50 minus 16: “There’s a kind of hush…”

Posted: 1 August 2014 in writing
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Writing is a solitary activity. Well, it is… unless, of course, you’re writing with someone else. Or in a room with lots of other people who aren’t silent. Or you’re in a coffee shop, surrounded by people talking, the percolator percolating, children playing, and the toilets occasionally flushing. And the ever present music, often from whichever album Starbucks are promoting this time around.

I’ve never had a problem writing prose in company. The words come – or they don’t – entirely unaffected by the comings and goings around me. The ‘pressured’ writing of twenty-four stories in twenty-four hours for Comic Relief last year was performed with at least half a dozen people around at any time, and Mitch Benn composing music twenty feet behind me. The difficulty of writing so many stories was entirely unaffected by any noise around me.

Well, mostly. I remember a couple of specific occasions calling for quiet, but they were directly linked to me trying to come up with some workable rhymes for a couple of the stories I was writing in verse. Speaking the lines out loud, I found I couldn’t keep my attention on the story while other people were talking.

And I realised that while I can write prose quite contentedly in the company of others, writing rhyming was almost impossible, as was – I came to discover – writing dialogue. If I’m writing a script of any sort (comics, screenplay, audio play) then I need quiet. Not absolute quiet – I don’t think you can hope to sensibly achieve that in any urban environment, and I’m pretty sure it’s not that easy in a country environment either. There’s always noise around us. Inside a house, you’ve got everything from the boiler or central heating noises, the creak of a floorboard, a car going past the house, let alone the ambient sounds of people.

As for “the country”, what? The sounds of animals, the wind, an aeroplane flying overhead?

Don’t laugh at that last – Alistair Cooke used to tell the story of when he was filming his landmark tv series America. In the middle of the desert, aiming for perfect quiet in which to deliver a piece to camera, a car drove past a mile away… and they could hear it perfectly.

You’ll never get perfect silence.

Some people deal with this by using ‘sound cancelling’ headphones. Not me. I use headphones – or more properly earphones – a lot, but to watch things on the iPad. And I’m never unaware of them. Over the years, I’ve used lots of different types, and I’ve always been aware of the falsity of them, the feeling that apart from looking like an idiot, there’s something going on about which I’m now unaware.

I like writing. I actually enjoy it. What I don’t enjoy is starting to write. And it’s nothing to do with the ‘blank page’, or more properly ‘blank screen’. It’s the stopping something else, anything else, to write that bugs me. I don’t know why; most of the things I’m stopping are less enjoyable to me than writing. But it takes a large effort to start writing, and very little effort to carry on writing. Strange.

I’ve been asked on occasion, like every writer I guess, from where do you get your ideas? (Well, to be fair, usually it’s “where do you get your ideas from?” but I prefer the grammatically correct version.) I don’t know is the honest answer, but it’s not an answer people like to hear. They want to know ‘the secret’; they seek admission to the hidden world of ideas. Although I understand the motives behind both Gary Larson’s answer (‘I write off to a company and they send me a trunkload of ideas every three months’), it’s not for me. Where did I get my ideas for the fast fictions, for hypotheticals, for You’ll Never Believe A Man Can Fly? Each has a different answer, and in the case of the fast fictions, since I’ve written about 700 of them, the answer – truly – is about 700 different places.

hypotheticals was the panel Dave Gibbons and I ran for over a decade at a comics festival in the UK. I got the ideas from things that had actually happened in the world of comics over the past year, switched some details, changed some others, and created hypothetical ethical dilemmas and scenarios that hadn’t happened [yet] but could easily occur netx week.

As for You’ll Never Believe A Man Can Fly, I’ve told the story before. The letterer for a story I’d written for an issue of Trailer Park of Terror made an error – which we thankfully caught before publication; instead of the caption in a panel with someone in prison being: “I remember talking to the public defender”, he lettered “”I remember talking to the pubic defender”. At the time I thought if I ever create my own super-hero, it’ll be “The Pubic Defender”. The rest is fairly straightforward. And obvious. Can’t say from where the conspiracy part of the novel originated, but the core of the idea was from there.

Returning to the silence again, the silence with which a writer manage to surround themselves even in the midst of sound. It’s a good silence, when it happens; a peaceful silence.

Except for the words. When they come, it’s like I can hear them, each word, one after another, from somewhere in my head through my fingers onto the screen.

The words break the silence, and I’m always pleased to hear them.

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Comments
  1. Yep. There really is a sort of meditation exercise involved here. An the Alistair Cooke anecdote details the headaches perfectly.

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