Culture Vulture

Writers need solitude to create

Unbearable for friends and family, that is. When an author shuts himself away to work, it is the loved ones who truly suffer

Disturb a writer's solitude at your peril. Steampunk author Gail Carriger once yelled at me for several minutes on the telephone because our scheduled interview had interrupted her creative flow.

"Why do you keep calling?" she shouted down the line from California, her tones a shocking contrast to the pleasant e-mail she had sent a week before, confirming her willingness to speak on the telephone.

"The topics sound lovely. I very much look forward to it," she had written in that e-mail.

However, when I did call at the appointed time - and call, and call again, as the telephone rang unheeded - she was deep into the alternate Victorian world of her best-selling Parasol Protectorate series.

Periods of uninterrupted focus and concentration are important when completing a major task, but there is a danger of becoming lost in the woods while contemplating the trees.

Rudely forced by the telephone to resurface and interact with the real world, she lost her temper. It took a while for her to calm down, but she did and we had a lovely chat about her books, her two master's degrees in archaeology and her fondness for sewing elaborate Victorian gowns.

That interview back in 2011 encapsulates what makes interacting with writers, or any other kind of artist, so difficult and yet enjoyable.

When writers do not have a book to promote - sometimes, even if they do - coaxing them to meet or even talk on the telephone is akin to stalking shy wildlife hiding on misty peaks.

Agents and editors know the publicity will help the writer's just-finished book, but the writer knows only that the journalist's intrusion is interrupting work on the still-to-be-written book.

Forget about interacting with the public. Even friendships and intimate relationships are not allowed to intrude when the writer shuts himself away from the world to work.

There is a reason why most books begin or end with profuse expressions of gratitude to the writer's partner, friends and family.

Talking about her gruesome courtroom drama The Paying Guests two years ago, acclaimed writer Sarah Waters was all praise for her partner Lucy Vaughan. Ms Vaughan talks Waters through early drafts and is patient with the writer's refusal to have a social life for the months, perhaps even years, the book demands.

"When I'm working on a book, it's very easy to switch things off. It's just a technical relationship between me and the words on the screen and this process I'm trying to get right," Waters said.

Only when the book is done will she return to normal life by reading newspapers, accepting social engagements and leaving the house for plays or art exhibitions.

A friend of Suchen Christine Lim's speaks similarly of learning to accept the writer's need to be left alone even when the two are holidaying together.

"When Suchen sits down to write, she gets quite anti-social. She'll say: 'I can't go for walks, you can't call me before mid-day'. Even when we're travelling, she needs her quiet time, she writes in her notebook," the friend told me.

Most artists require prodigious amounts of solitude to create new work but it is writers who have the biggest reputation for being curmudgeonly loners.

Perhaps this is because those who make ideas tangible in sculpture or visual art are obviously working. Paint fumes or the sound of marble being furiously chipped away are sensory cues that the artist or sculptor needs to be left alone.

Writers, in contrast, build and work through entire universes in their heads while staring at a blank page or screen. Their need to be left alone in this headspace is often inversely proportional to evidence of this need. The absence of text is conversely a sign that the writer is working her hardest.

Knowing this still does not make it easy to befriend a writer.

A friend of mine has some fame as a travel writer and has been working on her first novel for three years. She surfaces rarely and is lured to face-to-face meetings only by the promise that we will discuss the book she is working on.

A fortnight ago, I offered her editorial comments on a chapter. She chewed on my remarks and her meal in silence until I had to head out for an assignment.

I suggested another meeting to continue our conversation and she exploded. "No. I am ashamed to show my face. I must go and hide myself out of shame for bad writing. I must do penance and work on my book until I am no longer ashamed," she said.

I will reserve judgment on her tactics until I read the reworked draft, but I wonder what the late, great American poet Charles Bukowski would have to say.

In his 1975 novel Factotum, Bukowski wrote about a writer "who thrived on solitude; without it, I was like another man without food or water. "

But in a poem published nearly 20 years later, air and light and time and space, he made fun of those who demand uninterrupted solitude and special conditions to create work. "No baby, if you're going to create/you're going to create whether you work/16 hours a day in a coal mine/or/you're going to create in a small room with three children/while you're on welfare," he wrote.

In an interview with The Paris Review journal, the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez explained why he was both a journalist and novelist.

"The writer's very attempt to portray reality often leads him to a distorted view of it. In trying to transpose reality, he can end up losing contact with it, in an ivory tower, as they say," he said.

"Journalism is a very good guard against that. That's why I have always tried to keep on doing journalism, because it keeps me in contact with the real world."

Periods of uninterrupted focus and concentration are important when completing a major task, but there is a danger of becoming lost in the woods while contemplating the trees.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2016, with the headline 'The unbearable solitude of a writer'. Print Edition | Subscribe