Culture

I Tried to Write a Novel Over Lockdown with the Help of Psychedelics

That, plus yoga, concentration apps and the old reliable of never reading the news.
09 July 2020, 8:00am
writing novel lockdown
All photos courtesy of the author.

Lockdown started with a flurry of articles explaining why this period of mass global anxiety was not the time to be struck by productivity guilt. On social media, self-appointed mental health mavens like Matt Haig and Jameela Jamil talked persuasively about the acceptability of eating crisps and watching Netflix all day. I dutifully followed their advice for two weeks and felt content that I wasn't working on the novel I'd been stuttering though for 16 months.

Then I read an article in The Guardian that reported a spike in submissions to publishers, and became overcome by a conviction that this strange new era offered an unparalleled opportunity. So I challenged myself to complete the manuscript – around 50,000 words of an initial 100,000, and my first novel other than a bizarre semi-fictional travelogue written on the carousel of heartbreak many years ago.

To make it interesting, I'd nudge things along with a series of lockdown-friendly life hacks that would hopefully see me embark on an unprecedented roll of around 1,700 words a day. Spoiler alert: the results were mixed.

Week One – Microdosing

Over the last five years, microdosing – ingesting an undetectable dose of a psychedelic like LSD, psilocybin or DMT – has gained traction as a tool for enhancing creativity, with a preliminary 2018 study in the Netherlands providing wary support for psilocybin, AKA magic mushrooms. I'm no psychonaut, but I have taken mushrooms recreationally around ten times, written about them fairly robustly, and recently emerged from a period of therapy feeling mentally fitter than ever.

I bought a "journey" comprised of a tincture containing psilocybin-infused liquid, and caps with 0.10 grams of ground-up mushrooms. In retrospect, I shouldn't have started on a Monday following a boozy weekend of Zoom calls, as I was already afflicted by some creeping hangxiety. But I tried three days with the tincture, which gave me an earthy, alcohol-like pulse underneath my tongue, and it was a perfectly abject debacle. Instead of airily composing 2,000 words of florid-yet-focused prose a day, I spent Monday to Thursday with my mind chewing like an angry dog on my own loneliness and inanity, topped off with a dose of anxiety about the likelihood of imminent doom for myself and everyone else on Earth.

I later spoke to Jonathan Hoban, therapist and author of Walk With Your Wolf, who said: "There's a lot of free-floating anxiety around, and this time magnifies everything you're already sitting with. If you're a sensitive person, that will be heightened."

I should have spoken to Jonathan before I started taking psychedelics on a daily basis: ingesting a substance – even in minuscule amounts – that may enhance your emotional connectivity and clarity of thought might not have been such a good idea during this particular moment in history. Especially for someone who's already prone to anxious pursuits, nursing a three-day hangover and irretrievably alone in a dangerous world.

Anyway, I regretfully sacked the mushies off after crying during the news and sheepishly emailed my editor, because, full disclosure, this article was originally going to be titled, "Could I Microdose For A Month And Finish My Novel During Lockdown?"

WORD COUNT: 802 words of 50,000.

Week Two – Avoiding The News

I recalibrated the overall target to 70,000 words – so 20,000 in a month, rather than 50,000 – after discovering the "goal-gradient hypothesises", a theory posited by behavioural psychologist Clark L. Hull that states our efforts increase as we get closer to a goal. I felt 70,000 was the landmark point where I'd definitely finish the book, so, with science at my side, started the next "hack".

British research from 1997 found that negative TV bulletins facilitate lower moods and the "catastrophising of personal worries", while in another survey 56 percent of Americans said news causes them stress. Even the World Health Organisation released a statement suggesting we should think about minimising our news watching during coronavirus.

I didn't engage with Kuenssberg, Snow or Freedland, or dive into the Twitter bear-pit, all week. The results were stark: I'd written 5,000 words by Thursday. Normally I would have felt twitchy and uniformed, but, for me, life had temporarily boiled down to some key objectives: don't get sick and, if you do, stop other people getting your malady.

