Writing in the Year of the Plague

Necklace of Stars, poetry

Tony Shelton, the author of our previous blog A-Z of Childhood, describes how to write yourself out of lockdown.

An inveterate and incurable itch for writing besets many and grows old with their sick hearts.
Juvenal, Satires.

Writing…is but a different name for conversation. 
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

Writing, I explained, was mainly an attempt to out argue one’s past; to present events in such a light
that lost in life as either won on paper or held to a draw. 
Jules Feiffer, Ackroyd.

All these quotes (from books I have never read, I’m afraid) have some truth in them for me.


Ever since the age of six or so, when I was praised by Miss Puttock for writing a piece about my electric train set and managed to spell ‘electricity’, I have written, mainly because I had to. For most of my life writing involved essays, exam answers, official reports and memos but I even enjoyed those (well, not the exams perhaps). It was the craft that appealed to me: of finding the rights words, putting them in the right order and editing them. Creative writing began at a time when work seemed to dominate my life and I developed an itch to write the ‘novel of the century’. I started with a WEA evening class in Leeds and in the latter stages of work began to jot down ideas during dull meetings. I wrote humorous articles for professional magazines. I managed to have two stories and a few short pieces read on the radio but it wasn’t until early retirement that writing really took off. I wrote my work memoirs, to get it all out of my head. I researched a local history book which sold out and discovered the huge kick of finding people enjoyed what I had written, fan letters and requests for signings, even!


Then, when my wife and I retired to Cumbria, we both joined a U3A creative writing group and, after a year or two, I found that I liked writing poetry, really playing with words and tweaking them to fit. She did, too, and for a few years we wrote separately but together, commenting on each other’s work and enjoying it. You could say she was my audience, my muse (and I hers). Now she has gone and for three years I have been trying to regain my
desire to write, to find a new motivation.


And then came the virus and the lockdown and my shielded isolation and an almost total absence of face-to-face conversation. I no longer have any of my old interest in drawing and painting, I am no good with my hands and my knees put me off long walks but my need to write is now acute and it is a need, almost an addiction. Bread and butter writing – emails, texts and so on – has been a kind of substitute and writing a diary of my life for a future
archive makes me write something every day but these do not require the craft of poetry or fiction or the intensity of concentration which keeps out sad memories and self-recrimination. It does not give me that kick – of making a reader or listener amused or moved. I have never written for myself: like a stand-up comic I need an audience, one person will do. And I sometimes need another kind of kick – the motivation to write, the suggestion, the deadline, the prospect of a reaction, no matter how critical, because I still want to learn, to improve.


The Necklace of Stars project has now provided all that for me and, once again, ideas are coming into my mind demanding to be jotted down on scraps of paper and in notebooks. Guided by a tutor, I am learning again and finding new ways of writing. The project has nudged me into writing down memories of the dull but strange world of my suburban London childhood and the increasingly odd members of my family. Many new or long-forgotten memories have emerged as if called to action.

I used to imagine my grandchildren coming up to me in the garden and asking: ‘Grandad, what was school like when you were a little boy?’ or ‘Tell me again about the time when you…’ They never have done. Maybe children don’t actually do that at all, maybe it’s an advertising fantasy dreamed up to sell Werther’s Originals. So, this memory project is a kind of substitute. More important, recording childhood memories has pushed to one side the darker memories of the last few years, of my wife’s decline and death. I did write about those years and my experience of caring for her, trying to set it all to rest, to prevent all the ‘what ifs’ going round and round to no purpose.


I am now convinced that writing can be therapeutic. But it should also be enjoyable and good for one’s mental wellbeing. If possible, it should provide a positive sense of identity, helping you to think ‘I am a writer’, even if you now know you will never write the novel of the century. Writing for the project is now helping with all those things. I am sure it has certainly helped my mental health. And writing, as I am now, about childhood memories is making me feel a little more ‘interesting’, helping me value my life more. It is helping me to start to understand about how my character was formed in my early years.

Writing is once again helping me get up in the morning (well, most mornings), and, in the most basic sense, filling the time like nothing else. I have plenty of time to fill.

Tony Shelton

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – phone conversations and post.

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