This Thanksgiving past, I did something I have never done before, something I didn’t think possible. I wrote in a room full of people.
Not just a blog post or a Facebook status, but actual semi-coherent words of fiction, a scene appearing in a s.f. retelling of Rapunzel, co-written with my longtime friend and fellow scribbler Joanne Renaud. (I’ll let you know when and where you can read the story as soon as more details become available.) So there I was, in the living room at my grandma’s house, surrounded by family talk-talk-talking away, and I sat at the coffee table with my laptop and formed thoughts and words and images out of the ether (but not the Aether, because if I had that I would probably not be writing science fiction), or the raw material of creation, whichever you will.
Jane Austen famously wrote her classic novels in the sitting room, laboring away while the busy family chattered around her, and because of her industry we have Emma and Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion and Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility. Six novels of pure genius. Virginia Woolf famously wondered what else Jane Austen might have achieved, if she had been less constrained by her circumstances.
I can’t speak for Jane Austen; maybe she had powers of concentration and focus that I lack. It took me all afternoon to write an 800-word scene. Some of my slowness came from not knowing what exactly needed to happen until I was writing it, which can lead to a lot of “Hmmm … typey typey typey … ponder … delete.” (And in those cases it really is often better to get up and go do something else, washing dishes or folding laundry or just taking a walk, something to shake the appropriate neurons loose and get them working again. But then again, other times stubbornly plugging away can also work.) But even when one is focusing one’s best, trying to think of the words you need is hard when snatches of relatives’ conversation keeps catching your ear.
Still, I did it. I finished the scene, and I emailed it to my writing partner so that she could do the next bit, and I felt triumphant and smug. Take that, Virginia Woolf! I thought. It can be done!
Yes it can. But it adds an extra dimension of challenge to a process that is already challenging. And I wouldn’t recommend trying it with a noisy toddler: the advantage of the chatty family is that they chatter around you, leaving you in an isolated little bubble–not of silence, but of separate-ness, giving you the space to concentrate. The toddler is 1000% guaranteed not to do that.
So, pace Jane Austen, unparalleled quiet genius, I think I’ll take that isolated room after all.