About a quarter of a century ago - a length of time which is shocking to me, stated bluntly like that - I was working hard to save up the money to return to England from a prior quarter of a century in Australia. In order to do this, I was labouring at several jobs and trying to make maximum use of every hour in the day.
One of these jobs was as an office cleaner, and one of the premises I ended up cleaning was a place called the Writers’ Association in Adelaide, South Australia. The chief advantages of this job did not include the income from it, which was pretty pathetic really - no, the big things were the fact that they had computers (in the days long before everyone had one) and that the hours when I cleaned the offices were late at night. It would be more truthful to say early in the morning: I used to get up at about 1:00 am, stagger downstairs to the shelter where I kept my bicycle, give the bike a good shake to frighten off the five or six Huntsman spiders (big hairy things the size of a child’s hand) that regularly perched on it, ride through empty streets and open up the building in which the offices were located by about 2:00 am. Then I’d spend about 40 minutes cleaning. That left me approximately four hours until the sun came up, four hours in which no one was around, and during which computers - free for the use of public (most of whom used them during saner hours) - were available to me.
And so I’d make myself a cup of tea, brush aside the background lethargy from weird sleeping patterns arising in the back of my head like a Huntsman spider, and switch on the Macintosh desktop machine, a thing like an upturned
suitcase with a screen half the size of today’s iPad. There I would sit, typing away for the entire four hours, hardly pausing to sip the tea, which usually ended up being swilled away, cold and largely undrunk, later. This wasn't the first book I'd written but this was when I first noticed the trance state into which writing took me. I was aware of nothing, not even the clickety-clack of the keyboard, not the uncomfortable chair or the ticking of clocks, until, glancing up from the screen, I wondered if someone had entered the building without me noticing and turned the lights on. I realised an instant later that the sun had risen and that it was 7:00 am, time to go.
For that four hours each night for about ninety nights, I was lost in a world of my own creation. I ended up with about 600,000 words of a three-volume fantasy epic. Working that out backwards, it was a hefty hourly rate of words, all things considered. In another way, it was comprehensible: there were none of the writer’s worst enemies to interfere - there were no interruptions. The whole place was quiet; there wasn’t even any traffic noise outside. I was in that screen, speaking those words, feeling those emotions, sensing the created environment rather than the one in which my body sat.
One night was different, I recall. Someone appeared, another writer - or at least he claimed to be. He regaled me for about an hour with tales of how he had broken into people’s houses even when they were at home, and observed them going about their domestic duties, mowing the lawn for instance, while he watched them from inside their own houses. He thought it was hilarious - I thought it was hideous and chilling. I also resented it because it was an interruption. So I stayed as polite as possible until he realised that he wouldn’t be able to burgle the place that night, and left. I returned to the keyboard.
The three-volume fantasy epic took up more space than the Macintosh computer itself by the time I’d printed it all off. There was no internet back then: there were only floppy discs (circles of plastic, for those too young to know, upon which information was inscribed and which were portable, like CDs) which was how I carried the work back and forth each night, but in the end everything had to be printed and they had printers there too. I lugged it all home on the bike at the end of the ninety days, and then put it away and concentrated on making more money.
Later - I think some months later - I returned to the manuscript and despaired. It was awful, turgid stuff, pompous, unwieldy. Parts of it were OK - some of the dialogue was quite clever and there was an action scene which actually worked dramatically. But the bulk of it was worthless. When I was packing to return to England at the end of that year, I almost threw it out, but somehow didn’t.
It’s still with me, in fact, buried in a box. With it come memories of the trance.
I’m almost certain that all writers experience this trance state. It’s not so much a tuning out of the world around one when one is writing as it is a tuning in of another reality, a reality which temporarily assumes command. Instead of one’s senses being aimed, as it were, at matter and energy in the form of objects and activities around one, they are pointed at something else. That something else can be seen; it can be heard and felt and even tasted and smelt. It can be experienced emotionally. When in full flow, it dominates completely. I suppose it compares to dreams which have their own verisimilitude. But it’s not quite like a dream, in which, for the most part, the ‘writing’ is being done by someone or something ‘off-stage’. The writing trance is under the writer’s control.
It’s not the same kind of control as one exerts when driving a car or cooking a meal, in which external physical things are consciously moved around, but it is control nevertheless, of a sort. Although for much of the story I had no clear idea what would happen next, things did happen and I at least played a part in their direction as they were happening. Scenes, actions, dialogue, events, don’t exactly ‘come from nowhere’ but it’s hard to say where they do come from with any precision. It’s a shame that, having such powers, the writer cannot guarantee that the thing will be any good. Somehow, writing asserts a shape: the writer senses when a story is approaching its end, though how this happens is probably a mystery even as it happens. But a story does not necessarily assert its quality. While engaged in the act of writing a writer may feel that what is being created is ‘good’, only to realise afterwards how awful it actually is. For that always-all-too-brief time, the writing is all.
I’m still writing that story. Twenty-five years later, the characters, landscapes, images and ideas float about, taking new forms, rearranging themselves into new patterns. The figures who seemed background players occasionally take centre stage, while others have vanished entirely and new ones appear to replace them in new roles. The whole thing is suggestive of some kind of creative soap opera on an unconscious plane, plot-lines meandering on until they fade, new characters introduced as actors retire, background scenery re-used. One day I’ll sit down and lose myself again in a screen and finish it properly. Not between 2:00 and 7:00 am hopefully, and without the spiders.
Perhaps this time the sun will rise on a decent story.