Writing Secrets: Writing in a time of global connections
It just occurred to me that, when I began my first book, there was no internet. And only a year later, I saw a mobile phone for the first time: a huge contraption that hung over the shoulder. Hard to believe now, isn’t it? It doesn’t feel that long ago.
What this meant for research was that I travelled in to the offices of the newspaper for which I had once worked (back in the misty dawn of time), and trawled through old newspaper files and microfilms.
It wasn’t a bad thing, actually. I got more than simply the facts or articles I was focused on. I could see what was going at the time the article was published, what was on at the movies, what was being talked about and what a tin of baked beans or a pair of jeans cost.
But yes, the internet has made research a whole lot easier. You can search for anything at all – and find out how anything works. It also means you can identify, find and contact people more easily.
I’m a great believer in talking to people – getting them to tell you about their worlds, their experiences or their interests. I’m not sure I would ever have got my head around church-based pyramid schemes or how to make a pamphlet bomb (for my fourth book) had I not picked the brains of someone who had dismantled them (the pyramid schemes) and built them (the pamphlet bombs).
But what I have realised is that the internet and cell phones are a terrible thing for writing, once you’re past the research stage. As soon as you get stuck, you have a burning urge to check your emails. It’s fatal.
And your phone makes intriguing little blipping noises, which beg to be investigated. I’ll admit to being torn, because there are times when you want to pick up your phone and check a fact or quickly look something up. It can bring you to a sticky halt if you realise you have no idea which route your character would take to Paternoster or … Hanoi.
On the other hand, writing tends to be a process of deep immersion. I slip into a state where I can hear my characters speak and watch them in their environment – rather like a concentrated daydream. If someone disturbs me, I can be badly startled.
That’s, I believe, where the best ideas occur. It’s similar to that dream-state somewhere between wake and sleep. If you’re constantly disturbed or tempted from it, you never properly enter the space where the magic happens.
So, yes, of course it’s all useful – in the preparation stage. But I tend to agree with Zadie Smith who, asked for writing advice, said: “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”
Cape Town Creative Saturday – 4 February
Online Creative Writing Course – Starting 6 February
How To Write a Screenplay, online – Starting 1 March
Weekend Retreat, Temenos, McGregor – 24 to 26 March
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