I recently went to a wonderful LitLive open mic event in Frensham, near Farnham, Surrey. We listened to a wide range of writing, from flash fiction to novel extracts, poetry and short stories.
What struck me was how often, when responding to questions, writers would say how useful they found structure in their work. A poem was framed by the countdown to an exploding bomb: a novel took as its backbone the characters’ choice of films. And when listening to a story, a clear structure made for ease of understanding. It got me thinking about structure, not just in my writing, but in my writing life.
Like most writers I know, I never seem to have enough time. There’s a novel draft to edit, short story ideas to work on, competition deadlines to aim for; and in the real world a job to do, home to run, family commitments to be organised. And the pile of unread books next to my bed grows ever higher.
So I was excited, earlier this year, to spend a week at a writers’ retreat. There would be nothing to do but get up in the morning and write all day, eat and look forward to the next meal. So much creative time!
My desk was fine: the chair was comfortable. The room was lovely. I even had a view. The first morning was great. But by the second day I realised what was missing: I needed something else to do. I would have loved a path to weed, or dishes to wash. I was missing the bones of my day: the framework of daily tasks which allowed me to write in the gaps. It was harder to face the loneliness of my desk – and the prospect of an eight-hour shift – than the thought of trying to draft half a chapter in the gap between a meeting and a train journey. Without my usual structure I was flailing.
During that week I understood how time can be an enemy as well as a friend; and how too much time – for me, anyway – can be more of a hindrance than too little. In those long, empty days, time seemed to crawl; yet back home at my desk it was five o’clock before I knew it (and I still hadn’t got anything for dinner).
I’m envious of people who can disappear, alone, to a remote eyrie and write, returning a week or month later with their new work. It seems that the interruptions and diversions of my day are the fuel for my writing process: they give me the space, and distance, to think – and chew over problems. Chopped-up time is the structure I crave.
I just need to remember that, next time the doorbell goes.
Note to managers of isolated retreats: save the weeding and washing up for when the writers arrive.