At first I was like Trump – in denial – but when it became clear, except to the most diehard conspiracy theorists, that this wasn’t just another seasonal flu I realised that self-isolation and lockdown were essential.
“Easy,” I thought, “I’ve been here before. I’ve lived in post-revolution Romania and post-war Bosnia. I can keep calm in a crisis and I’ve experienced nationwide food shortages. Surely the NHS will value this experience when assembling teams to deal with the crisis.”
Then came the call for NHS volunteers and, along with about 700,000 others, I applied. But they only requested minimal information (name, address, driving licence number) and I wasn’t surprised that there was no reply. If they’d had a more detailed form they could have worked out our skills, experience and availability and assigned us to nearby hospitals, but now they have over half a million application forms and it will take them until Doomsday to go through them all. I also applied to a private sector ad, for “NHS IT Volunteers”, as well as a local charity, – but no response from either of them.
All this has made me face up to reality which is that my aid agency days are over, and they were so long ago (1990 to ’95) that any recruiter would think I’m deranged to think I could apply for something similar in this day and age.
In preparation for my heroic career as a “front line” NHS volunteer I set up camp in my aunt’s little garden in Brighton (I rent her attic-flat). The idea was that I’d return from a 12 hour shift in the Accident and Emergency department, or driving ambulances at high speed through an empty city, and live in the garden in order to not bring the virus into the house. I dug a compost toilet, eat all my meals outside, sleep in a tipi tent and avoid going inside the house.
But my call from the NHS never came and I’ve moved on.
I think everyone has time to reflect these days and one of the things I’ve realised is that my rush to become an NHS volunteer is only partly a desire to help people; it’s also an urge to escape the boredom of isolation. It’s much more exciting to become part of a team in a crisis than being stuck in a garden for weeks on end.
It was also an attempt to escape my real purpose in life, which I recently told myself was to write books. The truth is that this time of lockdown and isolation is an ideal moment to finish all the books I’ve written but not yet published. All I have to do is focus on writing, editing and publishing every day, work out the intricacies of self-publishing on Amazon (they’re surprisingly simple if you have patience) and avoid distractions.
But when faced with a new creation, a new book, all sorts of fears come to the fore – will it be a failure? – and it’s so much easier to give in to procrastination, rush off to an emergency where the action and excitement will suck me in and enable me to postpone doing what I really should be doing.
So here I am, in my aunt’s pottery studio, writing this article and about to self-publish the paperback edition of my new travel book on Nepal. Next up is a book on Romania and soon after that I’ll dust down and finish off a book about the evils of international adoption.
My intention is to get all the books I’ve written but not published out there, in the public domain, so that I can forget all about them and move on. I’ve got so many ideas for new books, and can write them quickly, but the problem is I get bogged down in the Dreaded Swamp of Procrastination – where thousands of great books have met their doom. I don’t have Writer’s Block, I have what could be called Publisher’s Block – I find the production and especially the promotional side really depressing and tend to avoid it, resulting in finished manuscripts sitting around for years.
During this current crisis, and thanks to the NHS for not dragging me into their chaos, I’ve been able to find the time – and the determination – to overcome this block. Every day this week I’ve been working on Amazon’s Kindle service where all the tools to self-publish and promote a book are available for free. All it takes is a bit of patience and, most importantly, the will to banish the demon of procrastination back to his pit.
A key factor in enabling me to write was the realisation that my books don’t need to succeed – this simple truth hit me with the power of a revelation. It really doesn’t matter if nobody buys them, if they disappear without trace on Amazon’s vast sprawl. That’s not the point. My aim is just to share a story and then move onto the next one. Feedback is important but I mustn’t let a lack of it hold me back. I imagine comedians and musicians playing to empty halls and carrying on anyway despite the vote of no confidence. They must go on to the next gig or they wouldn’t be artists.
The real key to writing is very simple: self-discipline. What this means in practice is sitting down and writing for up to four hours a day. It’s really hard to actually do this as there are distractions everywhere and the evil twins of procrastination and complacency can often seem so very attractive; but once you get going it become self-perpetuating; a daily routing gets easier the longer you do it.
Every book I’ve seen about How to Write mentions this four hour a day rule and I’ve known about it for about 30 years. But I’ve allowed myself to get distracted by emergency situations, difficult jobs, complacency and, in recent years, the galaxy of online entertainment that is waiting in my pocket. My whole life nearly went by without having written a word, without having left any stories behind.
Two things have changed all that and enabled me to write, publish, rinse and repeat. First of all this coronavirus pandemic has kept me in the same place for long enough to stop making excuses and face up to my life’s purpose.
The second thing that has kicked me into gear is a rather dubious deal I’ve made with a writer friend, who also struggles with the evil twins and is sitting on a pile of great, unpublished, gems. I told him “If I don’t write four hours a day I will pay you £40. If I write one hour a day I’ll pay you £30; in other words I’ll pay you £10 an hour for every hour I don’t write.”
The final thing that has turned me from couch-potato into productive writer-cum-self-publisher is turning off the phone, which I do every evening and it only get turned on after I’ve done my 4 hours a day (usually about lunchtime). Considering how many distractions are in a modern phone, and how easily it sucks you in during a moment of weakness, this really helps me focus. And when it comes to turning the thing back on again I assume there will be a ton of missed calls and unanswered messages but no – during this lockdown, at least in my experience, people are communicating less.
My writer friend probably thinks I’m insane but it’s actually working like a dream. The last thing I want to do is give him any money at all, let alone £40 a day – in this time of economic shutdown it would be madness – and it’s motivating me more effectively than anything I’ve tried in the last 30 years. This is the third day I’ve been doing it and I’m approaching my third hour today; and my last hour will end neatly at 1.20PM which is exactly lunchtime.
If you’ve read this far I’d really appreciate it if you would buy my new travel book on Amazon: Himalayan Bus Plunge, and other stories from Nepal.
Every time someone buys a copy it’s like a vote of confidence, another member of the audience for that struggling musician, and a review is like when a particularly keen fan comes up to the performer afterwards and tells him how much he enjoyed it. Even bad reviews are good because it shows that people are engaging, and that’s all we can expect.
I did say I don’t really care if people buy the book and that’s true – but an equally valid truth is that it would be wonderful if people did.
N.B. The image used with this article was the first cover proposal by the Maria Tanasescu. The trouble with working with great designers like Maria is that one has to choose from a series of great designs and it’s difficult and painful. Looking at this image now I’m thinking “this is better than the one I chose…”