Posted by: stelladuffy | November 2, 2009

must writing be a lone(ly) activity?

by which I mean, can you do it while … listening to music, sitting at a table of other people, watching tv, attending to facebook …???

Last week I taught an Arvon course with the very lovely Paul Magrs, the splendid Claire Berliner, Olly Meek and Julia Wheadon of Totleigh Barton (and Mr Doggles), Paul Burston as our guest writer, and 16 insanely keen*, hard-working and very energetic writers.
And there was no mobile signal, no internet access, no radio, no tv/music etc etc …
Over the years, I’ve found I can pretty much write anywhere if I have to, though I prefer silence, don’t quite get how other people manage to write in cafés without becoming totally distracted by everyone else there, get more done when I’m alone in the house and, like most other writers I know (other than Lauren Henderson who is a force of nature & Judge Judy), when I disengage from the internet/email, I do a little more on the word count.
But … nice though the countryside is (and it is, cows are pretty and fields are green and autumnal Devon is richly mellow etc etc), I really want to be able to work anyway and anywhere. I don’t like the idea that we get more done when we’re away from home, that for many of us the distractions of ‘real life’ can be a distraction from work, I want to achieve my ideal word count/best phrases/have loads of energy for work at home in my own office as well as those places where there are fewer competing demands.
One of the things the Arvon effect (and other residential courses too, I’m sure) has to offer is a sense of industry – when Paul was taking a workshop and I had a free morning I found I was hungry to use the time to write myself. The feeling that sixteen people over in the house were all working on their own writing meant I wanted to get to work too. And perhaps this is the main benefit of going away to work together – even for a writer with another writer in the same house (!), it can feel lonely – there’s something about a buzz of work (a silent countryside buzz of work!) that encourages endeavour. So, for me, it’s not about the (lack of) music or emails or noise or letters … it’s about the other people.
(isn’t it always?!)

* teaching impro-for-book-writers to a bunch of grownups who have (mostly) never touched this stuff before, and who just go with it and get on with it – brilliant.


  1. I have found lately that writing at my desk, under the window – looking over the garden – in silence is best. Especially armed with mug of tea.

    I sometimes move downstairs to the dining room and work in there – less mess, just one nice big table, door through into the kitchen for tea refills.

    I can’t write in cafes, and respect those who can.

    I could theoretically go and work in the library, but it’s tiny or the other one has no tables and is very noisy – it’s like a train station.

    Speaking of which, iPod on, tea and table to self on a train, I can quite easily spend a couple of hours scribbling away.

    I also thrash out details across my writing-partner’s kitchen table. We occasionally put the radio on to see what’s playing – hopefully our favourite song on the playlist at Radio 2. Have a bounce around and a sing, then back to work. Of course, when the weather’s nice, there’s nothing like sitting in the garden – with a cup of tea or a long iced drink.

  2. when I first started out I always thought writing was something I was going to be doing alone forever. I always liked it when I locked myself away in my room, and was even happier when I knew there was not a soul in the house to come and distract me.

    Whilst I maintain that I still write best when there is less noise in the house from the T.V downstairs, or the sounds of my estate bleeding in through the walls, I have to say that writing has become more about interacting with people recently.

    It seems that every time I go out to do a workshop, or a course, or a reading, that my writing is lit up by some sort of spark, and I need that as much as I can to ignite my writing back into life when it is faltering.

    So while peace is definitely a good thing for me, being utterly solitary doesn’t seem to be the best answer either… Good job I’m in London then.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed your improv workshop for writing newbies and I am certainly getting on with it!

    I signed up to this crazy scheme to whip me away from my lolligagging. The concept: “Quantity Not Quality” … you can alway refine later.

  4. glad you enjoyed it Lynn, and I know lots of people who’ve found the November-novel thing really useful … I suspect the trick is to promise yourself that you’ll be kind later and not mind that it’s been more about quantity than quality, AND to pay attention to quality as soon as you can! good luck.

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