Creative writing during COVID-19: tips from award-winning authors

Putting pen to paper is powerful — and never more than during a time of global upheaval. Three experienced writers, all alumni of La Trobe University, share their advice on how to develop your writing practice, in part two of our series on being creative during COVID.

Have you ever thought about starting a diary or personal journal? Perhaps you’ve felt the pull to write a poem, or jot down a short story or scene?

It might seem unlikely, but living through a global pandemic is an apt time to begin, or re-ignite, your writing practice. For instance, taking time to express your thoughts, ideas and impressions through writing can help you tune into what you’re thinking and feeling, which is a vital part of self-care.

What’s more, the stories you scribble down now could one day become an important record of how our daily lives have changed during COVID-19. From written lists to song lyrics, your words today could help future generations remember and learn from the history of this extraordinary time.

To help you start a regular writing habit, we asked three award-winning La Trobe alumni writers for their best tips. They include:

  • Dr Catherine Padmore (Bachelor of Arts with Honours, 1998), who is Head of Creative Arts & English at La Trobe. Catherine’s first novel, Sibyl's Cave was shortlisted for The Australian/Vogel Award and commended in the first book category of The Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Her short works have been published in The Review of Australian Fiction, Island, The Journal of Australian Writers and Writing, The Big Issue, The Australian and more.

  • Dr Kelly Gardiner (PhD in English, 2014), who writes historical fiction and fantasy for readers of all ages. Her books include 1917: Australia's Great War, which was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Young People’s History Prize and Asher Award, and was a Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book; Act of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes, which were both shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards; and her latest series for young readers, The Firewatcher Chronicles. Kelly also teaches writing at La Trobe University.

  • Dr Paddy O'Reilly (PhD in English, 2014), who writes fiction, non-fiction and script. Paddy's three novels and two short story collections have collected many major awards. Among them are The Wonders, which won the Norma K Hemming award and was nominated for the Kirkus Prize; and The Fine Colour of Rust, which was shortlisted for the ASAL Gold Medal. Her short story The Delivery was recently broadcast on ABC’s Radio National Fictions program. Paddy also teaches writing at La Trobe University.

Read on for their pointers on capturing ideas, paying attention and what to do when the dreaded ‘writer’s block’ hits.

1. Carve out time

Like any new skill or habit, writing takes time to cultivate. But you don’t need hours: fifteen minutes a day will do. The important thing is to make your writing practice a priority.

“This might mean a shift in how you structure your day or your home. Some writers get up early, before their household wakes or before work, to carve out a quiet hour. Others scribble in their lunch break, just a half-hour a day, which adds up,” says Catherine.

With days filled with work, chores or Netflix marathons, you might feel too tired to write. Rather than thinking of writing as another difficult task within your busy day, consider it a leisurely retreat.

There's a famous adage, usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway: ‘Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair’. So many people want to write, or write more, but don't get around to it. Think of the twenty minutes, or sixty, or even ten you set aside to write something, anything, as an escape,” says Paddy.

Another approach Paddy uses is to ‘trick herself’ into writing.

“There's always the floor to be swept or the dog walked. I might tell myself I'll just write a hundred words. Or I'll write for fifteen minutes, then get a cup of tea,” she says.

For those of us with family responsibilities or living through a COVID-19 lockdown, making time to write can feel like the hardest thing. Kelly’s tip is to remove distractions — close your emails, turn off your phone and stay put.

“Sit down, assume the position, and give it a go. I put two-hour blocks in my diary on writing days, and within those I do 25-minute writing sprints. I just write. No answering the phone, checking email, wandering off to put another load of washing on. Whatever time you can manage is enough to get started,” Kelly says.

2. Start an ideas book

No matter your situation or previous writing experience, the best place to start is right where you are. Notice the things happening about you — their sounds, shapes and smells. Scribble your impressions in a notebook or note-taking app on your phone.

“For writing, one small action is simply to pay attention. Observe the world and people around you. See what strikes you as significant, moving, perplexing. You might choose to record some of these in a diary,” says Catherine.

“Mine doesn’t get an outing every day, but I know it’s there: to capture the fleeting impression that might be the beginning of a story, a particular combination of words cycling through my thoughts, a memory, a snippet of overheard conversation.”

