On her blog, Elizabeth Baines* reports that Jonathan Franzen claimed to require blindfolded solitude in order to complete his novel. A requirement, like all the best stories about authors, that turned out to be apocryphal (i.e a lie).
It reminded me of a game I did in the last workshop I taught before the summer – one designed to help people get going with their novels, get unstuck with half-finished works or get the courage to turn their never-spoken-out-loud-before idea into a pile of paper. One of the common things that I’ve discovered stops people getting started is feeling that they need something they haven’t currently got – a real office, a better computer, two days free every weekend, older children, new pens… they wait for this magical blindfold-thing to appear, and wait, and never write a word.
The task I do in the workshop is to get all the participants to contribute to a list of things they ‘need’ in order to get started and then we have a discussion around the items on the list – what are real ‘needs’ and what are excuses for delay and procrastination? No-one ‘needs’ a real office or room of their own, even though it’s nice to have, but perhaps spending an afternoon clearing off the table in the hall way would be time well spent. A pen and paper, some privacy and access to a computer are reasonable requirements for getting started. Three afternoons a week in a café for fag smoking and beard-stroking? You should be so lucky. And blindfolds? Days or weeks of silence and solitude? Not if you live in the real world, or with other people, or need to go to Morrison’s now and again and don’t have anyone to heat your beans up for you.
Silence and long periods to concentrate in are brilliant. I snatch them when I can get them. I’d love a room of my own but for now I’m happy to share and I don’t think the stories are poorer for it. These things are lovely, and they help, but they shouldn’t stop you starting and not having them doesn’t make you a pretend-writer. What about the novels written on trains, in cars during lunch hours, in prisons, on the kitchen table while babies scream overhead? When you’re reading a book can you tell if it’s been written in silence and calm during a series of expensive retreats, or in two hour bursts between the requirements of a job and the school run? A blindfold might help some writers, but I think it hinders a lot of other writers who get luxuries mixed up with necessities and swallow the story that the business of writing is somehow more mysterious than other jobs – that writers are allowed to make claims that bus-drivers and child-minders aren’t (I need a blindfold, I need to be in the mood, I need a special room to do it in).
What do you need? Do you have it yet? Is your writing the better for it?
*whose book, Too Many Magpies, I read recently and is a beautifully brief, eerily spare account of an affair, among lots of other things.