On the Absence of Usual Stimuli

dickensian, pauper, horror, weird fiction,

What an incredible time to be a writer. Since lockdown began I’ve seen three close friends’ output ramp up massively.
I don’t think that’s because of the increase in spare time we’re now allegedly enjoying – I know I’m working more (for less!) as we/the institutions I work with struggle to evolve to online delivery; online dance classes aren’t the same as doing one in the flesh – it’s far more challenging. Notwithstanding those keyworkers whose timetables haven’t changed in the slightest.

Apart, perhaps from being able to get a seat on the tube or the bus; those angels of the NHS and other crucial services who are essentially the spine of the country right now. Those poor people are in the opposite position to many of us.

But otherwise, not for nothing is lockdown called lockdown, and that means those short expeditions and sojourns – prosaically called commutes, I suppose – have vanished from our daily lives, leaving us with more time.
Still, I don’t thing it’s a summative catalyst that’s got people writing more, I think it’s a response to the absence of stimulus, and a quite-welcome, much-needed dose of escapism, too.

The stimuli we’re typically exposed to every day, whether that’s sight, sound, etc, has changed into something much more insular. You could put on the News and add anxiety to your stimuli, or you could get the preserves and quince out and make some jam [jelly to those over in the States] but those are examples of an active stimulus; one in which you determine, as opposed to it already existing in your space and asserting an influence on you.

You’d expect to be horrendously au fait with the fillips of living in your own space, in your own home, but we spend so much time away from it, or having the choice to do so, that house arrest has forced us to see what is – or isn’t any longer – around us.

Mine range from the way light from my insubstantial blinds changes throughout the day, to where the dust collects first on the floor; my stimuli now encompass the regular smell of my sandalwood and amber handwash (whatever the hell amber is; certainly my hands don’t smell of fossilised tree sap or that bit from sperm whales), and the taste of salad sandwiches which are all I can manage to eat in this much less active state of being; my stimuli are no longer the three-an-hour police sirens outside, but are now the churr of nightjars in Epping forest when I go to bed and the washing machine of my upstairs neighbours and their obsessive cleaning.

So in that change, I’ve had to resort to the one constant thing that’s been part of me for so long: writing. It’s helped make sense of this awful year – and if not make sense, then at least played an effective role in its denial.

I’ve been more reflective, more introspective and, I suppose, more grateful for my freedom of movement when it wasn’t taken from me. I’ve always been happy with my own company but lately I’ve realised how many of my friends, acquaintances, etc are not; as judged by the increase in phone calls from them.

So I’m here in my flat alone, my mind wandering to those halcyon days of my primary school assembly where sitting cross-legged for long periods didn’t hurt, where instead of listening to the radish-faced headmaster talk about school uniform, I would tune out, gazing into those shafts of early morning summer sunlight in which dust became a magical golden thing that moved up and down, up and down, from one end of the beam to the other. I’m here in my flat alone wondering why I used to think dust was probably living and why no one ever corrected me. I conjure memories of staring down the school field instead of the blackboard, at the headless tree Lloyd Triggs and I used to climb at lunchtime when we played Yara Ma*. I think of my childhood toys and that then sends me off to bittersweet nostalgia of Simon & Garfunkel, ABBA, Jesus Christ Superstar and other songs that seem intrinsically linked with Star Wars and LEGO for no other reason than that was what was on the radio all the time.

But my smugness at being able to go down those rabbit holes, to be present in only my own company, has become a petard that lately hoists me, because in that fringe of consciousness, I finished my novel and now I have nothing to do. I mean creatively. Dance isn’t creative to me, it’s work.

I’ve written a 75 word flash fiction piece, and a short I’m subbing, but that’s just a cigarette hit to a crack addict. If I’m honest I feel utterly lost for the first time in my life. Not in a depressing way, not anxious, but just I’m just moving through these solid days without context or meaning.

Part of me wants that hit, to go back and become profoundly steered by a story, but the other part is exhausted, and the thought of beginning something new is… I don’t know the word, but there’s a nauseating inertia there. Whether or not my novel needs a (seventh) edit is neither here nor there, because I’m certainly not touching it until I have had distance or betas and I’ve yet to want to offer it out to anyone.
What I do want though, is…I kinda want a dog…

*Yara Ma – involved one of us hanging from the highest bough trying not to laugh whilst the other cajoled ‘Yara Ma….Yara Ma…’ To us it was the most entertaining and funny thing ever done and all I can remember is the idea came from the back of a Monster Munch packet where a picture of a sloth-like monster hung from a tree.

Update: This blog was originally one I wrote on 10th May, 2020. The not-writing didn’t last very long. I’m now 20k into my next book. It’s set in the same world as the first but this time, the horror is largely taking place in 1860s London… However, not one to waste anxiety for no reason, I’m now worrying about what I’ll do when I’ve finished this one – hopefully it won’t take me ten years’ time.

  1. Claire Bessa says:

    You’re a genius. I love your writing and am so immensely proud of you. Amazing work Beanie! Can’t wait for your curmudgeonly blog posts x

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