Diagnosis: Muddled

This is about writing, it just might take a while to seem like it. But if you bear with me through a tale about the usefulness of writing villains – and getting other people to write about them too – then I can offer you a reward that’s apparently worth millions. Please pass this on to any UK government people you know, because I’m going to give you the COVID-19 contact tracing app that they can’t.

I’m not joking.

Here’s the story that the UK government has written and is getting some newspapers to copy. The brave UK with its world-beating boffins tried to make the greatest coronavirus exposure notification app there possibly could be, but nasty Apple stopped them.

It’s actually Apple and Google who wouldn’t play ball with the UK’s demands, but never mind that, we need one villain so we pick Apple. The Times newspaper reports that MPs in Parliament are “angry” at Apple and these are the men and women ruining – sorry, running – the country so they wouldn’t be annoyed if it weren’t true. If Apple weren’t a moustache-riddled bad guy who strokes a white cat and eats our children, our politicians would be getting on with fighting the coronavirus for us.

The thing with creating a villain is that you are automatically the good guy. It’s good versus bad, and if you can paint the other fella as the bad one, you’re in.

I don’t believe that the UK ever wanted an app that would actually help with the coronavirus. And I am sick to my liver that it seems in the midst of a pandemic that is killing us, the government saw an opportunity for money. There is the unnecessary commissioning of a technology that we all knew wouldn’t work, but it seems to me that this app of theirs was concerned about gathering sellable data rather than doing anything for our health.

It seems to me. I don’t know. I can’t know.

But I can know this. I can know a lot of things. Such as how a few weeks ago the government was saying that it would be the duty of every UK citizen to download this app, when it was available, and now, not so much. Truly. Even after changing to the Apple/Google system, the UK is now shrugging, saying they might get something done by winter. I’m serious: that’s the official position. The app that will now work and protect our privacy is no longer a priority.

I know that what the UK was asking Apple to do was impossible. To make an app that can nick our personal data and get it ready to sell to people later, the UK needed Apple to switch off its security features that are intended to prevent anyone nicking our data and selling it to people. This is the same thing that Apple – an American company – refused to do for the FBI.

I have to say that I don’t and I cannot know that the UK’s interest was really in the opportunity for cash-gathering invasion of its citizens’ privacy.

But consider this.

If the UK actually wanted an app that would help with the coronavirus, it could have one.

I do mean that it could’ve adopted the Apple/Google system as other countries and US states have, yes. But also now, today, right this minute. The UK is not going to release a coronavirus app in the winter, it’s just not going to bother, and it isn’t because it’s difficult or because Apple has meant they’re months behind where they should be.

Let me prove to you that what the UK is putting its efforts into is writing villains instead of trying to help us. And I won’t even charge you a fraction of the millions the UK is believed to have given to app development companies owned by its friends.

Are you ready? Have a coronavirus contact tracing app on me. Here. I’m not joking. That’s the complete source code for Germany’s app. Complete. Ready. Right here – built using Apple/Google’s system, and currently being downloaded by millions of Germans.

Now tell me again how the big bad Apple is stopping the brave UK from making an app to help save lives.

The story the UK is writing – which is remarkably similar to the story it tells about the big bad European Union – is shockingly powerful, frighteningly successful. As a political tool, it angers and scares me. But as a piece of writing, it’s curious how strong it can be because it lacks something writers are forever told is essential.

Stories need a great villain, but they also need a great hero. When the two are equally strong, equally compelling, that’s drama. When one side or the other is trivial, there’s no story.

Right now, the UK has no hero.

Course language

So there I was, minding my own business in several senses of the phrase, and running a free online writing course. It was about how exactly to make time to write and it was going very well. Except, I think you see where this is going, three weeks into it, we all got handed far more time than we ever wanted.

I actually thought about cancelling this free course. It was all online, all long prepared with videos and lessons and assignments, but the lockdown was so overwhelming me that I couldn’t write and figured I was unlikely to be alone in that.

However, that stasis-like sensation, that paralysis, not only stopped me writing, it stopped me stopping the course. I was that bad for a while, but now I am in all ways relieved that I was. Because people continued doing the course, they worked through its fourth week. And in a sudden spurt of writing, I quite radically changed the final week.

I don’t know why. Week five ended up having exactly the same lessons, so to speak, as it was going to. Of course it did, this was the culmination of a whole course. But I rewrote it and somehow it became much more personal than I’d expected. You know that writing is far from being just about the words on the page, it’s more about the words underneath those, and there is something different in that new final week. Something better.

And then there was this.

