Think of a writer at work, go on…What’s the first image that comes to mind? It might be a man or woman, more probably a man because on film and TV (contrary to reality) writers are almost always male – female writers are usually journalists or diarists, and they will be huddled over a typewriter furiously tearing away unwanted pages and throwing them in the bin until the manuscript arrives as a neat stack.
On their desk there may be the odd note and a bottle of whisky (or a hip flask stashed into the top drawer if drinking is meant to be their issue) and as their eyes look up they may alight upon a strategically placed framed picture alluding to some past (possibly tragic) event, a hunting or mountaineering photo or group shot with army buddies or maybe a long-lost love. Hank Moody meets Ernest Hemmingway.
Or if your point of reference isn’t TV and film – a strange thought I do concede – you might imagine someone younger and well-dressed tapping away at an expensive laptop in a trendy cafe, an enigmatic smile threatening to break out over their face as the inspiration starts to flow in between sips of their impeccably prepared (insert name of fancy type of) coffee.
Now I can’t and wouldn’t wish to speak for all writers but that doesn’t ring true of my experience. For one, as the previous paragraph no doubt revealed, I don’t even drink coffee. My workspace isn’t a lodge or a beachside retreat or the great outdoors where I pen things into my extensive journal; it’s my bedroom. When I look up from my screen, I see another screen because sometimes I need two and there is nothing neat about the arrangement of my notes because sometimes I need to look at several pages at once. My desk doesn’t so much scream ‘writer’ as ‘potential fire hazard’.
So here follows a few things that I have heard or seen about writing that simply don’t match my experience. That’s not to say they won’t for you, perhaps you’ve reached that magical place, but I suspect that many writers would have similar variations.
I, like most people, haven’t used a typewriter since the 1980s and then only as a novelty. They are not ‘more authentic’ they are hard work and, given that we can now word process on a computer, needlessly so. Quite literally, I don’t know any writers who insist on using a typewriter because why would you? I know lost and stolen manuscripts make for convenient drama; in the real world a lost manuscript would be utterly and completely heartbreaking for a writer and for very good reasons you try to avoid that being a possibility. When most writers lose work it doesn’t involve chasing dogs or tracking down your jilted lover, it is comprised of clicking on a file then letting out a long and very repetitive litany of swear words, possibly followed by tears.
This may be a controversial one because I’m sure writers do frequent cafes and do write things down there. In my experience, however, cafes are far too busy, noisy and distracting to get deeply into a novel in those surroundings. Making notes? Doable. Writing a blog? Sure. Putting in the hard grind? I’m less convinced but I accept that others may be better at blocking out the distractions than me. Likewise, they may not be bothered by paying for all those drinks and eating out twice a day. For me that’s an unnecessary expense.
Most of all though, what cafes lack for me is easy access to my notes, which as I’ve stated I like to spread out quite a bit, and the opportunity to roam. I find sitting down for long stretches a challenge. Pacing around, gesticulating and acting out action scenes are pretty good ways to get yourself sectioned when performed in the tight spaces between tables of your local coffee joint. At home it only gets noticed by your family or housemates and that’s fine; they probably already know you’re crazy.
Don’t have one because 1) I’m not enormously rich already and 2) I live in Britain. In a sense these two reasons are almost the same thing given what property prices are like here. Anywhere affordable that’s truly away from other people is probably not a property suitable for writing. Not unless you can get broadband in your tent or feel comfortable working in a derelict factory for the two weeks before it becomes a luxury apartment or chain store.
Maybe that’s how the whole writers-in-cafes thing got started. There they were minding their own business in a nice, quiet slum and suddenly cappuccinos sprung up around them, consuming them in gentrification too pleasing to escape.
The writer’s lifestyle
If there is something in common where all depictions of the writing lifestyle all feel false is that they show writing as a lifestyle. In my experience, writing isn’t a lifestyle it is part of your life and you try to fit it into your existing life any way you can. If you wanted to show the reality of a writer’s life, quite often you would show them at work, possibly doing something that has almost nothing to do with writing.
There would be no retreat; their workspace would be wherever they could put their computer and their notes in one place. Instead of crazy adventures, a lot of the time the writer would be opting to stay in glad of a rare space of hours when they can get down to doing what they love.
On that subject, fiction has a lot to answer for too. In popular culture writers have two modes: inspired and blocked. The truth is that the majority of the time they will be somewhere between the two. This is inevitable. Writing 100,000 words plus takes time and if you only wrote when inspired you’d never get to the end.
By the same token, writers block is rarely anything like what it is shown to be, namely the writer staring at a blank page for hours on end. Not writing looks much the same as procrastination does for anyone else – doing anything other than the thing you are supposed to be doing. If you are actually able to force yourself to stay at the keyboard for a long period and not get distracted then you almost certainly will write something.
At the end of reading this you might conclude that a writer’s (or at least my) life is quite mundane. There is a certain amount of truth in this, the observable process of writing is often not that exciting. It is hard work that requires a commitment of many hours sitting in front of a screen.
That is not to say it not rewarding. The beauty of writing is the words and the stories that come out; the product is what transcends the ordinary and hum drum. Most writers don’t have hugely exciting external lives because it is on the inside that all the action is happening. When you read our tales you’re reading about places we’ve been, dangers we’ve endured, struggles we’ve overcome and loves we’ve won and lost all within the confines of our heads. Frankly, real life can have a hard time living up to that.
The moral of this particular story is this: you don’t have to surround yourself with the artifice of being an interesting person to be an interesting person. If you are a writer (probably if you’re a reader too) you already are an interesting person with far more compelling things going on in your head than any amount of lifestyle trappings can conjure. While the idea might have some appeal, don’t worry about not being Hank Moody or Ernest Hemmingway. After all, their writing lifestyles are also works of fiction.