Our window of tolerance: how do we cope in lockdown no. 3 by Juliet Clare Bell


Write it on
your heart that every day is the best day in the year. He is rich who owns the
day, and no one owns the day who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety.
Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some
blunders and absurdities, no doubt crept in. Forget them as soon as you can,
tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit to be
cumbered with your old nonsense. This new day is too dear, with its hopes and
invitations, to waste a moment on the yesterdays.


Great words
from Ralph Waldo Emerson, but how do we possibly keep this positive -and preferably
creative, too-  as writers and illustrators in
the new lockdown?

This isn’t a
blogpost full of my amazing lockdown secrets of success. Like many people, I’ve
barely coped with much of it. But I asked a few friends, writers and children
what had helped them, and I’m determined to steal anyone’s suggestions if they work (I’m
hoping you might leave what’s working for you in the comments). So here are some tips from others -and me- which I hope might be useful.

And after
one of those difficult days, when we feel we could have done it very
differently, we can at least wake up the following morning and “not to be
cumbered with my old nonsense of yesterday”…

Someone recently introduced me to Dan Siegel (a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA)'s Window of Tolerance. It's the optimal zone of arousal in which each of us is able to function and thrive (see the diagram below). Environmental changes (amongst other things) can push us out of that window into hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal, and for many of us, we've been pushed into one or other (or both) in response to the fear surrounding the pandemic. There's a useful, short article on people's Window of Tolerance in relation to the current pandemic climate: you can read the article here


And there's a really clear video (though six minutes’ long) on what a window of tolerance is and how to
get back into your window here:



Pre-covid, I think I had a reasonably large window of tolerance within which I operated in quite a calm, effective way:

Relatively large window of tolerance

During the pandemic, that window has shrunk considerably:

considerably smaller window of tolerance...

Many of us
would like to get our larger windows of tolerance back and here are a few of
the ways we might do it…


Just to
make clear, being positive or productive doesn’t have to mean our usual level
of positive or productive. It might just be more than you’ve managed in a
while, or better than yesterday, or just anything at all… It’s important to be
kind to ourselves and others and to remember that for many of us (see the red writing):


 For an interesting, short read from Mars Vista on the pandemic seen through Maslow's hierarchy of needs, click here:

I really
find that letting go of days that haven’t gone well (a la Ralph Waldo Emerson)
has helped. Fellow PB Denner, Natascha Biebow says on being kind to yourself: “
You might
not be able to write or illustrate as much as you'd like during these times,
but maybe you can read or snatch a moment to daydream ideas whilst doing a
chore. Often, I find myself challenging my brain to solve a plot problem or
figure out another story quandary in the minutes before I fall asleep.
It's something!”. 

Take those somethings!

YA author, Olivia Levez, provided lots of
practical tips for staying positive but also says: “
On days I’m feeling a bit low, I
coddle myself as if I’m my own child, with snuggly blankets, hot water bottle
and cosy socks, my comfiest clothes, an indulgent bath”. Things she avoids:
waking up to newsfeed, catastrophising, being relentless with goals, tasks,
targets, and things that help: listening to birdsong, saying, ‘I’m feeling x’
instead of ‘I’m x’, writing negatives on one page of a journal and turning them
into positives on the other. And when fellow PB Denner Jane Clarke’s creativity “goes awol, I turn to jigsaws until it

One of our Christmas jigsaws, and we did finally find the missing piece (in case it was bothering you)...

Be kind. We need to have basic needs met before we can feel as creative
as we might want to. In these extraordinary times, many people's safety and other basic needs are not being met and we may not always be able to
create as we would like. But in case you’d like to try…


Most people
mentioned how having a structure helped them. One child always writes down what
she plans to do the following day before she goes to bed. She writes it on a
fresh piece of paper each night, rather than in a notebook, so that each piece
of paper feels like a new day (very Ralph Waldo Emerson!).  

YA author, Olivia Levez, also finds that: “structure helps. I curate my day to give plenty of treats between writing sessions: yoga, hot chocolate and biscuits, a walk with a friend.” One of my daughters and I have started going out for a half-hour walk
before coming home for school/work and it’s lifted our spirits and started the day feeling energised and ready for it.