There is nothing or at least extremely little that I do to relax. Everything I am interested in, pretty much, I’ve managed to make part of my job so that is fantastic when I’m working and appallingly bad when I’m not.

Except when I was in that course’s final week, when I was in writing, I felt better. Writing that, then yesterday finally finishing the first draft of an extraordinarily difficult script, and right now today writing to you, I don’t feel locked down, I don’t feel self-isolated. I’m a little hungry, since we’re sharing quite so much detail, but writing turns out to be where I go when I need to be somewhere else.

We finished that free course a couple of weeks ago and the students on it have been wonderful. I’ve got to share this one with you, I’ve got to:

This course has honestly changed my life. In five weeks, my novel has grown from 15,000 words to 60,000. If that isn’t a huge success, I don’t know what is.

I know what that is. It is bloody joyous. Thank you, Leanne.

The way that made me feel and the way that writing now makes me feel –– well, it must always have been like this but I’m feeling the haven more these days –– means I’ve got to do it again. The plan was to launch many, many paid courses later in the year, but now I’ve created an entirely new one solely for us, solely for now.

Using This Time to Write” is about exactly how to get yourself writing during all of this. I will say this forever: nobody has to write anything. But you’re a writer, you can write, and I think now you’re ready for it.

Plus, more than anything else, I now think that writing will help you. Let’s you and I get you started, going, and writing forever – even or especially after all of this is behind us.

So “Using This Time to Write” has been a bit of a mad-dash adventure, creating three nights of mostly video lessons plus lots of written details, assignments, everything. I hope you find it as much fun to do as I did to create it, and I hope you don’t find it quite as exhausting.

This course will never run again. I will also never again shoot so much video while needing a haircut. And while you can sign up for the course now as I write this, you have to do so by the end of next Monday, May the 4th. I can’t get any more people on after that date.

So do please go take a look at it and see what you think. Actually, let me show you a short video I made about it too. That’s below. With the hair.

One last thing. “Using This Time to Write” is a paid course but there’s a special lower price for previous students. That’s what it says on the site, but I want you and I to read “previous students” as “plus friends”, okay? You’re a pal, I owe you, click that special lower rate and if anyone asks, tell them I sent you.

He said, she said, they locked down

Okay, I was writing a text last night and absolutely the correct pronoun to use for a particular person was “they”. You had to be there. But if you had been, you’d have written “they” as well. And I have not one single problem with it.

But I do have a question.

For some reason, and who knows why, this time when I wrote the word, it made me wonder why we ever had “he” or “she”. Seriously. When is it actually necessary, I mean necessary, to specify someone’s gender? When has it ever been?

I mean, I long to give you an example of a time when it was considered necessary yet clearly wasn’t, but I can’t even pull that off.

This may just be on my mind because one of the things I’m doing during this coronavirus lockdown is that I’m learning French through Duolingo. And it’s killing me trying to fathom out gender. I’m concocting conspiracy theories about why it’s le stylo for a pen but la lettre for a letter. Why apples are female but vegetables are male.

Look, don’t press me on the precision here, I’m learning. Plus my only relief on these daily lessons is the remarkable number of times that the app asks me the correct gender for a taxi. Thank you Vanessa Paradis.

Not true. I also got some relief when I realised the real reason that I avoid beaches like la plage. Or that on the odd occasion I attempt dieting, toast and sandwiches are the first to go, as hard as that is. Bread is pain, after all.

What do you mean, my mind is wandering off into apparently and actually completely unconnected subjects?

Yesterday, for instance, I was one of many people recording a video message as part of the Royal Television Society’s coronavirus products. And I thought about it a lot because I didn’t know what I could say and I didn’t know who would particularly choose to listen anyway.

But then this see-saw, up and down, wandering yet focused lockdown mind of mine noticed that I was saying something I rather liked.

People will always remember what we did during this lockdown, I said, but he or she will also remember what we can do.

Content, contninet, conteight…

Sometimes it feels as if we are heading toward the end of this lockdown and I am oddly unsettled by the idea of going out, running events or not having a pandemic to excuse my failing to write things. I’m also conscious, though, that ultimately it is going to be writers who define this time we’ve been through.

Usually when you say that history is written by the victors, you’re thinking about the victors. But maybe the key part is that it is written. Writers will shape this mass into something comprehensible. There will be dramas – possibly unfortunately – and there will be blame, possibly unfairly.

We’ve already got the Trump administration trying to write this as a Chinese bio weapon plot, so I’m not saying accuracy will always be a factor, I’m hoping desperate finger-pointing won’t either.

