I sit at my computer. Two hours pass by, three hours… and I’ve written nothing. My thoughts veer wildly, resisting any kind of discipline. The internet diverts me, even if my browsing started off as genuine research. E-mails ping their arrival; the urge to check their contents is strong. More often than not, they prove to be nothing more inspirational than sale offers, petitions or notice of bills, but I’m too weak to ignore them. My ability to focus has deserted me. How long should I sit there, ostensibly at work but in fact merely frittering away the precious moments? There’s a time to stay and a time to go but how to tell them apart? Two unproductive hours at my desk may be two hours wasted. Or they may lead to an hour’s furious typing and a thousand inspired words.
I’m waiting at the dentist’s. My mind is blank, zombie-like. Until, from out of nowhere the muse blows in with a superlative idea. I rummage in my bag for a pen, something to write on: the back of a till receipt, that restaurant or decorator’s flier handed to me in the street; any scrap of paper will do. I can’t believe there is no pen. How could I have been so negligent as to leave the house without one? It’s the number one rule for a writer: always have a pen and paper handy – in the bath, on the move, in bed, wherever. The idea refines itself. I am desperate to write it down before it vanishes, replaced by some distracting conversation about teeth or inconsequential domestic detail. My lousy memory can’t be trusted to wait for a more appropriate moment. I borrow a pen from reception and scribble a few notes before I’m called in.
Riding my bike, mind half on the traffic, half on my work-in-progress, I’ll suddenly pull in to the side of the road and jot down my brilliant sentence or plot twist. Ploughing my lengths at the swimming pool, I hold on to the thoughts until at last on dry land in the changing room with a towel at hand, I can write without soaking the paper and making of my brainwave a soggy illegible mess. (You can spot a writer anywhere.)
Now when I sit at my computer, I’m faced with a collection of untidy scraps of paper extracted from the bottom of bags, where they may have lurked for days. Crumpled and stained, they are nevertheless valuable and must be saved. Some go into a folder; others have their contents typed straight onto the screen to form part of my masterpiece.
For the ultimate in communing with the muse, nothing can top a retreat: time spent in complete isolation, far away from all the mundane tasks and social interactions that go with being at home. Total immersion is the ideal way to make progress. My novel is everything: it fills every space in my brain, allowing no intrusions. New ideas come racing towards me – character or plot developments, snatches of dialogue, revisions of structure… I welcome them in, gathering them up like precious blooms. I don’t have to be at a desk day and night. I can walk in the countryside, swim in the sea, sit over a coffee. I return to the computer fired up with enthusiasm, eager to transcribe the pages of notes I have produced during my sortie.
Sadly, it cannot last. Back home after a few days or weeks on retreat, writing immediately grinds to a standstill. There are jobs to catch up on, social life to resume. I mourn the loss of my parallel life of fulltime creativity. I must find a way to invite the muse back in. The secret, I know, lies in gaining freedom from all the usual preoccupations. Only when problems have been dealt with or dismissed and the mind is a blank sheet, will inspiration strike. A long walk, a day on the beach, may well be more productive than hours facing a screen, but only if I’m alone. Writing is a solitary occupation. The muse is shy, elusive, unreliable, the most perverse of companions. But every time it appears at my side, I give thanks for the miracle.