This Column is Live

by Nina Ellis

I’m live-streaming to YouTube as I write this. See? Here I am on the 8th of December, wearing a jumper because it’s cold and my favourite earrings because it’s nice to have something to dress up for. I can even wave at you, if you go to 00:04:11. I’ve put myself on mute because of the birds: I’m in Islamabad, where the mynas, doves, bulbuls and crows are often louder than the traffic.

Nine months ago, I barely knew what live-streaming was. But after Cambridge closed in March, my PhD supervisor sent me an article about working remotely, which suggested ‘Study With Me’ YouTube videos. These are livestreams or recordings of people studying, often in libraries: my favourite, by Jamie of The Strive Studies, has over a million views. I played it over and over in the corner of my screen as I prepared for my doctoral registration exams last June, and it almost made me feel like I was in a library too.

Summer came and went, I passed my PhD registration, and the next thing on my to-do list was the third draft of my novel. I dreaded going back to it; the second draft had been tough, and I knew I wouldn’t manage a third without a system of accountability. It occurred to me that studying on camera must be very motivating — Jamie always seemed totally focused. So I bought a webcam, created a YouTube channel, and decided to try live-streaming myself.

At first, I set my videos to ‘Private’, so that only I could see them. Every morning, I’d turn on my webcam, start live-streaming, write for 50 minutes, take a ten-minute break, write for another 50 minutes, and then stop. Actually, not every morning: after days one and two, the American election happened and I didn’t write or stream for five days. In the second week I managed three writing sessions, but in gym clothes and a big scarf, rather than in the matching accessories and blow-dried hair of the first week. In the third and fourth weeks, I pulled off an 11-day run, in a variety of outfits including my pyjamas.

And then suddenly it was the end of November and I’d produced 20,000 words. Live-streaming had worked: I’d tricked myself into writing.*

But the experience left me with other things, too, including a piece of self-knowledge that disappointed me. I believe in demystifying the writing process — as far as I’m concerned, there is no muse; there’s just the long slog of putting words on a page, which anyone can do if they simply keep going. And yet I can’t bring myself to change those video settings to ‘Public’. I’m embarrassed by my messy hair, and by the fact that I obviously don’t want to be there and don’t want to be writing. Part of me wants to maintain the illusion that writing comes easily to me, which it doesn’t.

Another thing my experiment showed me was that, even with the best planning and intentions, writing sessions get interrupted. The doorbell rings or your phone rings or you have a power cut or your partner thoughtfully makes you lunch or you just really need to go to the loo. Many of my videos stop suddenly for those (or other) reasons. And that’s alright — interruptions may break concentration, but they don’t break the writing spell, because there is no spell. There’s just writing. And the key is to claim as much time as you can, when you can, and to keep coming back to the page.

Finally, my experiment forced me to face my failure to write regularly. Looking at my playlist of November livestreams, the gaps are clear and often consecutive: the 4th to the 8th, the 11th, the 13th to the 16th, the 28th to the 30th. As I write this now, I haven’t touched my novel in a week, which makes me want to give up. But one of the most important skills for a writer to develop is the capacity for self-forgiveness. You didn’t write today? Fine. What you wrote was hopeless? Fine. You’ve got to forgive yourself so that you can write again tomorrow.

On the 12th day of my live-streamed writing sessions (I knew Christmas would get into this somehow) I decided to tackle my fear of opening up the process. I still didn’t feel brave enough to live-stream publicly, so I settled for sharing unlisted YouTube links with one friend at a time, and with my sister. After each session, I emailed the relevant video to Laure or Olivia or Justine or Vini or Hannah or Michelle and told them that they were my muse that day, which was true. On the morning I live-streamed to Ali, I thought of her going to sleep in New York. On the morning I live-streamed to Elsa, I thought of her waking up in London. And that gave me strength.

Their responses helped hugely, too. All of the women I shared the project with cheered me on. My friend Anna called it Portrait of a Young Lady Hacking Through Her Novel. My sister Laure wrote: Hi Smoochface! I watched this and worked with you today for 15 minutes, before a work call. My friend Cottia worked with my video, too, and wrote: I love this!!! Magic! It feels like you're actually there so serve as a stern presence in the corner of my room.

The thought of my friends and sister writing along with me was profoundly encouraging. It made me realise that one of the most difficult things about writing is the loneliness — especially at the moment. We’re isolated and disconnected and locked down enough as it is. Finding a way of sharing my process with the people I love filled me with energy. It reminded me that writing is about communication: we may do it in silence and alone, but we do it to connect.

* I ended my livestream here, at 01:00:12, because the doorbell rang. It was our Christmas tree, which is actually a cypress in a pot: the market for Christmas trees in Islamabad is not huge. But I like our cypress, and I like that I got cut off by the Christmas spirit. If that isn’t proof that interruptions are allowed, I don’t know what is.