After a barren start to 2020 I’ve found a new ritual and had a great couple of months’ writing. It feels good, not least because since September 2019 I’ve gone back to fulltime work after six happy years with a day off in the week to write. I got a job (I’m a teacher) closer to home and so the commute time was going to be writing time. I would lose nothing and gain a few pounds (money, not weight. Although the dinners at my new place are making up the latter – so much custard!). That time slot, seven to eight, the hour I had spent in my car with Radio 4, John Humphreys’ old fashioned values (misogyny and casual racism, tempered by Sarah Montague), sports bulletins and Thought for the Day. Not so much to miss, I thought, and yet I struggled for months to fill it with writing.
But lock-down has pushed everything back an hour. Now, I get up at twenty to seven, chase the kids off on their paper rounds, make coffee, and I’m in front of the computer by quarter past seven, half a cup of too-cool coffee next to me. And I write. I write for an hour, a fresh coffee at ten to eight, usually about 400 to 500 words into the session – yes, I’ve ritualised it; the second cup must last until quarter past eight.
Why do we do that? Put those boundaries up, settle down inside like snails in our shells, let confidence grow, then creep out in the rain, only to be crushed by splashing, booted feet?
On these lockdown mornings I manage anything from 500 to 1200 words. I do it six times per week and I’m averaging 5000 words per week. That’s probably more than I averaged when I had my one day per week to write. Although from those halcyon days I feel like there are misty memories of five-figure weeks. Those times, so distant now that they feel somehow unreal, as if they never actually happened, memories from the mists of the mythical, a chimera of word counts.
Since lockdown I’ve been mostly working from home, mostly not starting my day job until 9am. Usually I would be out of the house by seven after dragging myself up at six am, drinking coffee, rushing around wolfing breakfast, chasing the eldest two boys out for their paper rounds and probably ironing a shirt because I just couldn’t be bothered to do it the night before.
Of course, it’s probable that this is some combination of the thrill of new ritual and the elation of first-draft word building, that joy in a steady word on word, line on line, paragraph on paragraph, and the pages build like the stone walls of a castle. That first-draft thrill is fleeting, a castle built in a swamp, but it’s something to savour. Or as Joe Simpson – to use a mountaineer metaphor – put it in his fabulous ‘Touching the Void’ from way back in 1997,
‘I carried on, sweating now, the morning cold driven off. Head down, keep looking at your feet, swing, swing, hop, look at your feet, swing swing… all the way up a smooth 150 feet, no effort, no headache, feeling on top of the world.’
And just like a mountaineer halfway up, basecamp and the summit equally distant and delightful dots, I can press on or go back, either way, there’ll be no shame.
But we press on. Of course we do. What would be the point otherwise? What would stop us? For me it might be the impending change, the shattering of ritual: schools are readmitting year groups, just 25% at a time, but they’re still there, still needing, and those Zoom sessions will have to be met too. A return to manic mornings with every minute gone in a corn-flake flash, a freshly ironed shirt pulled on, teeth brushed, tie tied, boys booted and on the bike. The plan to write between seven and eight is back in the searchlight and then hiding again, like the escaping prisoner, as the expanding foam of teaching fills the gaps.
I’m hanging on that need for ritual. Later in his book, on that fateful, almost deadly descent, Simpson is left dangling by a rope above a crevasse, both he and his climbing partner helpless to alter the outcome.
‘I lolled on the rope, scarcely able to hold my head up. An awful weariness washed through me, and with it a fervent hope that this endless hanging would soon be over. There was no need for the torture. I wanted with all my heart for it to be finished.’
When a ritual breaks it’s like writing itself dies and the unfinished draft dangles, longing to be cut free, for it to be over.
That may happen or it may not. My one hour may remain or it may be halved. My 5000 words may remain or they may be halved or they may disappear altogether, just like the first months of 2020. I may never lose my dependence on ritual, and, hey, I’ve found a new ritual for the lockdown months, maybe I’ll find another for the easing.