If there’s one thing writers need, it's time, peace and a room of their own – but what happens when isolation brings out your inner Jack “The Shining” Torrance? Our columnist Kirsty Logan ponders the pros and cons of going it alone...
In a recent interview at Psychology Today, novelist Steve Himmer was asked: “Must you be a cave-dwelling hermit to write a novel?” I read on eagerly, desperate for the answer. Because if the answer is yes then I am, quite frankly, f**ked.
Last year, after more time than I care to admit working as a bookseller, waitress, and call-centre robot, I finally attained the thing I was dreaming of all along: I became a full-time writer. And I quickly realised that isolation is not my friend.
Waitressing was a bit shit, there’s no denying that. Your feet ache, the money sucks, everyone treats you like you’re stupid, and your clothes smell like milk from making 12 million lattes every day. But now I miss it. Mostly I miss the chat, because no one is ever just a waitress; I worked with a fabric designer, a musician, a cake-baker, and students training to be lawyers and social workers. People were always coming and going, and it was great to meet so many new people. Now the only time I get to know someone new is when Coronation Street hires different actors.
Writers’ schedules are so silly that it’s hard to take on non-freelance work. For example, in November I’ll be staying at Brownsbank Cottage, previously owned by Hugh MacDiarmid and maintained exactly as he left it, right down to his pipe on the table. I haven’t been there before, and I bet you haven’t either; it’s off Candymill Lane, near Blue Blanket Wood (I’m still not sure whether those places sound like locations for slasher films or children’s books). I will be spending the month in the cottage by myself, working on a novel.
Thirty days. Writing. Alone. In the middle of nowhere. But that’s good, right? That’s what writers want – peace and isolation, no other human for miles, nothing to break the spell of creation but the distant melancholy sound of a wood pigeon, and oh GOD I’m getting nervous just thinking about it.
The thing is, I like sushi. I like espresso. I like taxis and cocktails and sirens and tall buildings and people: people in the flat above and people cascading noisily out of the pub and people on the street providing me with an endless parade of interesting strangers. I spent so many years working minimum-wage jobs that I learned to fit writing into the nooks and spare moments of my life. Now that I have the freedom to lock all the doors and hole up with my writing, I find that I can’t do it.
I’m long enough in the tooth to know that what we want isn’t always what we need. Sushi and cocktails don’t get novels written (but oh, how I wish they did!) and what I really need is to bugger off to a cottage in the woods and do some work like a proper grown-up.
When reading Steve Himmer’s interview, I found it oddly reassuring that he has a day job and a small daughter to monopolise his time. Although he’s written a novel about a hermit, he didn’t become a hermit to write it. And maybe November won’t end with me typing endless lines of “all work and no play”, eating cold spaghetti from a tin and trying to make friends with the wood pigeons. Well, not unless I want to.
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