I've been surprised, but really pleased, to find that this first week of school lockdown has actually been productive. I’ve been struggling to feel motivated for a while
now, but with the children working hard in their rooms all day with live
lessons, I’m actually finding it easier to be focused than when they were at
school last term. Not wanting to slack off whilst they can’t has really
motivated me.


Our local
SCBWI group used to have a write-in once a week. We’d meet together somewhere
(usually at mine), and just write together. Clearly we can’t do that anymore
(although the children have been a bit of a proxy for that), but it’s possible
to recreate it to some extent online. Early on during the first lockdown, I did
some online write-ins with fellow picture book writers from my local SCBWI
group. We’d log in on zoom, say hello and what we were planning on writing, and
then just write. I could look up and see them writing away and they could see
me. Sometimes it’s easier to stay writing when someone can see what you’re
doing! After a bit writing slump, I think I’m ready to start doing it again. If
you haven’t tried it, it’s worth a go…


Jane says “I live on my own and online meetings are keeping me going… [and the]
meet ups with fellow authors and children’s poets keep creativity ticking over
as we set each other small writing challenges every week”.

Every time I
meet online with other writers I remember how much it sustains me. In a normal
year, I’d see writers in person most weeks, have monthly local meetings, weekends
away in small groups of writers I know well, and in bigger groups of writers I
know less well. These events are such an important part of my life. I live with
three teenage children whom I adore, but spending proper time away with adults
is so important, and surrounding myself with writers is great for writing but
also for the inspiration and energising. I forget so quickly how important it
is (because I’m thinking of practical day-to-day things for the family) but
talking to other writers on video calls regularly, whether it’s one to one or
in a group is a great way to feel positive. And I know we still have to wait
for it, but we’ve started talking tentatively about writing weekends away later
in the year when it’s ok again. It’s still a way away but just talking about it
makes it feel real and gives us something to look forward to.

Online SCBWI nonfiction conference which was really stimulating...


Natascha says: “I've recently re-connected with my critique
group and we've decided to make each other accountable by meeting every month
and sharing our work. Having a friendly group or even just another person to help
you focus and spur you along is very encouraging. (If you don't have a critique
group, I'd recommend joining the SCBWI
 for a supportive and welcoming

Natascha, making myself accountable to someone else really helps me keep going.
I’m very fortunate to have a brilliant accountability partner, fellow picture
book author Rebecca Colby, and we meet weekly online. We’re discussing
something that’s really important to both of us, and I always come away feeling
more inspired, even if I’ve not got much done.


Maybe have a go at a different
kind of art. Children's author Mo O'Hara says: “I have discovered that writing books is not my only way
to be creative. I’ve written poems and songs and loved it!  I’m also
allowing myself to be  interested in exploring drawing and crafts
too.  I’ve always been too scared of being terrible  to try but
thanks to extra time in Lockdown and the ‘Zero f***s ‘ to give attitude that
comes after 50 I have decided to let myself have a go even if it turns out I am
terrible.  Who will ever know?!!!”



Most people
I asked talked about exercise, including yoga (both online and alone). I’ve
just started my first ever online yoga course and even though I never ‘got’
yoga before, it’s working for me now. If you’re like me and need more
motivation than normal, you could try doing it with a friend (it really helps
that mine’s run by my sister-in-law and I know some of the other people doing

I also copied
my accountability partner and got an exercise bike with a laptop table on it

 which means I can cycle during our accountability sessions, phone calls or watching any
zoom events that don’t require my looking or sounding professional

I have yet to learn the art of looking calm and professional whilst pedalling...

And I copied
my sisters and got a fitbit! Prior to the first lockdown, I’d hardly done any
exercise (apart from countless school runs for years) in twenty years, so
that’s definitely something positive I’ll take from this… (I’ll take all the
positives where I can!). And we’re even doing some Just Dance (which I’m
terrible at but is lots of fun).


Most writers
I spoke with talked about the importance of nature for them.

Mo O’Hara
says “I am making myself go for long walks” (note the making myself. It’s the same with me. I have to make myself because
I don’t generally want to. That’s where structure works for me. Anyway, Mo

"Connecting with nature is a
great way to re-centre yourself… I had no idea there were soooooo many
parakeets in London parks!!!!” 

