Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On Seclusion

Three weeks: that's how much time I have set aside to hunker down and make some real progress on the next Charlie Parker novel. I made a few steps in the right direction today - writing at the house in the morning, grabbing a sandwich nearby, then writing again at a coffee shop - but I realize that it's a luxury to be able to write in this way, and I'm fortunate to have been allowed the time. Ultimately, this kind of routine is impossible to sustain: eventually, you burn out, but it's also the case that being a recluse of sorts is not necessarily ideal, or healthy. The best situation is one in which the writing life finds a balance with ordinary life. It will always be imperfect, and frequently it will need to be adjusted one way or the other, but in the end it's the only way to write, because writing then becomes part of the ebb and flow of one's existence, and not something apart from it.

Then again, I think that at some point in the creation a book, all writers, and certainly all published writers, need to take time away from the distractions of day-to-day life and do nothing but write. It may be at the start of the process, or in the middle when progress has slowed, or right at the end, when the finish line is in sight and it requires one last concentrated effort to cross the line, but it has to be done. If nothing else, it gives a focus to the work in hand. It can be hard to keep the image of the forest in one's head when you're progressing through it, tree by tree.

Even when I was writing my first book, at a time when I did not have a publisher but did, at least, have an agent who wanted to read it, I can remember taking a week off work in order to finish the draft. I wrote in a rigid kitchen chair at an old table in my bedroom, and I think my back hurt for another week after. I wrote thousands of words every day. I forced myself to stay in that chair and not move until I felt that I really couldn't write any more, until my back was screaming and the words on the computer screen grew fuzzy.

But perhaps that idea of seclusion is merely an extreme example of the regular, low-key seclusion that all writers, whether actual or aspiring, need in order to work. When I'm trying to help people who are struggling to write, overwhelmed by the task that they have set themselves and the other demands on their time - work, husbands, wives, children, friends, dogs - I always tell them to start small. They should snatch ten or fifteen minutes every day, and set an easily attainable goal: 100 words, say, which is not very much at all. They should do this at a time when they can be sure of no other distractions, and I've known people who've started to wake up fifteen minutes earlier in the mornings, before the kids have to be rousted, or before they have to run for the train, and that's their brief period of seclusion. Three days of work in this way will produce about one page of a book, although most people find that the work speeds up as the days go by, and where once they might have produced 100 words, they now produce 150, or 200, or 300.

It helps also to have a particular place in which to work, especially if you have kids, or flatmates, or a demanding spouse. You close the door, or set yourself up at the kitchen table, and you make it clear to them that this is your time, and you have to be left alone. After a while, people come to expect it. Not only does writing become part of your routine, but your writing becomes part of the routine of others.

So seclusion, like most things, is relative, and while absolute seclusion may be ideal - I have one friend who goes to stay in a country house bed and breakfast when he needs to get a lot of writing done, another who runs off to a cottage in the hills, a third who makes use of a retreat house for writers - it's not always possible, or available, or affordable. But every writer has to find his or her own space, both physical and psychological, and make the best use of it. Three weeks, an hour, fifteen minutes: you take what you can get . . .

This week John read

Sean Connery: The Measure of a Man by Christopher Bray

and listened to

Le Noize by Neil Young

3 comments:

Marlowe said...

I'm secluded away in India writing book 2 and 3 of YA Sci-fi series. I got the chance to accompany my wife for a year and now have all the time in the world to write. So now, I have the other problem. Writing without social interaction, without friends, locked away in my apartment for hours on end (my wife works long hours).
Finding time to write is important, but completely alone you soon realise that having 'life' around you is just as important. It lets you recharge your batteries, feel part of the ebb and flow of society; it grounds you.
Don't get me wrong, having the experience of being in India and the time to write is great, and it means when I return to Edinburgh next July I'll have completed two books with a third sketched out, but I don't think long periods of seclusion help writers. There are not many good hermit writers that I can think of.

Rob said...

Hi John, always enjoy reading your blog. Keep it up. It certainly helps me plod my way through my existence in the HSE, while trying to steal time to write. Thank You!

Photographe à Dublin said...

Your posts on writing are so lively.

Thank you for sharing the nuts and bolts of what is one of the most difficult professions going.

Writing is only the start.
Getting published seems to be the great Eiger for so many... though the new technologies help for anybody interested in publishing their own work.

I'm still surprised at the attitude that some pundits have to "vanity publishing". If a work is worth reading, it should not matter how it gets into the public sphere.

Everybody assured Lampedusa that "The Leopard" was unpublishable and it became a classic, unfortunately posthumously in his case.