By week two I was heartily sick of reading that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine. His quill must have been worn down to its last scrappy feather, as he supposedly also used the time to come up with both Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.
His supposed burst of plague-avoiding creativity was referenced repeatedly in articles proclaiming lockdown the 'perfect time' to finally write the novel burning away inside you all these years. People went for it in droves: the Curtis Brown Creative's free writing programme alone received 3,500 sign-ups in just 24 hours. I have no issue at all with people using lockdown to try their hand at writing; constraints can help creativity, but a national lockdown is a very hefty constraint.
Skip to week four, and I began to notice comments on social media (full disclosure - some tweets were mine) from writers bemoaning the situation: unable to work from home because home was also now a school and/or office, or simply unable to think clearly, permanently distracted by the disturbing sensation that a piano on a wire was dangling overhead.
"Writers are experienced cocooners," says author Susan Stairs, yet even she has found discipline and concentration hard to come by recently. As she worked on her fourth novel, lockdown didn't make much difference to her daily routine, yet she felt the atmosphere had changed. "I'm finding it more difficult to translate the thoughts in my head into words on the screen. I know what I want to say but it seems harder than it previously was to find a way to say it," she says.
Anne Griffin whose bestselling debut When All Is Said won Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards last year, had just begun a total rewrite of her second novel in February. She needs total silence to work. "When the schools were closed all the other occupants of my house, husband and son, teacher and student, brought home their voices and overloaded bags and deposited them in the kitchen and hallway and sitting room and bedroom, I cried inside. As much as I love them, this was going to be the hardest bit of writing I had ever done," she says.
So, if those already familiar with the rhythm and process of writing were struggling, how were those new to it getting on? Author Neil Hegarty was scheduled to teach a three-week course on the art of biography in the Irish Writers Centre (IWC) from April 21. 'Writing Lives' went ahead on Zoom with seven participants, one of whom was in the US, which Hegarty says, "underscores the real value of such remote courses: it allows participation from anywhere in the world". Interestingly, at least one participant signed up "in order to direct this otherwise very difficult experience into useful and creative channels". The IWC's agility in moving online made all the difference, Hegarty believes.
Hilary Copeland, its acting director, confirmed there has been a definite national and international increase the numbers signing up for courses. "Literature is one of Ireland's greatest cultural exports, so you can see why attending an online writing course with an Irish writer might have an appeal for students around the globe," he says.
Finding regular work for artists and freelance practitioners is always challenging, so moving online also meant the IWC could continue to provide vital employment.
So what next for anyone emerging from lockdown with a manuscript? Books usually take at least a year from signing the contract to arriving in stores, so agents and publishers are already considering what the new cultural shift might be.
Submissions (the 'slush pile' of unsolicited manuscripts) to London-based Pew Literary are up 30-40pc on this time last year, and submissions manager Charlotte Van Wijk has already received her first Covid-themed novel. While the lockdown element gave the story a sense of urgency, it wasn't enough: "We're all living through these experiences, so we don't really need anyone to tell us what they're like, unless they can be particularly profound, funny or remarkable … There will be plenty of authors and readers who would prefer to imagine an alternate world, where none of this ever happened," she says.
Sallyanne Sweeney, a literary agent at Mulcahy Associates whose clients include Sarah Davis-Goff and Darach Ó Séaghdha, has also noticed a rise in submissions, and says that quality is more important than ever. She is interested in fiction that explores the positive things the lockdown has shown us, however indirectly; "the importance of family, connection, kindness to ourselves and others, the healing effects of nature, and how we can all take things a little slower".
Writing and publishing can be a narrow-focused, trend-driven world, where fresh ideas can easily go unheard, and she finds it exciting that the lockdown might allow repressed writers to find their voice.
With such a possibility in mind, Penguin's WriteNow programme has extended its deadline to May 31 and is open to applicants from the Republic for the first time. WriteNow nurtures and publishes under-represented authors, including those from minority groups, the LGBTQ community, writers who have a disability and those from a socioeconomically marginalised background.
For everyone who took to writing recently, wouldn't it be amazing if the confines of lockdown succeeded in breaking barriers and opening up a whole new world of opportunity?
Henrietta McKervey is the author of 'A Talented Man', published by Hachette, and out now