Surely no parakeets here, Mo?

But look more closely...

There really are!!!

I also discovered the same in my local park in Birmingham (where do all those parakeets come from)?!

(anyone else reminded of
Cockatoos, here?)

(c) Quentin Blake, Cockatoos

Jane also goes for regular walks: “seeing nature continuing
and even flourishing through all this is uplifting”.

This tree on our terraced block never fails to lift my spirits

When we had
snow on Friday morning of last week, we knew it might be our only chance so we
left the house in the dark and took the sledges to a local park and the children sledged quickly before coming home, eating breakfast and starting school at 8.45am.  

snatching moments more than we would have done because we need that buzz to
keep us going. One of my children met up for a five-minute snowball fight (socially distanced, of course) with her school friend and neighbour during breaktime. I love the spontaneity for joyful activities and it’s a
brilliant reminder to me, too, to enjoy unexpected things.

a random sundial on a walk...

specifically thinking of creativity, something that’s quick and structured (it
happens every day in January) which is great for boosting creativity is:


I’ve been
doing Storystorm and its predecessor, PiBoIdMo (created by the wonderful Tara Lazar) for years now. If you’re
struggling to feel creative, there’s a daily blogpost that
encourages you to come up with a new idea every day. I've not started properly yet this year (unlike other years) but I’m hoping that this
blogpost will encourage me to practise what I preach. I read my first
Storystorm post of the year today (Day 10 as I write) - and not only did it get me
thinking creatively –which is nice, I came up with three ideas, and the topic
of the post was so relevant to what I’m writing today. It’s just what I needed
to hear, with K
Pendreigh finding joy in the journey. She was talking about process over product and I'd urge you to read the post
. It’s just what I needed to hear.

If you’re
looking for other ways to get motivated (or re-motivated with your story) and
you’ve been questioning the point of it in this current climate, listen to this
short video by Teri Terry, who wrote to herself in the first lockdown to get
her back into it:



Mo O’Hara talked about an
unexpected positive of covid insomnia: it gives her more time to read! “I’m
getting through my ‘To Be Read’ pile much faster because I’m reading more late
at night”. But h
as anyone
else been struggling with reading? I was,
massively–at least until a couple of weeks ago.

I’ve been
really distracted, and wanting distraction (with background noise on all the
time). Reading didn’t feel distracting enough, and it was too quiet. So a couple of weeks ago I
started with distracting noise in the background, and tried reading again. The
joy of writing picture books is that reading picture books is part of the job,
so I started by reading a few picture books, then a few more, and within a few
days, I was reading children’s novels again, and nonfiction, and a week later,
I’m reading Victor E Frankl’s Yes to Life (In spite of everything) which feels extremely relevant at the moment:

Yes to Life (In Spite of Everything) Victor Frankl

And the
distracting noise? It only took about five minutes before it go really annoying
and I was ok to read in silence. Last night, I put on a yoga Spotify playlist,
and that was a great background to reading when I didn’t want silence but
wanted something calm. If you’re struggling with reading, I’d really recommend
it. It’s helping, creatively, too.


We can look
for the small things that make it a bit easier. I’ve bought a really cheerful
furry blanket cover for my bed so my work space –which is my bedroom- looks
less like a bedroom. But it also doesn’t look like an office. I’ve taken out
the desk, and put in a small sofa and some plants so it feels really calm. And
it helps!

I’ve also
discovered the calmest place in the house –in my daughter’s bedroom:

It's an egg chair that she's filled with blankets and cushions, with fairy lights around it and surrounded by a blanket to block out most light!

And my
lovely daughter has kindly allowed me to sit in it and read/reflect.

It has an instant calming effect and I love it

We want to
be within our window of tolerance so we can cope with everything that’s going
on around us, but also so we can flourish and be creative and help others
navigate these difficult times. I hope that some of these suggestions are
helpful in expanding your window –if it’s shrunk like mine certainly has- and helping to bring you back into it when you’re pushed out. I’d love to hear what works
for you –and any tips you have so please do leave a comment if you can.

Be kind to
yourself. This too shall pass. x

Clare is the author of over 35 books, including eight picture books. Her website is www.julietclarebell.com.

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