Writing is the loneliest of professions. The work can only be done alone. The social history of writing is long and full, from the coffee houses of London and the bohemian cafes of Paris to the bars and clubs of Greenwich Village in New York. No amount of pleasant company, however, helps you address the blank page, or even one filled with words. There is a difference between collegiality and cooperation.
And yet…when I am writing, I may be lonely but I am not alone. My friendships began with the books I read as a boy, books full of simple words and pictures and timeless stories. As I grew older and learned to write, I advanced from innocent admiration to blunt co-option. Eventually, alchemically, I became the sum of the books I have assimilated and refracted until a new style emerged I can only hope to call my own.
I find the dichotomy between the internal conversations I have with my imagination – like the one I am having right now – and the world around me fascinating. When I was younger, I needed to write in total silence. I’d find a corner desk in an upper floor of the library, or sit on an empty bench in a large park on a cool afternoon. This silent communion would necessarily be interrupted by factors beyond my control, such as noisy library patrons and sudden rainstorms.
Since then, I have learned to write in the world as well as of it, allowing the sounds of children or the bustle of traffic to coexist with the lapping of my laptop. I have taken up my work in the food court of a shopping mall, or near a playground in a park, and (when air-conditioning is required) even in the lobby of a local hotel. At such moments, my muse is, indeed, both lonely and crowded.
A warning: any writer who has made it through writing school, as I did, should have learned by now not to think too hard about the metaphysical aspects of the craft (or trade, it can switch back and forth, or be both). As I worked on this post, I can hear my teacher’s voice saying ‘forget the distractions, just put one word after another’. But it’s hard to hold to this dictum when you are simultaneously a) wondering what you will have for lunch, b) trying to decide if your hero is ‘wandering’ or ‘strolling’, c) changing your mind about your audience, or your submission target, or your plot outline, and d) preparing for an appointment with your dentist.
And yet (again): when I am creating pure writing – that is, writing that flows effortlessly like a mountain stream, that ‘sounds right,’ and says something that up until that moment I hadn’t thought of – I levitate straight out of this lonely, crowded world. I am completely inside an alternative universe, one of my own creation. This is the place where I am happiest, at least with myself, the place that I believe is the ultimate destination of any writer: an orb apart, shiny, complete, and attained.
Keats got it right. This is how you feel when good writing strikes:
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
The best writing – my best writing – aims for a similar transportation, to reach that peak and look down at what you see, and create something new out of it. When that happens, I no longer mind being lonely, or notice the crowd.
Reminder: I will be reading from my novel ‘Vinegar Hill’ at the Globe Bookshop, Pštrossova 6 in Prague on Tuesday, October 17th, 2017, and then I will be reading from ‘Hotel Continental’ at A Maze In Tchaiovna, Muchova 6 in Prague on Monday, October 23rd, 2017. Both events will begin at 19:00. Please come join me!