Writing Secrets: Life is a distraction

 In All About Writing

Last month we ushered a group of writers into a Venetian palazzo for week-long writing retreat. What could be more wonderful: a week spent fostering creativity in an environment filled with creative stimulation.

You’d think the setting would be a distraction. But, no. They worked according to their individual writing clocks. Some woke early and wrote, then wandered the cobbled streets and canal-sides with their notebooks, practising active observation and finding the right words to convey their sensual impressions of this vivid city. Others wrote at odd hours, popping out to experience the day-to-day Venetian experience.

A couple of our Venice participants are in our mentoring programme, so I thought the retreat would provide more of the same for them: time to write (which they create for themselves at home) with some intensive mentoring to keep them on track.

I was wrong though. It gave them a great deal more. Both experienced significant breakthroughs.

I noted this and asked them about it. After all, they’re both disciplined writers who write at home anyway. “I know,” one of them said, “and I’m not quite sure why, except that I was lifted out of my regular life.”

She had, she intimated, been offered something infinitely precious: time out of time. It seems that real life is far more distracting than Venice can ever be.

I remember being quite scornful when, years ago, I heard that Wilbur Smith never had to do anything but write. His wife, apparently, did everything from research to household management. Surely you need to be part of life in order to write about it, I thought.

At the time, I had two small children. When I sat down to write, two little faces were pressed to the glass door of my study – which I suppose was preferable to having them tramping about in the overflowing drain beside the plumbers, who were probably shouting across the yard at that very minute. Not to mention the dog, who was no doubt sicking on the carpet.

My children wouldn’t be seen dead pressing their faces to my study door now, but the distractions have worsened with time and technology.

Writing involves a level of concentration that is deeper than I ever inspired in my university students, who seemed capable of listening to me at the same time as tweeting, instagramming and checking facebook. When I’m really writing well, I’m so deeply inside that other world that I startle if I’m disturbed. Then it takes me several minutes to find my way back.

Jonathan Franzen stuffs Prestik in his USB ports when he writes and disconnects his computer from the internet. I’m in two minds about that, because I do sometimes like to check a fact or look something up. My greatest disturbance is probably my cell phone. It makes little sounds that impinge on your consciousness, and then…you just have to check, don’t you?

Franzen is so neurotic that he wears earplugs. Not just earplugs. Over his earplugs he wears noise cancelling headphones that transmit “pink nose” – I didn’t know what it was either. Apparently it’s white noise played at a lower frequency. While writing The Corrections, he blindfolded himself and relied on touch typing.

It’s lucky his fingers didn’t fall out of position. Just imagine: If only you could decipher off-key Qwerty, you would have several hours of deathless prose.

I don’t know what the answer is. I always have other things I need to be alert for. I do have certain music that I only listen to when I write. It’s embarrassing stuff so I hide the cds in a desk drawer. It’s not music I really want to listen to. It has to act like Franzen’s pink noise.

It forms the background to my imagination and cancels out the neighbourhood dogs. A bit like my maths teacher’s voice back in high school. I used to be able to use her voice as the white noise backdrop to extremely vivid daydreams.

No wonder I became a writer. Anyone who could add and subtract would have realised it wasn’t sensible.


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