It’s hard to read or write at the moment
There have been lots of articles and social media posts from avid readers who are finding it difficult, suddenly, to read in these Covid times. This chimed with me.
Sophie Vershbow, writing in Vogue in April said “Reading is a primary form of self-care, the thing I turn to just as much when I’m happy as when I’m sad. It’s felt like losing a friend in a time when we’ve already lost so much.”
She quotes research as showing that chronic stress affects the way the front of the brain works: “the area…[that] normally controls our ability to concentrate and switch attention from one thing to another.” So, during something as stressful as living through a global pandemic, “we lose our usual mental flexibility and become highly focused on the source of the threat,” which means it’s difficult to lose ourselves in a book.”
Some people have suggested we should consume less news. I know I’ve been obsessively watching the news, scouring social media and reading online news sites. And then I perpetuate the anxiety by sharing articles that impact on me on my social media pages. It makes sense, then, that BBC journalist Emily Maitliss, in the thick of the news, tweeted: Ok. An admission. I’m finding it really hard to read at the moment and I usually devour novels. Is anyone else? Is it concentrate span? Twitter? Or as I suspect the plots and problems now seem to belong to a slightly different age. Book tips?’
Constance Grady, in Vox, in May, interviewed Oliver J Robinson, Neurologist and psychologist, about anxiety (and the difference between anxiety and fear). He said that anxiety is about uncertainty (fear is about the known or visible or understandable) – and with anxiety you don’t know when something is going to end.
“The pandemic that we’re in is the most uncertain thing possible. You don’t know when it’s going to end, whether you’re going to get it. You don’t even know what it is, really. And all of a sudden, everything in your environment is dangerous. Door handles are dangerous. Other people are dangerous…” To this uncertainty I’d add coping with a new normal – working from home, having your partner home all the time, home schooling, on furlough and worrying if your job is safe …
“It’s also completely uncontrollable. But what I can do is seek information. I can go on Twitter, I can go on the internet, I can search nonstop, trying to resolve this uncertainty. The problem is that you’re never going to actually resolve it [yourself].”
How does this manifest itself? “One person might have difficulty remembering things, or difficulty staying on task, or difficulty not focusing on negative things. So it’s very hard to say, ‘This one function is affected by anxiety’.”
Laura Abernethy, in an article in the Metro of 19 May has consultant psychologist Sarah Lewis, Psychologist explaining it like this:
“When we feel under threat we become more alert to danger, including becoming hyper-vigilant. We are fully focussed on ascertaining the source of the danger. Think of when you have been startled in the night by an unexpected noise. Immediately you think – is someone in the house? Your attention is focussed on to that sound, straining to make sense of it. Then you realise it’s your son knocking over the hall-stand trying to creep in; relief rushes over you…The problem with C-19 is that the resolution of the danger, the flood of relief, doesn’t come.”
Maybe spending more time on screens is changing the way we process information: research from Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University, quoted by Laura Abernethy, tells us that reading is a body/mind process. Our brains like to get physically involved with what we read. Reading a book (as distinct from a screen) requires a different hand-eye co-ordination, and is a different sensual and tactile experience (the smell of the paper, the feel of turning the page). But “the instant gratification of screens means that we have the ability to take more shortcuts – browsing and scanning rather than steadily reading and absorbing. We lazily skip over text that’s more demanding rather than rereading and checking if we’ve understood.”
I wondered whether it was the same for writers, because when I left my job at the beginning of the year to return to freelancing (and, I said, finally spend some time on that book I’ve been trying to write), I found it impossible to do once Covid-19 hit. I kept looking for diversionary activity. I recognised my anxious state, and instead of reading, or writing, and once I’d cleaned out all the cupboards in the house, like so many others I took to gardening and jigsaws. They required something different from my brain, something that I could access.
So I took great comfort from a quote from Kit de Waal in the Guardian in May, who said, “Well, you can’t write because you’re not paying the rent, or you’ve got three kids at home, or you’re lonely. So I would say it’s not the end of the world if you do jigsaws for the next two months. I haven’t written anything since this crisis started, but I know it will come back.”
I hope it does for me, too. I’ve been trying to exercise my writing muscle – I’ve taken workshops in Italy and in Cornwall and they have been wonderful. But back at my desk, nothing happens. I’ve had long discussions about writing with my Australian writer/editor friend. And I decided that I needed to reactivate this blog and try to re-generate some sort of writing muscle memory.
Richard Osman, in the same Guardian article, talked about how he carved out a discipline for himself when writing The Thursday Writing Club: “Give yourself two hours a day to write – make a deal with yourself”. This reminded me of an interview I did with Australian writer Olga Master several decades ago. Olga came late to writing fiction, having raised her seven children while working as a journalist on a country newspaper. She had no truck with writers’ block: “Go back to your corner and write”, she said.
Here’s Kit de Waal again: “There’s a lot to be gained by not writing, but thinking. Not catastrophising, but contemplating a piece of work that you’ve done that maybe doesn’t work or hasn’t worked in the past. Ask yourself, what is wrong with this? Can I talk to someone about why it doesn’t work?
Or as Joe Dunthorne said: “ Even when I do manage to find some uninterrupted time, editing seems more appealing than writing. I can happily spend an hour moving a few commas around.” This reminded me that a voraciously-reading former colleague of mine, when tweeting about the loss of reading solace during Covid, said she could re-read, but not tackle anything new.
Cue that debate I always have with myself about whether to just keep writing, anything, to keep the muscle exercised, as all writing teachers will tell you, or give in to the urge to edit and tinker, which exercises some muscle, even if it’s not the critical one (like rehabilitation after being forced to rest because of badly broken ribs, and then discovering actually you need to rebuild your atrophied leg muscles before you can sort out your core…)
So – back to being unable to read: do we need to create some reading rituals, and stick to them? Or join a gang (eg a reading group) to help us? Or would the neuroscientists say that simply won’t work? Maybe there’s a lateral solution? Maybe we should be trying different or shorter forms? Poetry? Audio books? Has any of this worked for you?