Jotting down your thoughts, feelings and inklings can also help the keep the observations flowing. In time, they might coalesce into a story idea.

“Once they’re held in the journal, there’s space in your mind for the next thing. Over time, these small fragments often accrete into the start of something larger — a short story, or sometimes a novel. It’s not a fast process, but it’s a deeply rewarding one,” says Catherine.

For Kelly, note-taking happens in her Ideas Book.

“My two problems are managing the ideas I have and finding time to do something about them. So, my tip is to keep an Ideas Book (even if it’s just notes on your phone), so you don’t forget your brilliant ideas. If you need one, you can just flick through and rediscover messages from your past self. Mine is full of random ideas, news stories, moments from the past, bits of dialogue for current projects, and strange, scrawled things that occurred to me in the middle of the night,” she says.

3. Suspend judgement

Everyone has an inner critic — the voice inside that tells you that what you’ve written isn’t good enough. Learning to dial that censor down is a fundamental part of the writing process.

“Once I get past the voice in my head telling me what I'm writing is rubbish (I try to ignore that voice and keep going), I usually find that I get into the flow,” Paddy says.

Breaking down your writing into manageable chunks can also help budge the inner critic.

“Just start anywhere and see what happens. Don’t worry about whether anyone will see it or like it or publish it. Write the thing you want to write. Bit by bit, word by word,” says Kelly.

4. Notice when your best ideas emerge

When do ideas come most easily to you? Is it while you’re daydreaming? While driving your car, or out on a morning walk? By being alert to the conditions that spark your ideas, you can create more of those moments.

“Try to discover when your best ideas arrive. Mine come in the shower,” says Paddy.

For Catherine, ideas consolidate when she gives them time and space to settle.

“I’ve bid farewell to television, except for a film a week with my kid, so there is quiet space to rehearse the words before they hit the page, to gaze into space, to read. I’ve also been lucky enough to have a couple of residential fellowships to dwell on one project for weeks at a time, and these were incredibly productive,” Catherine says.

5. Read, read, read

In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000), acclaimed US author Stephen King advises: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Reading others’ work can help you understand what you like and dislike, and what makes a piece of writing effective.

Paddy agrees: “Read. Read. Read. Be inspired by great writing and learn a lesson from the writing you think doesn't work. Read first for pleasure, then again for technique.”

Start by asking exploratory questions, like: Who are your favourite writers? What stylistic or technical elements in their writing appeal to you? And which writers’ work do you find jarring? What choices have they made, and what effects do they have for you, the reader? By pinpointing these elements in other people’s work, you can start to use them (or lose them) in your own writing.

6. Be kind to yourself when you’re feeling stuck

All writers feel at a loss for words sometimes. Indeed, the 'affliction' has been given its own name: writer's block. According to Catherine, the advice is often to ‘push past it’ — "to write anything, even if it feels artificial or flat, until something starts to flow”. For others, like Kelly, taking a break can help to free the block.

Whatever method you choose, it’s important to do it kindly.

“It can be unsettling when words stop flowing. Addressing this in a pandemic is a unique challenge. If we’re lucky enough not to be directly affected by the virus, our creativity can be blocked by worry and uncertainty — there’s enough to take in right now processing the news and the impacts of the latest developments,” Catherine says.

“Beyond this are the practical challenges of this time: working and schooling from home, caring responsibilities, keeping the online groceries coming. For many people there is very little free time or headspace, and the expectation of continued creativity despite everything can be another pressure.

“Hopefully your writing offers consolation or joy in difficult times like these but, if it doesn’t and words won’t come, be gentle on yourself.”

For Kelly, pausing to consider the reasons why you’re stuck can provide helpful insights, too.

“Sometimes we dig ourselves into holes of our own making — the plot doesn’t work, things don’t make sense, we don’t know where to go from here,” she says.

“I usually step away from the desk, sit somewhere else, and draw a map or a flow chart or just scribble down points. Try using coloured paper, or pens, or a whiteboard — anything to give your brain a break from the screen. And give yourself permission to imagine things differently. Read something completely different.”

Getting outside for gentle exercise is another way to give yourself a break. Whether you’re limited by a local lockdown or able to move more freely, Kelly advises going for walk:

“And take your Ideas Book with you.”

Enjoyed this La Trobe alumni story? Read another.