back. It was beautifully, eerily quiet, with empty buses gliding past. When I got back the rooks were bickering loudly about something on the roof. It was lovely to be able to hear the birds so clearly.

Work has its own rhythm – writing, editing, commissioning, snouting about for the latest news in the writing world -but it’s punctuated, inevitably, with checking news feeds for crisis updates – in the latest, Boris with coronavirus. Apart from the obvious horror of the mounting deaths and increasing cases, one of the biggest issues facing the creative community is the situation for self-employed and freelance workers: what help they'll be able to access, when they might be able to get it, HRMC only holding records of what self-employed people were earning up to 5 April 2019, cancelled contracts, gigs that were lined up and then pulled, people being unable to get through to an HMRC swamped by frantic callers, and so much more.

It’s chaos and it’s affecting so many of the people whose work makes our world a better place. Artists, writers, poets, musicians, actors, dancers, designers, editors, journalists. People most of us know, or are, who live from hand to mouth, from gig to gig. With this as a background, the entitled luvvies at the National Theatre pleading poverty as a result of COVID-19 induces rage. There wasn’t a blog yesterday because we were waiting for Chancellor Rishi Sunak to announce his measures, which haven’t come a moment too soon.

It’s wonderful seeing how many of these beleaguered arts people are pulling together to create schemes for support and encouragement, like Northern Fiction Alliance’s isolation initiatives from the independent publishers that come under its banner. Check them out and show them some love. And from today isolated writers can attend a virtual litfest – the Stay At Home Festival, which has been organised by writer CJ Cooke – she deserves massive love and respect too. Later on today we’ve got a must-read piece from the CEO of Fahrenheit Press coming up for you – it really is an ‘if you only read one article this week’ kind of thing and I can’t do better than borrow his words: stronger together.


Isolation day five

There are all sorts of predicaments facing the writing world at the moment – indie booksellers and publishers facing threats to their livelihood and very existence, competitions and festivals being cancelled, markets for work contracting. But one of the biggest and most pressing issues is the situation facing freelance and self-employed writers, and though as I write it’s just been announced that Chancellor Rishi Sunak will be tomorrow announcing the government’s measures to help the self-employed, the creative community is already launching initiatives. Arts Council England has announced a massive £160 million emergency Covid-19 fund to support organisations and individuals affected by the coronavirus crisis. Society of Authors announced its £330,000 Authors Emergency Fund last week.

We’re seeing all sorts of amazing creative responses and opportunities too – The BBC looking for short scripts for InterConnected, and the launch of COVID-19 Creative Commissions for GMCA (Greater Manchester Combined Authority) are just two, and there’ll be many, many more. There’s more information about the ones we’ve mentioned on our website and we’ll be keeping you posted about what’s out there.

In the Writing Magazine online office, we’re keeping on keeping on from our remote workstations, although the whole operation was nearly scuppered yesterday when one team member posted a pic on our WhatsApp group about the order she’d just had delivered of 48 Crème Eggs. We’ve discovered that it’s the one chocolate guaranteed to get every team member excited, and tools were temporarily downed while everyone chipped in with their greedy remarks. We’re sorry if we were temporarily unavailable at the point but priorities, people!


Isolation day four

Well it’s lockdown day, bringing with it a sense of relief (that something is finally being done) and dread (about everything). But that’s the new normal, and we’re all getting used to that.

Yesterday’s work-from-home outfit was bizarre even by my standards (floral MC Hammer trousers, silk petticoat, baggy vintage Ralph Lauren Fair Isle cardigan) so I decided to get dressed properly today because one of my cats has a vet appointment which means I’d leave the house. And now I won’t be leaving it after all because it’s been changed to a telephone consultation. What are you wearing in your home offices?

The human spirit is a wonderful thing and our amazing WM writers prove this in so many ways. One of our WM poets, Jeannie Armstrong, wrote this beautiful, articulate poem in response to last night’s news and she’s given me permission to share it here. It’s her birthday today and look at her, giving us all a gift. Happy birthday, and thank you, Jeannie.

