During the fall-out from a particularly painful second divorce (second divorces being all the more excruciating because they draw an awful lot of power from the preceding trauma of the first divorce), I decided that, to try and ‘convalesce’, I would go ‘off-grid’ - I would develop a lifestyle which would enable me to side-step as completely as possible what was considered ‘normal’ by society, and take off into the wilderness in a mobile home.
This took some planning: first of all, I had to work out the mechanics. Was it actually possible to live one’s life in caravan-style and remain a productive and income-earning member of society? How would everything work - electricity, water, waste, home comforts? What were the liabilities of such a lifestyle? Over a few months, I worked this all out. Part of this was calculating how to take myself off the databases of anyone who required a fixed address - I wouldn't have one. There was a certain satisfaction in performing that 'vanishing act'. And so, step by step I figured it all out. Finances fell into place, questions were answered, logistics sorted. In the late summer of that year, I purchased a sizeable motorhome and awaited its delivery with excitement.
By the time it finally arrived, I had culled down my possessions, the accumulated flotsam and jetsam of about thirty years, two marriages and over twenty house-moves. Some things I had thrown out altogether, but the bulk of my ‘stuff’, including all the furniture, a comics collection of about 5,000 items and a sizeable library of books, had to go into storage. I had methodically been through everything: I reckoned that I only really needed to install into the motorhome (known as the TARDIS to my students at that time) about 10% of what I actually owned.
The day came. Piece by piece, I brought aboard the things I considered vital to everyday living: clothes, domestic supplies, a certain amount of food (the thing had a working fridge), a television (considered an essential at the time) and what not. It all fitted in neatly. The rest I packed up and placed in a secure room in a storage facility.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because there’s a certain parallel in it to writing a novel. As it happened, in the following three years during which time I toured the country, returning each working week to a paying job as a teacher, I found that, in practise, I only actively used about 10% of what was in the motorhome.
That means that, out of all my accumulated possessions, I had effectively only used about 1% in day-to-day life. The rest was just not touched, not even missed. What function did it then serve? It wasn’t as though I wanted to get rid of it entirely - though I know some people for whom that would be the logical conclusion, and fair enough. I just didn’t need the vast bulk of what I owned from day to day. Its purpose was not linear, you might say: looking at life as a timeline, I didn’t require 99% of my things to move from one day to the next.
You might think that my message in all this for writers is ‘Edit, edit, edit down to the bare bones of your narrative’. And there’s some sense in doing that. But that’s not my main point. I still didn't want to get rid of all that stuff. I think that, apart from what those three years taught me about Life (which was extensive and will possibly be the subject of future articles) they can also be an analogy about fiction: though we might require the central thrust of a work of fiction to be concerned with the action, the forward movement of the characters and the plot, the ‘story’, as it were, there remains a place for the rest, the background, the untouched and perhaps even unsaid landscape behind the linear motion of the plot. We might as writers want to focus the reader’s attention on the moment, what actually happens in each and every scene of a novel, but if we were to permanently strip away everything other than that moment, we risk losing something intangible, perhaps inexpressible.
If I had dispensed with everything except those few items that I used on a daily basis in my motorhome years, what might I have become? There is certainly an argument for minimalism in fiction and in Life, but there is also an argument for colour, for the backdrop, for the suggested history and memory and depth of a story as well as its dynamism.
My years in the motorhome yielded many revelations. They culminated in a third marriage, which swallowed and made nothing of the traumas of the past. Going ‘off grid’ really worked, and I highly recommend it: but having a nest works too.