I constantly hear it said that writing is a solitary occupation. People on the radio spend ages telling us what a lonely business it is.
I suppose, given the choice, I would choose to be in a room on my own, but all too often that is a rare treat.
I have spent a lot of time writing on trains, my fingers pattering away on the keyboard with strangers looking over my shoulder.
“You’re writing a book,” they tell me. “I couldn’t write a book; leastways, not on a train.”
Or if they are less keen that I should think that they have been reading over my shoulder “Is that a book you’re writing?” I suppose the lack of subject headings, charts and the frequency of speech marks is a bit of a give away.
Sometimes they are considerate people.
“I can see you’re busy; I won’t disturb you.” That usually means I’ve got a few minutes before they launch into a long explanation of the journey so far, or an impassioned description of the joys of train spotting – I have genuinely been on the receiving end of that monologue. Often I am glad that they want to talk; they are interesting people and their stories intrigue me, like the woman whose family had lived in Jamaica for the past 400 years… or the Director of The Dorset Steam Fair, who wasn’t a train spotter.
As I usually have Hoover with me on trains the other icebreaker is “Oh my goodness, that’s a dog!” After which I have been shown photographs of dogs, cats, horses and a variety of other well-loved, and all too frequently dead, animals. How much we love our animal companions. Even the naughty one. There are huge smiles from the owners who tell me how their dogs would cause mayhem on a train. I thank heaven they have been left at home.
All that said – trains are great places to write. I settle into my seat, Hoover rests her head on my lap and off we rattle for a few hours of focused work. Lots gets written and the journey flashes by.
Ideas never seem to come on their own. They may be outstanding, but ‘they come not solitary spies’. It is never one idea that comes into my head, but a flock of them, bustling in and swarming around, begging to be written. I keep a note book of them and should I have another hundred years of writing I would not run out of stories. Everywhere I walk, in town or out on the hills with Hoover I see things that beg to be slotted into the note book: overheard conversations, a sudden flash of colour, a vibrant shape or a sound that echoes in my mind. Why is that girl accosting all those elderly people with dogs? Where is the parent? What is the story? Why is the bored chef, who never speaks, still propped behind the bar pretending not to watch the door? Who leaves the hefty stones on the grassy footpath? That one I now know the answer to – they are left by The Stone Rollers Of Cheselbourne.
Some ideas stand out, others cluster together waiting for more detail. I may know that Stone Rollers are responsible for the flints, but why do they put them on the paths?
And then the editing; checking and rechecking , changing a word for a better one, refining and then refining again. Always seeking to make it better, throwing away the dross whilst making sure that the essence remains and nothing vital is lost. And in all that coming back into contact with the people of the story; some that I like others, some that I love, some I know so well and others who slip in and out of the telling. There are the ones who make me wince or shudder, and others who make me smile in greeting.
Do other all writers laugh with delight when a word or idea fits like a perfect, soft glove, or cry when a character suffers? When big emotions hit the page I take myself off for a refreshing walk afterwards.
Solitary I am not. At the end of a writing session I am amazed not to find the people in whose company I have been not still sitting beside me when I look up from the page. My day has been filled with them, in and out of rooms, battling with their problems, winning out in the end. I have run along beside them, tripped and fallen, fought their demons and cheered when they triumph. I know every crease of each smile, what makes them tick, what makes them sad and I long for others to know them too.
So I can’t really say that it is a solitary business, and it certainly isn’t lonely. It’s hard work and can be frustrating, but I am surrounded by companions through it all.