Creativity and mental health in lockdown: a conversation with Joe Dunthorne
Illustration: Simone Zhao

Joe Dunthorne reflects on the importance of staying creative in quarantine from a writer’s perspective. He examines the correlation between news and technology consumption and his state of mind, and being in the moment.

The novelist, journalist and poet has excelled in his field and is famous for his ability to connect with his readership through humour. He explores varied levels of depth and darkness through his satiric tone and is seemingly unafraid to show vulnerability through his raw poetry. In 2010, Dunthorne’s novel: ‘Submarine’ was made into a film and premiered at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival. 

“I just remember being in awe of the scale of the film making process and the numbers of people involved and the amount of talent that goes into the small detail.” He added: “there were so many amazing things going into it. It’s kind of magical to think it comes from just me sitting in my bedroom in Norwich trying to think what to write next.”

I am always intrigued by the process of transforming a story from words on a page to the big screen, and often wonder if writers feel that the true sentiment behind the story is lost in its sizable depiction. I asked Dunthorne to reflect on this and he noted that a story will inevitably vary in the portrayal depending on the genre: “In like lots of good adaptations of films it’s not slavishly trying to replicate the book exactly, and I think I prefer that because it’s a very filmic film. Richard, the director takes so many influences from French Nuvve cinema and all these things he brings to it. And also he brought a lot of his own childhood experiences to the main character. In the novel, it’s set in the 90s which is when I grew up. In the film it’s set in the 80s which is when Richard grew up… I felt like in the best way he reclaimed it for himself and turned it into his own thing, which is of course what it should be. So I was really proud of it and really loved the film but I don’t think it’s a kind of perfect replica of the book and I’m really glad of that.” 

“For any writer, their state of mind is often reflected in their work.”

Humour is central to Dunthorne’s writing style, and I was keen to get an insight into how it was meaningful to him: “Laughter is an amazing thing.” He said “It’s not something you can control. So if you can make someone laugh you are making their body do something that is a surprise to themselves, and that’s something you can use as an artist or a writer to take a reader somewhere unusual. For me, it’s closely attached to charm, and the power of charm to take people places they might not necessarily go themselves. I always think, how do you use humour, and what is its purpose? For me, it’s a way to almost trick a reader or allow someone to go to uncomfortable places, or surprising places while not really noticing.”

Outside of his successes with his novel-writing, Dunthorne’s poetry has received recognition for his perceptive style. Poetry I have always felt is such a diverse art, and the meaning of a poem seems to resonate in different ways depending on who the reader is as a person. I asked Dunthorne what his formula was, and how he captures a specific moment in time with the perfect poem: “That’s quite a good way of putting it” He remarked. “It often is that obviously there often is no hard and fast rules for poetry and they can go anywhere and be loads of different things. But quite often it is a moment. You see something interesting like a little glimpse… It could be anything. I’m outside in the park at the moment and it might be the way someone takes a fall in the skate park and it seems to be slowed down and given its own moment. The way their knee connects with the concrete… It’s often this microscopic view on life. And that’s what I love about poetry and the ability to freeze time and just really dissect a full moment and give it it’s full significance.”

For any writer, their state of mind is often reflected in their work. And with creativity providing an outlet for many, inspiration may be difficult to find in uncertain times. Dunthorne recently contributed to an article in the Guardian where he spoke about his approach to lockdown and how he hones in on his creativity whilst in isolation. In the piece, he suggested that consuming less news helped him to read and write more, and think more clearly: “I don’t want to necessarily say that news is bad in itself” he explained to me; “but there was a time, particularly at the beginning of the spread of the Coronavirus where I was just obsessed with reading about it. I got really kind of single-mindedly focused on it, especially when it was just starting to happen in China, in Wuhan. And I was just reading and reading and reading… I do still read the news and engage with it but there was a kind of level of immersion that was just unhealthy so I guess that’s what I was thinking about. Just being aware of saving time for yourself and space for your own thoughts to settle.”

“To be shown that it is possible to live differently will hopefully allow us to make that decision consciously and live lives that are a little bit more thoughtful.”

Looking back to the beginning of the pandemic, Dunthorne conceded that he hadn’t wanted to address Covid-19 through his writing. “When this all started I was a bit like: ‘I don’t want to write any lockdown poems, I don’t want to write any lockdown fiction or kind of respond to this moment. It feels like one of these things I want to experience, and then maybe look back on.’ But actually, the moment I tried writing anything it just creeps in, it inevitably does. And not that everything has been like that, but so much of what I’ve written has been inflected by what’s happening at the moment, which is natural and fine.”

I thought about what Dunthorne said, and was intrigued by how writers find a balance between limiting the use of technology while still being able to engage with their readership, so asked him the question of the 21st century; ‘Are we all too focused in on our phones?’ He agreed that we are all guilty of being centred around our phones, but he had yet to come up with a solution for that. He did say, however; “there’s definitely certain kinds of creativity, say a novel, the kind of sustained focus that is required is sometimes difficult to manage if you’re allowing lots other pings and little bits of information popping up on your screen. To me, that seems the antithesis of the type of concentration that’s necessary to get through a novel… so it’s a balance. You don’t want to be like ‘I never go on the internet because I’m a writer and I’m like a 19th-century recluse. Because then you’re not writing a novel that will reflect reality but at the same time if you allow yourself to be flooded day and night with information it’s sometimes actually hard to do the work.” 

When the lockdown was announced, it became blindingly obvious from social media and conversations with friends that a coping mechanism was to engage with creative activities. People started reading more, painting, picking up instruments which had been left to collect dust in the corners of their homes. The question now is whether people will continue to practise their new-found (or reacquainted hobbies) as pubs and shops start to reopen. Dunthorne noted: “The moment from which we are speaking from, it feels like things are starting to return to normal, or to whatever normal was. And there’s a sense of how kind of hungry everyone is to go back to what it was like before, even if it wasn’t that great. I feel like people are going to struggle to keep hold of the pocket of peacefulness that was briefly there… but to be shown that it is possible to live differently will hopefully allow us to make that decision consciously and live lives that are a little bit more thoughtful.”