Sunday, 2 June 2013

Peace, perfect peace - with loved ones far away

I read in the Sunday Times about the Scottish writer of the No. 1 Detective series, McCall Smith, buying a 'chain of islands' in the Hebrides, as well as already owning a Highland retreat in Argyll. His new islands can only be approached by boat, and in good weather. You could easily be stranded there, I suppose, and there is no mention of daytime TV, cars or even the regular delivery of crates of Virgin Wines, either. So there would be nothing around you but the sea and the wind. Nothing to do but write.  Aah, the bliss of it. And what better target or aim in life than to be successful, rich and famous enough to give up the day job and be able to choose, even buy outright,  the location of your endeavours?
   I've said in my earlier blog about the pram in the hall being the enemy of good art, and surely a retreat somewhere to write would be the answer? In one's usual life - and I wouldn't give it up for anything - however much you try to close your ears to the arguments of your children or approaching footsteps on the pavement, or to the clock showing you that it's time for Nigel Slater's Simple Suppers on the telly, you are always going to be in demand or distracted.
    I believe Roald Dahl and Dylan Thomas wrote in sheds at the bottom of the garden. Other writers use the kitchen table, or leaning on the top of the fridge. Barbara Cartland lay on a chaise longue with a series of indefatigable secretaries taking down her musings in longhand.  Jilly Cooper eschews word processors still. Barbara Taylor Bradford has a multi-room apartment in New York, but I daresay one room is soundproof and peaceful and furnished with a grand desk.
    But the dream of being totally alone. An island or remote cottage far away. Even a convent, for a retreat. I remember shocking my NCT group when we were newish mothers, by discussing a TV programme about women going on a retreat and saying how much I would love to do that. Get away from my babies? You bet! But only for a little while and OK, only in theory...
   But now that the kids are older, it could be less a theory, more a practical solution. My readers will know that convents feature a lot in my writing - I was educated at one, but although like all my mates I resented everything about nuns and boarding school, I have seen not only the erotic but the spiritual and solitary possibilities since 'growing up'. Also, as most convent girls will tell you, you never quite shake off the  influence of the enclosed, female world. Once a Catholic, and all that.
  Could you go to a convent to write an erotic novel? Why not? A retreat to examine your soul, but also to go away and be creative. Would you sit in your cell and write, or would you simply stare out of the window, as you would stare at the sea on an island? Would you start to miss your kids, and start to write real or imaginary letters home? Would the hours ticking by, the enforced peace, start to create their own pressure? What would it be like only being allowed to whisper through a grille, not even ask someone to pass the salt at mealtimes?
  Could you, in fact, write just as productively if not in your own home, at least in a little workshop or studio down the street, in the middle of the bustling city, say, where the voices and footsteps would be those of strangers and therefore of no concern to you other than as creative/fictional/erotic possibility?
  I'd like to think, as I do with everything, that it would be a matter of compromise, both in task and in timing. The worst bit of writing anything is the blank page/screen. To be far away, forced to be silent and alone, to get the novel started, could work really well. A proper, regimented  timetable of walks and breaks for coffee would work well, too, because that would not always work at home when you are being diverted to the phone or to Tesco. So I would say in this dream scenario a week of solitude would work, at most. Perhaps 10 days to get the first draft done.
  Then the less arduous task, depending on how much your editor wants you to change, of going over the second draft, could be completed back in the bosom of your family. So long as they leave you relative peace when you need it, and only come in to give you a kiss or a chocolate biscuit.

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