• Collected
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On Writing

Coping with the distractions of the writer’s life.

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Suddenly there’s the obliterating sound of a jackhammer endeavouring to penetrate the bitumen on the road outside. Your rates or taxes inconveniently at work: silence being trashed. Or, in a conjoined house, even though it’s still morning, a time for birdsong not rock music, the new neighbours have turned up their stereo player to high, so that the bass line of the song has real definition, and the lyrics, familiar to you from several decades ago, are now again irresistibly clear. These are occasions when a writer, if like me he uses a pencil to make a first draft, lays it aside and hangs his head gloomily over the page and, in lone and isolated protest, curses the ubiquity of noise pollution in the contemporary world.

Have any writers of fiction, poetry, or any other kind of literary endeavour, unwittingly found themselves to be living under the flight path for a large international airport? That would be reason to snap countless pencils in two, at regular intervals. An ice cream van directly outside the house, midsummer, advertising its cheerful arrival with jangly tunes to the children of the neighbourhood, would be another reason. There may be many impediments to engaging in the writing life: enemies. Cyril Connolly, way back, identified the pram in the hall — an observation one might have expected to come more swiftly from the other side of the gender divide. I recently read an interview with an urban writer in which he breezily claimed that the only thing that prevents him writing is the phone ringing. I’d like to know on which quiet acre he lives and if possible move there — and inform him that it’s considerably easier to disconnect a phone than to scare off an ice cream van surrounded by happy children.

Perhaps the major enemy, procrastination, doesn’t show up at his place either. It’s astonishing how interesting and necessary washing a pile of assorted crockery can become when there’s writing of some kind to accomplish. The same applies to keeping weeds in check. Or perusing websites. You name it, and it will be sufficient to get between – polished your shoes lately? – a writer and his desk. Should this menace be thwarted – today I deviated for five-plus cups of tea with added ginger, honey and lemon on the way to my desk – the question is, what are the optimum conditions in which to write? This is a question that can only be answered in relation to a day when the serious writer isn’t engaged in some other activity, paid work, which provides a regular stream of income that quite possibly the writing doesn’t: a stream that makes possible the soon-to-be-attempted writing. And quite possibly supports a family. There can be many impediments to making writing progress, a sensible day out in the sun, for instance.

But let’s now assume there’s a desk, paper, pencil, a sturdy chair and sitting on it, a writer. Ready. To answer the question if that writer happens to be me, I have a very high preference for day-to-day predictability and quietness. From my knowledge of other writers, these are not always universal requirements, but neither are they uncommon. Anyway, they happen to be mine. Turbulence, an earthquake actual or psychological, is out. A period in prison, in solitary confinement, wouldn’t be all that bad, tucked away from all contemporary distractions. Something else I’d prefer to do without is a room with an interesting view, where shifting weather patterns can be observed, or if the room is in the city, diverse activity followed on the street below. To write is to withdraw. It may not always be possible to get this across to household companions, who in all probability won’t have experienced the same pressing commitment to an unfinished sentence, subordinate clauses and all, when they boldly call up the stairs for help of some minor but urgent kind.

I once wrote a poem in a room where my two companions, sitting on a couch, were talking. Once. Long ago. A dozen lines only, published in my first book. Otherwise, goodness knows how many lines later, I’ve never endeavoured to repeat that performance. How any of my colleagues who are not journalists manage to write poems or stories in cafés, with the coffee machine wheezing, and conversation at full throttle, I do not know. But some do, wholly immersed in the page before them, channeling perhaps a century-old version of the Left Bank in Paris. I wouldn’t, under such circumstances, be able to commit a word to paper. I was once told that an admired poet, loosely of my generation, had written one of his best poems when he was sandwiched between passengers on a long-distance flight. That’s two sorts of concentration in one. Another was filmed for television, in scuba gear, with a writing implement that worked best on a small board underwater, as he composed poems while finning himself for miles around the Great Barrier Reef, fish fleeing in every direction. What the critics said about the results I never cared to find out. But it’s a valuable testament to the many and varied conditions in which writers can operate. Some. The poet Schiller needed the smell of rotten apples, kept in a drawer – or was it just the core – to get him going, very pleasant and less expensive and smelly than cigarettes.

Each to her own strategy – and for each writer, if she’s a novelist, her own room, as Virginia Woolf famously suggested, adding to this the necessity of having available money. Should a writer not be of independent means – I have yet to meet one who is – it may be essential to take the extreme measure of rising at four or five am, ahead of the family, ahead of the day job, to write. Or to follow William Faulkner’s example when he wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks after the day’s wage-earning work was done, dedicated late-night training for the Nobel Prize. As I write this piece, in deep admiration for the foregoing strategies, the blind is pulled part down against a full afternoon sun, the door behind me clicked shut, while I endeavour not to squander the bright small luxury of writing they both confer and illustrate.

In my room, on this fortunate occasion, not an unexpected invasion of sound from without is to be heard. Resplendent silence is in the ascendant. Knowing such fine, freakish conditions won’t last, while wars flicker and flash around the planet, there are writers of renown who have shoved off to stay in remote shacks where the only sound might be the soothing rhythm of the ocean waves. Failing that, they’ve ascended the stairs in historic brick towers, located in fine rural provinces, and stocked, most importantly, with books as well as food and drink. There may be differing culinary imperatives depending upon whether the work at hand is a marathon, perhaps a novel, or a highly concentrated sprint, often a poem. The aforementioned accommodations surpass the stereotypical venue for a writer, the garret, though many a desperate scribe won’t even have the good fortune to inhabit one of these. She may, even in these enlightened times of shared conjugal responsibility, have to compose her poem in her head while engaged in domestic duties, then commit it to paper when the household is comatose. If the writer is a he, and something of a traditionalist, he might bunk off to the garden shed under the pretence of setting in motion necessary household repairs rather than a word-processing program. It might be cold out there. Damp. The conditions for many, one must conclude, may not always be just right to accomplish the act of writing. If the persistently annoying problem of telecommunications, for instance, can somehow be dealt with, the writer must simply overcome whatever impediments to action are sure to exist and – what the hell – just get on with it. Write.

Andrew Sant is the author of numerous collections of poems, including two Selected Poems one published in Australia, where he has spent much of his life, the other in Britain, where he was born and has lived for various periods.

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