Writers at Home is a series that explores how writers’ creative work and writing practice has been transformed by the coronavirus pandemic. Spread the Word has commissioned five writers from the London Writers Awards scheme to share their personal stories with emphasis on their writing practice. Here, Elliot F. Sweeney shares his experience…
I keep telling myself there was a time before face masks, latex gloves, supermarket queues, joggers, toilet paper dilemmas, more joggers, home-made hand sanitisers ad infimum. Not to mention, that during the Brexit years (oh, how I miss them), all this Covid-speak – social distancing, PPE, lockdown, furloughed – were terms absent from our everyday vocabulary.
I’m a community mental health nurse specialising in depression and anxiety, and since the pandemic grew teeth, feeling depressed and anxious seem pretty legitimate states of mind. Undoubtedly, this is the strangest, most rudderless time in my career, and it currently seems to have no end post in sight. Morale in my team is understandably low, and I feel this pervading hysteria as personal and literal infrastructures seem to unstitch before my eyes. However, throughout these murky weeks, there have been a few patient encounters that have given cause to reflect, and in certain instances, some much needed light relief. For example, last week I spoke to an obsessive-compulsive hand-washer who went to great lengths to coach me in the correct form and technique for skin sanitation, her area of expertise. Then there was an agoraphobic young man I saw at home, who shrugged his shoulders and said – only half-jokingly – “just another day at the office,” when I enquired about how he was coping with self-isolation. Psychiatry tends to pathologise extreme ritualistic, isolative behaviours such as theirs, but in this present state of affairs they have become normalised, and it is those who don’t partake who are increasingly seen as outsiders. What strange times these are.
Then there’s my identity as a writer. Like authors I admire (Orwell, Hemingway, etc) who have written great works set against periods of great unrest, I have hopes to set a story during this episode of social significance (the working title, of course, is ‘Love in a time of Corona’); as such, I’m doing my best to note observations, chart the minutiae, and jot down innocuous conversations I earwig. But the actual writing bit is proving hard. My concentration is blunted, and increasingly, I find myself staring at a blank page. A niggly voice keeps saying, what’s the point? Hundreds of people are dying. Really, who cares about words?
Throughout the London Writers Award 2019-20 programme, we’ve been taught about character arcs, tension building, dénouements, all the essential ingredients of compelling stories; but with this saga, I’m seeing the opposite – the narrative curves have been deliberately flattened, restrictions enforced, and monotony and in-conclusion have become defining features of the plot. It’s a story without a beginning, middle or end. And I’m bored of it.
Reading has helped. Paper, kindle, audiobook, I don’t mind the form as long as I’m in the universe of a writer I trust. Current friends include Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, and Raymond Chandler. As a child, books were an escape, and in recent weeks I’ve retreated back to these early encounters. In doing so, I’ve been able to remind myself of the mysterious power that stories can possess, and how well-written characters have the potential to live, breath and inspire long after the last page has been read.
Elliot F. Sweeney is a crime fiction writer from London. He has sold stories to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Fahrenheit Press, Switchblade and Suspense, amongst others.
In 2018 he was granted a scholarship to attend Curtis Brown’s novel writing course. During this period he wrote Tracks, an investigative thriller and the first in an intended series. Book Two is well underway. This opportunity led seamlessly into the London Writers Award. The programme has allowed him the space and support to work on a standalone idea entitled The Greater Good, set within the same conflicted London as Tracks, but featuring different central characters. An early draft was long-listed for the 2019 Blue Pencil First Novel Award. He hopes to have a full manuscript ready by Summer 2020.
Outside of writing, he works as a mental health nurse.
Published 28 April 2020