Authenticity is everything when it comes to writing. Especially when you’re writing about things that are very unlikely to happen. Like decapitating a member of the walking dead with a malfunctioning sex toy. Or staking a vampire with the sharpened end of a frozen blood sausage. If this is outside of the author’s experience then it’s important they at least make some attempt to find out what this would actually feel like, if only as an aid to their imagination.
We recently had a new router installed to improve our broadband connection. This involved rewiring the offices at the bottom of our garden. So I was forced to work on the dining room table in my bathrobe. Well I wasn’t actually forced to work in my bathrobe, that’s just one of the perks of my job. Unperturbed I soldiered on with the day’s work and, as an aid to my imagination, I decided to boost the authenticity of the story I was writing by acting out one of the scenes.
Lacking a gothic balcony I decided to improvise and clamber up the bookcase instead. As there were no members of the undead to hand I had to use one of our long suffering cats. Being vegetarian I’d sharpened the end of a veggie sausage to give me an idea of the weight ratio involved in wielding a frozen blood sausage. At this point two things happened. A – my wife and the engineers entered the room to check the phone connection, to find me halfway up the book case pretending to impale a ruffled feline with a sharpened veggie sausage and B – my bathrobe fell open to reveal my not so sharpened love sausage.
While this is just another day at the office for me and my all too understanding wife, the engineers were, to put it politely, more than a little perturbed. I blame my wife for this of course. She knows there’s no phone connection in the dining room.
While this little anecdote is dripping with more symbolism than an army of rampant Freudians could accommodate, my reason for sharing it is that, for me, it perfectly illustrates the theme of this month’s column. Namely that if a writer is going to properly practice their craft then three things are absolutely crucial: peace, quiet and total isolation.
Writers, as I’m sure you’re aware, are a strange bunch and we have to go to some pretty strange places to produce the work that we do. My office window is clearly visible from our living room and my family tell me that, of an evening, the sight of me at the bottom of the garden, bouncing off the walls like a hyperactive gnome on crack is not just distracting, it’s often more entertaining than The Great British Bake Off. This is one of many reasons why it’s best to keep me at a safe distance from most normal people.
But it’s not just for the sake of our fellow human beings that we writers should be kept in solitary. Peace and quiet is essential to the act of creation. Staring into space for long periods of time is an unavoidable part of writing for a living. Even if we can never get our loved ones to understand this. If we don’t get the time and space to do this properly then countless hours of work can be lost.
At an integral point in my story I might suddenly hit a brick wall, triggered by an unseen plot hole such as: “how does my protagonist obtain a frozen blood sausage in the middle of the Sahara?” This is the point in the proceedings when I look up from my screen and use the time honoured technique of staring into space. My train of thought might go something like this…
“So how does my protagonist get a frozen blood sausage in the Sahara desert? I mean it’s not like the nomadic Tuareg raiders have a travelling blood sausage tent or anything. How would they freeze the sausage if they did? Can you get a camel powered freezer in the desert? Could you fit a freezer in a camel’s hump?
“My editor is seriously going to get the hump if I don’t get this story in, I’m two weeks late already. If my protagonist was a writer who’d missed his deadline maybe he could sharpen his blood sausage on the heated edge of his editor’s rage. Is that even possible? Perhaps I’m coming at this from the wrong angle. Maybe I need to think about this thematically.
“What does the blood sausage represent?
“The phallocentricity of Victorian society?
“His father’s phallocentricity?
“If the blood sausage represents his father’s phallus, and he wants to penetrate the vampire’s chest with it, does that mean the vampire’s cold heart is his mother? If the blood sausage melts as it pierces the undead organ will the liquid blood impregnate the vampire’s heart causing an unholy hybrid sausagepire to grow inside the slaughtered vamp’s chest cavity?
“Wait a minute… I’ve got it… that’s it… oh my god, that’s the most amazing idea I’ve ever had… the vampire sausage hybrid is a…”
“Working hard?” my wife might say popping her head round the door at just this moment.
“I said are you working hard? I popped in to see if you wanted a cup of tea and you were staring out into space.”
“I’m not staring into space I’m doing important mental work and I’ve just made a breakthrough. Do you realise that the vampire sausage hybrid is really a… a…”
“The vampire sausage what?”
“No, you don’t understand the blood from the sausage is… it’s going to… I mean… oh no, I’ve completely forgotten. I had genius dancing at the ends of my fingers and now it’s gone. Dead and gone as surely as if you’d hammered a sharpened blood sausage through its unbeating heart.”
“So… does this mean you want a cup of tea or not?”
At this point I will most likely throw an unholy tantrum and lock my self in my study for the rest of the day. On reflection it’s most probably this behaviour that causes my wife to invite workmen into the living room while I’m swinging naked from the bookcase.
Many great works of literature have been lost because the peace and quiet of the author was shattered at just the wrong moment. While on a killer opium binge Samuel Taylor Coleridge sat down to pen a magnum opus that was going to rip the world of poetry apart for all time. Unfortunately he was only a few lines in when a ‘gentleman from Porlock’ knocked at his door (no that’s not a euphemism). By the time Coleridge got back to his poem he’d come down from the opium and his grand vision had completely evaporated. Instead of the great work of proto-psychedelia we were left with a 54 line ditty that’s plagued A-level students ever since. That’s right, the poem ‘Kubla Khan’ is actually the result of some ignoramus with cow dung on his boots shattering Coleridge’s peace and quiet to talk about field drainage or the state of his prize heifer’s haemorrhoids.
Of course another reason that writers want peace and quiet is because we’re an anti-social bunch at best. I mean you’re not going to lock yourself in a room without washing for days on end and angst over the correct placement of a semi-colon if you’re the life and soul of the party are you? The existentialist writer and serial philanderer Jean Paul Sartre famously said “Hell is other people”. Which tells you all you need to know about most writers’ views of socialising for extended periods of time. Peace and quiet essentially guarantees our basic sanity.
As we sidle up to the conclusion of this month’s column I realise I haven’t anything really wise or profound to say on the subject of peace and quiet. In fact I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to say with this column. All I can tell you is that I’ve fought valiantly to write it by my deadline in spite of a total absence of any peace or quiet. If it wasn’t small children imploring me to fish guinea pigs out of the toaster it was distraught neighbours seeking marital counseling and the number of the local Genitourinary clinic.
As the old Chinese proverb (ought to) say:
“A man who is denied peace and quiet can’t… erm… think of a good ending for his column”.
Trust your Uncle Jasp, you know it makes sense.
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