Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Lonely Garret

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My guest this week is my friend Kathleen Delaney, author of the delightful Ellen McKenzie mystery series.
Most people picture authors of years gone by as recluses huddled in an attic, no heat, no food, scribbling their lives away, driven to write. They shut out the world and lived in their imagination, creating characters they hoped would live forever on the pages of their manuscripts. They sharpened their quill pens, dipped them in India ink and crossed out all of the lines and phrases they didn’t like. Re-writing was a real challenge in those days.
I’m not sure how accurate the garret thing was or how many authors warmed their freezing hands over a fire of discarded manuscript pages, but they probably had fewer distractions. Authors today have a harder time isolating themselves. Today, we have email, Facebook, Twitter, smart phones, competing for our attention.
There is one thing writers of today and yesteryear have in common, and that is the need to find a quiet place where they can concentrate, where their imaginations can run wild, where they can retreat from the real world and inhabit a world they create, where they meet characters that live only in their imagination until they’re brought to life on the pages of a manuscript. The kind of quiet writers got in their garret is gone. The world intrudes constantly with the ring of the phone, or the ding that says we have another email message.
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Charles Dickens barricaded himself in his study and, I’ve heard, was able to so completely immerse himself in his story his pages were stained with tears as he wrote of little Oliver asking for another bowl of porridge or the death of Little Nell. I wonder, though, if some of those tears might have been frustration at broken concentration as a child played under his desk. But, on he wrote. Agatha Christie had a quiet home in rural England, but she spent a lot of time traveling with her husband in third world countries. Trains were often noisy, dirty, jerky affairs, filled with strange sounds, smells and animals. Yet, she turned out book after book. I’m told that Charlotte Armstrong, an author of many mysteries during the 1940’s and 50’s, had so many distractions at home she’d get in her car and drive a block away from home, lock herself in and write. And that was before cell phones.
I don’t think any of them locked themselves in an attic. They may not have had Facebook but they all had distractions and they all got a lot done. Maybe, today, all we need is the will power to turn off the TV, put the phone on answering machine, ignore the ding that says we have mail, and write. Ignore the real world for a few hours. It will still be there when we return from the one we’re creating, from visiting the people whose story we are trying to tell. If Dickens could ignore a screaming child under his desk, we can ignore Sponge Bob turned as high as the volume will go. At least, we can try. If that doesn’t work, I’m told Denny’s is open all night, that it’s pretty quiet after midnight and they give free refills on coffee.
After a rewarding career as a Realtor in California, Kathleen moved to South Carolina and writes full time. She now lives in a wonderful 100-year-old house, with a wraparound front porch, where she and her dogs can wile away a summer afternoon, and a big office, lined with bookcases, where she can spend her days writing. And, as always, reading. You can find more about Kathleen and her books at http://www.kathleendelaney.net/


Polly said...

Great post, Kathy. You've hit on the biggest problem writers face today, and it's not TV or the Internet. It's their own lack of discipline to shut them off. I'm guilty, I admit. Now after checking one more thing online, I'm going to close down. Do you hear that, Polly. (My inner voice is saying, yeah, yeah. Right!)

Ellis Vidler said...

Me too, Kathy. There are so many distractions and I let them ruin my concentration. I want a quiet place and the discipline to turn off the Internet and email. That lonely garret looks pretty good.

Darla said...

Thank you for this shift of perception; we always seem to think that someone else must have had it 'easier'... but it really does come down to will power and discipline, eh? At least most of the time. After decades spent on a rigid schedule of working with attorneys, I have to admit that once I left that behind, I'm not so good at structuring my time and enforcing discipline upon myself. So my writing takes a while, and then more time, and then I forget what I've written, and then back to rewriting... LOL

Ellis, after enjoying Haunting Refrain so much, I have downloaded Cold Comfort but I'm saving it for the long plane ride to Crete this fall (where I know I will receive much creative inspiration, and even space to myself to write).

Jacqueline Seewald said...

There are so many distractions, it's easy to make excuses not to work--and here I am social networking!

jenny milchman said...

A locked attic sometimes sounds pretty nice. My own personal solution is to write on a non-Internet enabled machine. I stumbled on this method by starting out as a writer in pre-Internet days (so my work is still done in Windows 98). Other than that, seems to work pretty well! This was a nice post to read, Kathy & Ellis--I enjoyed the comments, too.

Kathleen Kaska said...

Enjoyed your blog, Kathleen, and love your name. As long as I have my coffee, ear plugs, and blanket, I can write.

Ellis Vidler said...

Darla, thanks! Hope you enjoy it. I expect to have a new one out in November. I should be working on it now but like Jacqueline, here I am on that seductive siren, the Internet. :-)

By the way, Kathy is offline right now but will check in when she can.