Why Writers Aren’t All There


If there’s one thing the lockdowns have taught us, it’s the importance of developing an interior life. My father, first and always a scientist, spent years staring out to sea, working out the cubic capacity of ocean ships through water displacement or trying to figure out how electronic circuitry could be reduced in size. My mother read, wrote and dreamed of travel. Both had well developed interior lives in very different directions.

The writer builds an enclosed mental space in which is placed the furniture of the imagination. Once behind this door, you can create anything. To leave, you must exit the house and re-enter reality. The danger is that mental worldbuilding becomes more appealing than reality, so that you opt to stay there. It’s an idea I was attempting to get at in my novel ‘Calabash’.

I have friends with sons locked in their bedrooms unable to leave, unable to deal with the real world on any level. One has a son still trapped like this in his late thirties. For writers there’s a way of making sense of this; world building is practical because it has a productive outcome – the creation of a piece of work. You can leave it running in the background of everyday life, but I don’t. I’m either in the world or out of the world.

People ask; ‘Do you live with your characters?’ I reply, ‘Only when I’m at my laptop.’ It’s true; I don’t consciously think about writing when I’m ‘outside’. But subconscious processing plays a big role. Genre novels often have a great premise but tail off into rote scenes after the opening idea has been explored because the writer hasn’t properly planned the ending.

I’m not great at high concepts but I usually deliver a killer ending, because that’s where I start my planning. I’m not aware that I do this, though. It just seems to happen because I’ve defined the characteristics of all the players, and they need to follow their paths to a conclusion that feels organic and inevitable.

But all this is locked away in my mental writing space. The rest of the time I’m in the real world doing chores, taking walks – and yet something must be running in the background, picking up scraps of detail and storing them away for future use.

What’s your ‘other life’? Do some hobbies or activities allow you to cut yourself off from everyday life more than others?

21 comments on “Why Writers Aren’t All There”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    I look around know and think the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Who would have thought people would be stupid enough to vote for Brexit? Who would have thought a US president would try to incite a fascist takeover with so many thugs believing (or wanting to believe) his lies? Who could believe in the UK that so many idiots would believe Johnson’s lies?

    I am 69 now, and spending much more time at home, even before lockdown. In fact lockdown has not been a problem but it is easy to say that as I have a good pension and savings and don’t need to go out to work. I retreat a
    lot into the past. I love old British films and anything to do with the British film industry so watch them and am building up a data base on Cardbox. Ditto plays. I am also building up a database on anything that is now, or ever has been a theatre and/or cinema. When not doing this, two model railways of different gauges are being worked on, which is particularly therapeutic. And lots of reading.

    In the late 70s and early 80s I “came down” with agoraphobia and couldn’t leave the house for over 2 years. In a way, it now seems it was like a dress rehearsal for lockdown. I actually I think if it ever came over me again it would not be a problem. Perhaps I am getting like your friend’s thirties son, but sadly not his age!

    I have tried writing, fiction and non-fiction but, unlike Admin, am unable to translate what is in my tiny little mind onto paper.

    One thing is certain though, despite everything, I would rather live now than in the past. We are much better off. Eg, who can remember waking up in the morning with frost inside the bedroom window and not just outside? I suppose I enjoy delving into the past, whilst enjoying the comforts and benefits of today.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    Whoops, oo-er, I am not suggesting Mr F has a tiny little mind. The “my” is not hyphenated. There yer go, an example of me not being able to turn words in my mind into actual writing. So please don’t strike me off!

  3. Roger says:

    I’m partly deaf and have tinnitus, which means I’m detached from the world around to begin with. At the same time, I get a bitter amusement from other people who live in an illusory reality. I’m also frightened by them – the QAnon brigade, for example, not just their deranged beliefs, but then demanding they be pardoned by Trump because they were only obeying orders; Donald Trump himself, who seems to live in an illusory world where all of his wishes are true – he’s like a character in a story by Philip K. Dick – and has dragged millions of people in with him.
    Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius looks frighteningly prophetic- the delusions are pushing reality – whatever that is- to one side “like an outdated combine harvester”.