But as we move into this time when the coronavirus makes that very small change from “is” to “was”, I also know that writers are going to be forgotten. Right now the arts are keeping us all going, but when it’s done, the arts will go back to going out of business. Florida has defined the WWE wrestling shows as an essential business, but alongside being madness, that’s also not a recognition of the art of performance, it’s a recognition that someone knows someone with a wallet.

What I hope and think won’t change, what I think has been changed by the coronavirus and will stay, is that writers have discovered just how much we need each other. And writers have discovered just how much we can share. Just how much we actually can do online.

I’ve no interest in the torrent of online dramas about the coronavirus that are coming, and I’ve little interest in the online coronavirus comedies that we already have. But I think that right alongside this recognition of how we need people there is this recognition that we can do so much more than we thought.

This could be all the recognition that writers get, but I’ll take that.

I pulled my finger out

Last week’s Self Distract was like a whine tasting. I won’t delete it because it is true, it is how I felt about my poor writing then and quite often, but it also ended with a call to action that I actually did. It told me to pull my finger out and do some writing.

I did some writing. About four pages of script. Four pages in a week is not going to impress you, and nor is the fact that I still wasn’t doing it until I got prodded into it by a writing buddy.

But, still, I wrote it and it is completely true that there is nothing I like more than being in script, writing in that form, thinking in that form. It’s my favourite form of writing, I like it even when it’s hard, and still I don’t do it enough. I can explain that now, though: I’m a writer, what can you do?

Only, I can’t help thinking about how I did pull my finger out, yet I may also have stuck it in my ear. These are the strangest of days, the unhappiest of days, and yet so far I am in a position where I can choose to worry about whether or not I’m writing something. I don’t, as yet, need to be scared about my income, and I’m a freelancer, so there have been times when I have had to, when I know what that is truly like.

I’m not sure I’ve ever done this before, but I want to send you to another blog, please. While I’ve been mostly in my own head all week, Lisa Holdsworth has been actually making a difference for freelance writers. She’s Chair of the Writers’ Guild –– I’m Deputy Chair and proud to work with her –– and separately runs a blog about writing. It’s now got the most seductively enraged piece which takes you from calm to raging with her about what we need to do.

I’ve long wanted to write like Lisa, sometimes I now just want to be her, too.

The new abnormal

I think the weekends are going to be the hardest. People who’ve been working from home this week have told me that they find it difficult to concentrate, that being at home is distracting. But I suspect that in fact the distraction goes both ways.

This is now my 26th year of working from home so I don’t find it distracting at all, but what I think I recognise is that working takes your mind off things. There’s work you have to do and, moreover, there are colleagues waiting for it, so whether it’s difficult or not, you do focus on that and while you’re focused, you’re not thinking of anything else. Or at least, you’re not thinking of it so much.

Then the weekend comes and if it’s your first weekend during this enforced isolation, there is a bit of you that will be relieved to have got through the week.

And a larger bit of you that then finds yourself unsure what to do for the weekend, unsure what to do without this fallback position of having to work. One answer, of course, is that you could carry on working but I’m afraid that’s what I do and it isn’t a good idea.

You do get more done, you do get ahead, and you don’t have to think about anything else or how you were looking forward to seeing friends. In that sense, carrying on working is an excellent idea. But trust me, when Monday comes and you’ve worked straight through, you will be sick of it and since you can’t walk away from your job, you have to sit there, possibly increasingly hating it.

I do think that having worked from home for so long, I know what it’s like and what the pitfalls are. I don’t mean to suggest this means I’m any good at dealing with them.

But even in my screen-obsessed, work-obsessed way, I have found that there are things that help. Such as switching off all computers and reading a paperback book. Radical.

Or such as just moving from your computer to your iPad, moving your butt from the desk chair to the living room couch. Last week I told you that I write to you from my couch and that’s exactly what I’m doing this moment. In a minute, I’ll go to my office desk and start working, which will mean leaving a screen and keyboard to instead go use a screen and a keyboard for ten hours or so.

It won’t be the same screen and keyboard, but it easily could be. It’s the change of butt position that gives this a change in mental position, I think.

Which is why although I think it’s tempting to run away from screens when you reach the weekend, and why I think you should, I also know that it’s worth keeping them around. It is genuinely wonderful that technology means so many of us can physically work from our homes, but I offer that this same technology is what will help us all through the toughest times.

That screen in your pocket, the one with Facebook and Candy Crush on, it’s got a phone built in. Call someone. Bitch to them about how hard all of this is, bitch to their voicemail about how they never answer the bloody phone.

Or FaceTime. Skype, if you’ve got the patience. Any kind of video call, we can do this and we can do it so incredibly easily.

Technology is how we can stay apart, but it’s also how we can cope.