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How writers can cope with a long, dark winter spent indoors

Need a winter reset? Here are tips for looking after your mental health, filling your creative stores, and passing the many hours until spring arrives.

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First things first: Picture me in London on a wet Sunday afternoon, wrapped in a wooly shawl, hot cocoa mug in hand, staring at the autumn rain and another six months of seasonal home confinement.

Or is the forced time at home actually a gift?

This year, I decided to look at the long winter as a treat to myself and my creative life. After all, since the lockdown was imposed in the U.K. last March, I have had to develop ways to make the most of the time that opened up, once I came to accept that I would be home for the long haul.

For us writers, being alone for extended periods of time is nothing new; we need the solitude in order to create, right? Sure, but pre-pandemic we could choose when to interrupt our solitude. Now, in the new normal that seems here to stay, the recommended and rarely interrupted solitude can at times feel oppressive and confusing, like a painter staring at a huge, blank canvas without guidelines.

Paradoxically, the home confinement proved liberating to some of us, such as writers with chronic conditions or mobility problems. Claire Wade, author of The Choice, who lives with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, says: “Staying in has meant that I have energy for things I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. It’s a weird silver lining.”

So, what to do with more energy reserves and more time I now find myself with, then?

I pulled out my red index card box, home of my writing ideas, and made a new tab under the title “TO DO DURING THE LONG WINTER,” a list I’ve shared here. Not all of them relate directly to writing, but they all “fill the creative well,” as Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way. I classified them under three subheadings: well-being and social contact; archiving, organizing, and tidying up; creative projects and improving your writing. Of course, many ideas overlap; this is the nature of the writer’s life. (Tip: If you don’t already, always keep a notebook or stack of paper handy to capture the odd idea. I use index cards and write one idea only on each so that I can file them under the relevant tab.)

So here goes.

 

WELL-BEING AND SOCIAL CONTACT

Wintry walks

I will largely skip the advice on exercise and meditation, assuming most will already pursue these activities; I will just put in a good word for good ol’ nature-walking in the tradition of Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau, and William Wordsworth, who all reportedly came up with creative ideas while walking about in city and country.

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Virtual catch-ups

Lack of real-life contact with friends and loved ones has been one of the worst aspects of COVID-19. Almost nine months into the pandemic, families and friends have grown more accustomed to regular virtual reunions and catch-ups (family Zooms!). A caveat, though: it is easy to slide into pessimism together and just put up a collective moan. Although no one denies the value of a shoulder to cry on, try to follow it up with something uplifting but concrete. We tend to offer platitudes like “I’m sure it will be all right” or “let’s hope for the best,” but let’s be honest: Do any of these empty phrases work for you? Taking turns to share a funny memory, an inside joke, a fragment of a poem, or an inspiring quote may cheer everyone up.

Letter-writing

Are you old enough to miss writing and receiving handwritten letters? I recently cleared out boxes that had not been touched for over two decades and unearthed letters from my long-deceased parents and grandma. It felt like opening a gift. I actually felt I could hear their voices through the years. How about reviving this millennia-old practice that has gone defunct only for two decades? For younger writers, this will be an unprecedented experience (to use the word “unprecedented” in a positive context for once): nothing lifts the spirit like receiving a handwritten letter. Check out The Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society and a blog from my favorite online stationery shop, Pen Heaven, which took the initiative of writing letters and cards to cancer patients.

Reading

Many writers are plagued by a pile of unread books; after all, we were avid readers before we turned writers. To give a social edge to this solitary pastime, consider joining a reading group, many of which are now online. Or, if you can’t find what you are looking for, why not set up your own group with some like-minded fellow writers?

Culture

Many cultural organizations and festivals have made their live offerings accessible online. The Metropolitan Opera has been streaming one HD production for free every 24 hours for months now, and since the management has decided not to open for the 2020-2021 season, this is set to continue (please consider making a donation if you watch). The Royal Opera House also offers paid livestreaming of some performances. Another opportunity for connection presents itself here: You can watch performances with friends, even if they live halfway across the world, and exchange ideas afterward. I have done exactly this with friends from my university years now living in Greece and Germany. Our youthful circle of friends shared an obsession with Italian opera, so the joint activity revived memories and a stronger sense of connection. As a byproduct, the reminiscences also sparked some new writing ideas for the memoir I am working on.

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One idea marrying the love of reading with the love of cinema goes back to my high school teaching years in west London back in the ’90s. Every time we finished reading a novel in class, we watched a film production and then wrote an essay on its creative aspects and character presentation. How about setting up a “Page to Screen” movie-watching group and really probing questions such as, “Who was the most effective Mr. Rochester of all time: Ciaran Hinds or Michael Fassbender?” (Or was it Orson Welles?)

 

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