  4. Ian Mason says:

    “The writer builds an enclosed mental space in which is placed the furniture of the imagination.” Much of it is secondhand but good quality. There’s one piece that everybody suspects was stolen, but it was picked up at Bermondsey Market, so no actual legal problems there. A whole family of squirrels is living in the back of the sofa. Grandad’s old armchair in the corner smells faintly of wee. There are some dubious ornaments left over from the author’s ‘macrame phase’. Those mere details aside, it’s all good. 🙂

  5. John Griffin says:

    What scares me is the cognitive dissonance so many people exhibit. People who think the government is doing a wonderful job, having just complained about accessing vaccine centres etc. I have a neighbour who ‘trusts Boris’. I wonder what their internal worlds are like, locked away in their houses, in a hyper reality manufactured by their Daily Telegraph and BBC; when do they retreat upstairs and only venture down in a hazmat suit, seeing the winter gardens as some Ballardian nightmare? I’m taking part in a disaster movie, giving remote teaching to students I can no longer see, playing a game of pretend learning while a failed fireplace salesman dictates increasingly absurd propositions to the nations schools. My wife said on Friday, this is going to be the new normality, the virus will wane but the authoritarian madness will persist.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, dear, surely we can move past the insanity outside. This is one time when one’s interior life can provide relief from reality. I saw an abandoned Scottish fortified house on tv the other day and I have been mentally turning it into a modern home (modernish at least). The ground floor where the animals would have been kept becomes the main entry with a staircase to the upstairs and the end walls have been pierced… but you get the idea and the upstairs views across the countryside are great.
    The picture at the top appears to be a Canadian family playing crokinole. Is there another game that has a board like that one?
    Many of us are good at creating characters and running them through a plot line but either the characters are one trick ponies or they’re boring. Being able to find a story, characters, and a setting that would interest others is what separates the average person from the authors. That and the hours of real work it takes to take the idea from mental to physical. I wonder if an author can choose whether or not to have his characters “live” with him. I’ve heard of authors who feel their characters are powerful enough to change whole chunks of narration and that might well make it difficult to suppress those characters.

  7. brooke says:

    Hardly any of my favorite hobbies/activities “cut me off” from everyday life; they tend to pull me into it. At a lower level than your engineer dad, I enjoy solving problems for my clients. Yes, at some point I’m staring off into space, thinking. But before I can get to that stage, I listen, engage with client’s reality. Art–whether viewing or trying to produce something– involves me in the everyday reality of how to execute an idea so that others will understand it.
    Pre-covid, as a chamber music/orchestra freak, music did sweep me away–but then I must discuss what I heard/saw/internalized with all my friends, so…

    Tate Britain is exhibiting Yiadom-Boakye’s spectacular work (paintings). The artist creates people–fictitious–and makes them come alive and tells their stories on canvas. Interior work–yes, but here again is integration into everyday life beyond her studio.

  8. Brian says:

    @Helen A quick Google search shows that the photo is of the Rosen family of Duncannon, Pennsylvania. They are playing Carrom; the board is two sided with a checkers side and a crokinole side. All new to me but I guess you are right about the game they are playing.

  9. Richard says:

    In some ways in quite lucky in how my internal world interfaces with the actual, probably because of the Aspergers. As a child I had to build myself a set of strategies to deal with a world I just couldn’t navigate. This mostly worked, and has had the unforseen benefit of insulating me from reality. While my strategies are managing my daily interactions, I’m mostly somewhere else. Sometimes this goes catastrophically wrong, and it’s draining, and some people spot the fact they’re talking to a persona (these are always the kindest, most empathetic people, so it’s a good way of finding friends). Most of the time it works well, so I can be mentally designing an image, constructing a database, repairing a car or any of the other things I like, whilst fending off reality with a show of functionality. So lockdown is only a problem on a practical level, not an emotional one.

  10. Deborah Anthony says:

    Travel not being an option at the moment, musical journeys must take its place as my other life. Magical music from Galicia. Puerto Rico’s Calle 13. Voices of the Universe by Urmas Sisask leads you down a rabbit hole of Estonian sounds then over to Finland for some yoiking. Malcolm Arnold’s Concerto for Three Hands on Two Pianos courtesy of Radio 3 this morning takes us back to 1969 and leads us to John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music. Time travel is also possible in this parallel musical world as we visit the perfection of Palestrina, Monteverdi and Purcell. Then Craig Charles brings us closer to home with soul and funk on Radio 6, we dance to Benny Goodman and we roam the airwaves seeking out the familiar, the new, the bizarre, the comforting – solace and enchantment, excitement or melancholy nostalgia. Whatever we may need, it’s out there somewhere in the universe of sound.

  11. MaryR says:

    Stepping into your interior world was the only way to get through a) a 50s childhood, especially Sundays, and b) commuting. Silently telling yourself your own jokes sped you through commutes and the odd guffaw sometimes meant the seat next to you stayed empty. At the dentist I resort to the cliche of visualising sparkling waves on a sandy beach. This does work, although if the treatment’s long I turn into a fish and swim off, often into trouble.
    No-one at the PCU went to the dentist (or have I forgotten?). Sad to admit that, having now seen P Patel’s teeth on Spitting Image, I’ve transposed the pointy ones on to Meera. Enough to put all of us off our sherbet lemons.

