Writing in Isolation

by Constance Emmett
published in Writing

As many cities and states navigate the various phases of reopening their economies and a return to social normalcy, writers who have emerged from self-isolation may regret a wasted opportunity. Imposed isolation may not have resulted in a leap in their writing. Writing demands degrees of isolation, even in the best of times, but the stress and fatigue of the threats of disease and economic hardship took a toll on everyone. Lack of structure during self-isolation may be to blame. Structure is as key to completing the work as it is central to the writing itself.

As we proceed through the phases of reopening, we may find ourselves taking two steps forward and one back. Many states rushed to reopen on Memorial Day and experienced Covid spikes in June. The ground swell of a social justice movement in reaction to the murder of George Floyd resulted in crowded demonstrations around the country and the world. The mingling of demonstrators is predicted to cause spikes, spreading to the people who are meeting again: family and friends, servers, co-workers, grocery store workers, hairdressers, daycare operators, teachers. Self-isolation may persist or begin again following Covid spikes, and in more than one round (two steps forward, one step back). 

We endured the constant isolation of the spring—working at home, shopping remotely, socializing by Zoom—but unfortunately, we may have to endure isolation again before this is over. Here are 10 to-do’s to help you thrive, writing in isolation. 

1) Get out of bed

In the morning. It’s a big step, but think about the lure of coffee or tea, whichever you prefer first thing in the a.m. (bourbon is not an option). If you are sleeping poorly, take a nap in the afternoon, but get up at a reasonable hour in the morning and make the bed. You have a book to write.

2) Take a shower

It’s allowed to touch your face while washing it. Wash your hair. Hair (cutting and coloring) becomes a serious problem during isolation, unless you are a hairdresser or are locked up with one (warning: do not allow your non-hairdresser partner to cut your hair; cut it yourself and take the blame)—the least you can do is wash it. Moisturize in order to maintain the barrier that is healthy skin. Wash regularly: it will refresh your body and mind in preparation for writing.

3) Get dressed

Don’t lounge around in pj’s or underwear or some cringe-worthy combo of the same. Or worse yet, a bathrobe. Put clothes on, even if it’s a track outfit. Pretend you are going out or answering the door (ding-dong!) and you have to meet and greet someone. When Zooming with your boss, family or friends, wear something appropriate on top but don’t succumb to wearing something unreasonable on the bottom (in an emergency, you might forget and jump up, and you’ll never, ever live that down). 

4) Don’t spend all day and night on the internet

If you’re working from home again, first, count yourself lucky to be employed, but don’t log out of the company account just to turn on the gambling channel, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or TikTok. It’s better for your brain and your eyes to resist the screen for some portion of each day. Read, cook, clean, exercise without a screen on. Rest your eyes for some portion of every day—save them for your writing.

5) Don’t sit all day

Sitting has long been described as the new smoking (don’t do that either) because it’s so detrimental to your health (starting with your rear end). Get up and move around, doing one of the many aforementioned activities, or dance around like Gilda Radner on SNL (YouTube it). Just get up every hour or two and move. As writers know well, joints tend to stiffen with sitting and the intense concentration required, but even older joints benefit from the hydration increase caused by movement.

6) Go outside 

Cities and states have allowed us to return to the parks, beaches and outdoor dining. If you’re lucky enough to have a yard or even a space that can hold potted plants in light and air, you’ve hit pay dirt with gardening season. Your nightly salads—tomatoes, lettuce, chives, herbs, and other greens—love growing in pots, and their care forces us to get up from the desk and into the air. The good weather makes it easy to return to walking or jogging on a regular basis, or to take up a habit of daily fresh air and exercise. You can do your best preparation for writing—figuring out a knotty plot point, for instance—while on a walk.

7) Seek Positive Stress-Relievers

The idea of recurring Covid is extremely stressful, and there’s no arguing with the pressure of that stress. Eating and drinking too much are fairly common responses to stress even when planning a shopping trip may return to the level of the planning of D-Day. Find some way to relieve stress that isn’t bad for you. The YMCA provides loads of online courses, including yoga and meditation. At least choose a path somewhere between the virtuous and utter degradation—enjoy a cocktail of any sort at the end of a day of writing. Better yet, return to the spot where you write with a glass of water.

8) Clean the house

You’ve lost the habit of giving dinner parties, hosting the book club or house guests. For a long time, the only visitors were FedEx and UPS guys. It may take more time to renew your old social habits, or we may be plunged into self-isolation again before you do. During self-isolation, the tendency was to become a tad…disinclined. It’s past time to clear up the clutter. Stop leaving dishes in the sink. Above all, clean the bathroom, but vacuum too. Don’t use housework as an excuse to dodge your novel, but cleaning is a mindless physical activity, during which plots and characters may evolve while you improve your environment.

9) Make a to-do list

Lists beat back the chaos inherent to the universe for a moment and focus the mind. The first round of isolation cut you off, you were adrift. As writers, we must not let that happen, especially during the next round of isolation. Anchor yourself to the tasks only you can do and make a list each day—take pride in ticking tasks completed. Start with your writing, every day.

10) Be grateful

Imposed isolation is a tremendous opportunity to move your writing forward. If you enjoy good health, be grateful for the opportunity of sustained writing and take advantage of it. We face continued uncertainty, which may last for the rest of 2020. You won’t be able to control the future of Covid and society’s reaction to it, except with your own actions, voice and vote. You can contribute to your own well being and control the progress of your writing. If you’re healthy and working, be grateful. If you’re writing, be grateful. Stay grateful and healthy. Best of luck and write on!


Constance Emmett

Constance Emmett’s debut historical/LGQ novel, Heroine Of Her Own Life, published by Next Chapter in 2019, is available through Amazon http://mybook.to/heroineofherlife, and through independent bookstores everywhere by searching Bookshop (www.bookshop.org). She is working on the sequel to Heroine and an unrelated historical novel, writing in an aerie-like office in the beautiful foothills of the Massachusetts Berkshires, where she lives with her wife and their dog. Her non-fiction is posted on her blog, or connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. 

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