Graham Davey, the facilitator of the 1997 British research – and Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Sussex – told me that "in the absence of any real facts about when lockdown will end, or how it will end, news programmes and journalists have tended towards emphasising worse-case scenarios. Negatively sensationalised news causes feelings of anxiety and sometimes sadness, which in turn will fuel our own worries and stresses."

I did have a small wobble on the Friday, so went to bed at 2PM and watched all of Race Across The World. I chewed through more words that weekend, before taking some pictures of myself and my dog. The challenge was alive!

WORD COUNT: 6,725 words of 20,000.

Week 3 – Sunrise Yoga With Adriene

Like some 7 million subscribers, I had discovered the online oeuvre of Adriene Mishler, namesake and founder of the Yoga With Adriene YouTube channel. There's some research about yoga's effect on anxiety, brain health and quality of life, so, anecdotally, one could assume a sunrise (ish) blast would lay the foundations for a productive #amwriting day. Initially, it was a success: I was writing about 800 words a day, and I felt good about the book (!) and myself (!!), even if the pictures suggest my downward dog needed attention.

Then the sky fell in. I'd started reading the news again (the death toll had doubled to 16,000 since the last time I looked), I hurt myself on my rowing machine, so couldn't exercise, and it got sunny. This terrible trifecta blew the challenge totally off course, and I stopped doing the yoga. In fact, I stopped doing anything other than drinking Deliveroo'd beer in the afternoon and getting vile bouts of imposter syndrome from reading Medium articles with titles like "The Daily Routines of 20 Famous Writers", which espoused the sanctity of sitting at one's writing throne for hours, whatever the meteorological or psychological weather.

I then finished London Fields and thought I'd never write something that good, so, really, what was the point in trying? My personal worries – embarrassingly inconsequential compared to those affected firsthand by this vindictive virus – were nevertheless catastrophising, and made worse by comparing myself to everyone smugly posting their 5K NHS runs, while my daily exercise consisted of a solemn and lowly tup around some depressingly mainstream pornography.

WORD COUNT: 8,432 words of 20,000.

Week Four – Productivity Apps

In search of inspiration and affirmation, I emailed the literary agent Madeleine Milburn. As well as reporting a submissions spike, she said she thought "writers are finding the pandemic very distracting, and the constant news is making it hard to concentrate, even though they're getting more time". This made me less fraudulent, as did speaking with other writers. "Being stuck in fight or flight mode, or anxiety spirals, are pretty killer for creativity. My advice to would-be writers is: little and often – small, achievable goals," said author Tim Leach.

I asked Maddy for tips to get my first manuscript done. "I would try to get a complete first draft down while you've got momentum. Once you've finished, you can go back over it with a critical eye," she said. "Completing a first draft will fill you with confidence."

Confidence was certainly the tonic I craved, so I downloaded a programme called Write Or Die, used by authors like David Nicholls and Helen Oyeyemi. It's a basic processor where you set a target amount of words with a grace period of, say, 30 seconds. Stop writing for those 30 seconds and, depending on the mode you select, it will flash the screen red, bring up pictures of cat memes or start vindictively deleting your precious words.

Soon enough, I was chewing through the word count and began to find myself really enjoying writing for the first time in ages. Without delving too tediously into "process", the programme stopped me pondering the cosmic significance of every syllable in favour of allowing myself to get lost in the story, albeit in a hyper-focused way.

Which is all obviously very nice – but did I vault that magic 20,000? Well: no. I managed nearly 10,000 with Write Or Die, taking my total up to 18,126 words across the four weeks. But one of those weeks was my psychedelic Gallipoli, so I'm happy with that. Also, some words from therapist Jonathan Hoban have started sparkling brightly: "It's a time of huge uncertainty – take the pressure off, and you'll pick it up when you pick it up. You need to trust that."

For the first time ever, maybe I actually do.

FINAL WORD COUNT: 18,126 words of 20,000

@dhillierwrites