Writing in Strange Times
By Jeannie Armstrong

Putting letters formed into words
On the page today
Feels so very different,
For there is this dystopian feel
To every moment that
Makes me feel like I’m half
Asleep and dreaming
The sort of dream that makes
You wonder if you are dead
Or dying and trying to
Quantify and describe how this feels.
The looks on strangers’ faces
The sound of laughter
Rippling, tinkling, cacophony of geese squawking
So it can be recorded for ever.
So the next generation, innocent and
Fresh cheeked will
Know how it was to feel like it
Maybe perhaps could be
The beginning of the end of the world




Isolation day three

Does anyone else find that having actual work to do makes the terrors of the world outside recede, at least for a little while? Working on WM today, and particularly editing our subscribers’ success stories and putting them through for publication, is inducing a sense of order that was missing over the weekend, which seemed to pass in a blur of panicked headline-checking and stunned, reactive inertia. One friend, a freelance arts journalist, is stuck in Australia with no flights out, and another, a foreign correspondent who has lived in and reported from Afghanistan, is now holed up in the Ukraine. Thank goodness for Facebook and WhatsApp which make it possible to stay in touch.

Anyone struggling with how to cope could do worse than read the humane and thoughtful advice of journalist and humanitarian Imogen Wall, which has gone viral (sorry!) and which we’ve shared on our Facebook page. She used to freelance for a magazine I worked for and has gone on to work on the frontline, reporting from disaster zones and epidemics, so what she has to say comes from experience and is well worth a read.

Another bit of relief came from Simon Armitage’s beautiful new poem, Lockdown. He’s doing what a Poet Laureate should be doing – using words to make sense of troubled times.

On a lighter note, hands up, was anyone a fan of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books? The BBC has pulled forward the release of CBBC’s 13-part adaptation and it’s streaming on iPlayer from tonight. Let us know if you watched it!

Isolation day two

Logging on to work after doing the shopping at 8am is a reminder of how all our lives are changing. The supermarket was a real-life microcosm revealing how scared everyone is and how desperate not to run out of provisions. I started work breathless but triumphant having lugged home two bags of cat litter.

Via our WhatsApp group we can see the team adapting to, and sometimes struggling with, the ways their working systems are changing. Online access, that sort of thing. Everyone’s very polite and considerate in this odd period of adjustment: they just want to get on with their jobs. At WM we’re getting as far ahead as possible with the next issue and making sure there’s interesting online content for people to engage with while they’re in isolation. We message each other about putting the kettle on.

What’s really hitting home today is how much of a hit creative people and industries are taking – and how much of an impact this will have for all of us. Events people have been planning and working hard on are closing or being postponed – not just the biggies like LBF and the Hay Festival, but more grassroots events like Hull Noir. Two crime writer friends have been putting everything into this since last year – when it’s your mates you really feel as well as see the impact this is having on every level of the writing community.

What’s also coming through is how many good and generous people there are out there, from big corporations to indies whose own situation may now be precarious, doing what they can to support writers and readers. The SoA and friends have set up an Authors Emergency Fund. Audible is offering free ebooks for children and teens. Indie-punk crime publisher Fahrenheit Press, who were featured in WM last year, are giving away a free ebook to people who can’t afford to buy a book during the crisis. Influx Press will be organising online discussion groups. Legend Press has set up a ‘support a friend’ scheme where you can send a book as a random act of kindness to a friend in isolation for well below the usual price.

We’re trying to do our bit here, too, to keep our amazing readers informed and entertained. If you know of anyone going out of their way to support other writers and readers, let us know! We’re all in this together and we’d love to spread the word. More than ever, when this is finally over, we’re all going to need what the creative community can provide.


Wednesday: Isolation day one:

Today is the first day our team worked from our home offices. We all shared pictures of our new workspaces via WhatsApp, which means we can all visualise each other at work, and helps with community spirit. WM shared pictures of our spaces with our community of writers, and it was great getting feedback.

Feeling networked was a great part of today – Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp really come into their own when you can’t talk face to face. In the wider writing world though, it’s worrying to hear from independent presses reporting downturns in sales because people aren’t buying books in a crisis. Buy books people! The risk of small presses not surviving this is very real. We’ll all need places to submit to when this is over and if we don’t support them, they won’t be there.

It’s also sad to hear about the hits people in the writing world are taking. I FaceTimed with two writer friends after work. One has had her book launch cancelled and the other has had her book’s publication delayed. Another friend is the head of a uni creative writing masters degree course which she’s currently running remotely from a shed in her garden. If there were medals for blitz spirit she should be first in line.

After work the team all WhatsApped with the drinks we’ll be ordering to celebrate when this is over. Felt quite tiddly by bedtime.

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