  12. Peter Dixon says:

    Like your piece on Crime Classics / Crimereads website

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Thanks for that, Brian. I’ll have to look up carrom and see how it’s related to crokinole. All the way down to Pennsylvania, but it’s a north/south trajectory, so possible. Hmm.

  14. brooke says:

    Diana Vreeland (Vogue, editor in chief), “How can life be possible without fantasy?” “I don’t like work; I only like to dream and to acieve and that is quite a different matter!”

  15. Jo W says:

    Hi Chris, not long back from my “other place” It’s the dream world I enter at night, where everything is ok,my family are still around to talk to and laugh with. Only occasionally is there something wrong,but this usually disappears when I struggle out of the blankets.
    By the way, Calabash remains my favourite non B&M novel of yours,Chris. A most comfortable place to live.

  16. Liz Thompson says:

    Mary R, I agree about 1950s endurance tactics. Nowadays I look for posters etc at doctor’s or dentist’s, and see how many words I can create with the letters of one longish word on the poster……it passes the time, and is relatively harmless.

  17. Peter T says:

    I’m another Aspie, though I was undiagnosed for more than six decades. I’ve always had my own world inside my head. It’s a not a place of fiction, more one of my numerous projects, scientific, engineering, artistic. It has helped me survive numerous boring events and most certainly the lock downs. Indeed, coming out of lock down is more difficult than the lock down, returning to coping with the irrational, neurotypical reality. Still, I have some need for the outside, for perspective. I had a day recently when, for the first time ever, my interior life seemed a bit too much. My projects all looked too big and too numerous; no one could complete even a few in one life time. Fortunately, it passed quickly and I’m back to enjoying the journey and to hell with the destination.

  18. SteveB says:

    It’s always easy to talk about your neighbour in their little world of contradictions. But that’s where we all are. I got myself a new hoovering machine (a thing called a Roomba)and watching it blindly mapping out my apartment – reaching a wall, turning left, moving a few centimetres, then crossing the room again to the other wall, etc. I realised – that’s me.
    I always was an introvert and more than a bit obsessive so I have a vast book, music and film collection, nearly all virtualised as it were. It was a lot of work to put together but it makes me happy.
    I think the importance of Trump is vastly overrated. He’s just a stupid little guy who’ll be forgotten in a few weeks. If he starts his own party it’ll go nowhere just like Anna Soubry or Farage or suchlike in the UK, all yesterday’s news already. And especially don’t be frightened by all the mad conspiracy theorists like Quanon and all the rest. Utterly bonkers, it’s just a random collection of loonies like the crazy islamists in the uk, occasionally dangerous but NOT a substantive movement.
    But I do think America is a totally screwed up country anyway with or without Trump.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Still bugged by board games.We always thought crokinole was specific to Canada but it seems that if it was it was a long time ago. Carrom is pool on a board and looks quite interesting. That’s why there are pockets on the board corners. On a web site it appears that game began in the far East and there are international championships and everything. There is a suggestion that carrom is more strategic while crokinole is fast and tension raising. Both fun.

  20. BB says:

    Ha, Mary, can relate to this:
    “Silently telling yourself your own jokes sped you through commutes and the odd guffaw sometimes meant the seat next to you stayed empty”

    It’s been a great day over here with a new occupant of the White House, out with the obligatory reading of malignant tweeting, and the new covid variants haven’t reached my state yet so no complaints. It feels like the end
    of an apocalypse movie with the protagonist surveying utter devastation, but, hey, the sun is coming out.

    There are two hobbies other than reading that allow me to cut out from reality for a while, fooling around on the piano and feeding birds & critters in my yard. Both activities offer a large creative space for my imagiNATION, music for emotional drift and tending to wildlife for silent conversation. Lassoing those thoughts and feelings while parking my rear in a chair can be a challenge.

  21. Agatha Hamilton says:

    Am anchored (happily) to everyday life with husband (of fifty nine years).
    You ask about ‘other life’. I became quietly obsessed with history of the Ottoman Empire during first lockdown. Now starting to learn Turkish. It’s fiendish but fascinating. So that’s a bit of a cut off as can’t get any friend to share the obsession. Take Newfoundland for walks, but always did that, and meet lots of other dog walkers (socially distanced) so that’s contact with outside world, also emailing friends a lot more, as not meeting them.

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