Writing is remorselessly, pitilessly, ruthlessly solitary. Yet, for all that, the act can be performed perfectly well in a busy café, or surrounded by noisy kids or – my favourite place of all – on a train. But the process itself demands something meditative: the capacity to take your whole self into that part of the brain where other worlds are built. That is why you will find your coffee has grown cold, or why your seven-year old is pulling at your sleeve or you have missed your station and, quite possibly, five other stations beyond your usual stop when you are engaged in the act.
A quiet, vine-covered balcony overlooking an Aegean bay may be my divine place to write, but the divine is not necessarily conducive to the best writing. I don’t know why it shouldn’t be, but there it is. Maybe the divine is also a distraction. My very best writing has probably been done while sitting through a concert or a film when my attention has wandered. Then, if I’m disciplined enough, I get out my notebook and start to scribble down the bare bones of a new story, or the next chapter of the novel, or some foible in a character that explains why they have walked out on their lover. Or I start to write that oh-so-obvious phone call that makes the fraying plot fray no more. So here’s to films and sociable gatherings where our attention is allowed to drift.
Writers are weirdoes – it’s true
You might have noticed something here. Surrounded by other people we can be quite alone. Given that most writing is, essentially, about the way people relate to each other there is probably something important in being with people and yet being able to set yourself apart. It’s that ruthlessness I mentioned. Think of the flâneur. Wandering a city observing many lives and then imagining the detail of those lives, speculating on what happens next when the couple you have been observing at the next table in a café move away – that’s a great source for stories. My story Dead Souls (there’s a link to the opening of it here) was the product of a few days flâneuring in Moscow. The best writing is humane, sympathetic and understanding but it also requires pitiless detachment from its subject – the ability to get inside a character’s head, to make them live, to make them love and then, quite possibly, to kill them. What kind of weirdo are you, writer, to do that stuff?
This doesn’t mean all writers are introverts, though quite a few of us are. I’m pretty gregarious, on the whole. I enjoy company, like meeting people, listening to what they have to say and how to say it. And then I like to steal their souls. Isn’t that what writing is really about?
Next week: obliquity and writing – or why and how the oblique fires our creativity, and why it’s not wise to write what we know, but it’s very wise to write what we almost know and what we nearly see.