Thursday, 28 August 2014

De-isolating the writer

The isolated writer

Writers certainly need solitude and we have to resign ourselves to being alone quite often. In addition we have to have a unique voice and contribute something to our world something that no one else can. Inevitably we work alone.
I’m also an academic and there is an echo of this there. I’m working in my office alone today. None of my immediate colleagues are in the building and even if they were we may not see each other.
Daily I spend between six and ten hours working alone.

The open door policy            

My study
My husband's office
My office at the University of Salford
                                                                          I often work at home. So does my husband. We have a study each in the house. We leave our doors ajar if we are available. They’re firmly shut when we mustn’t be disturbed. This is usually when one of us is on the phone. On a day when I work from home I’ll spend up to ten hours in that room.

We use a similar system at the university. Our office doors are usually left a little ajar so that colleagues know they can pop in. If the door’s shut it means we’re on the phone or have a meeting going on – perhaps with a student or a colleague. Office days are six and eight hours long though out of term-time if I’m in the university it’s for a meeting or a training course. I have two meetings today.  


My bird-feeder

At a recent visit to a RSPB site I bought a bird-feeder that attaches to the window. We used to have a tree whose branches came right up my window. It had to go because it was damaging the house. I missed the birds. And then we found this wonderful contraption that fits by suction to the window. I keep a supply of bird-feed in my study and fill the tray at regular intervals.
It’s visited by blue-tits, finches, and sparrows. A magpie tried out the other day but of course he was much too big.
These little visitors are very cheering and combat that feeling of loneliness. One youngster yesterday didn’t flinch when I put my face right up against the window. He just carried on pecking away.
Cheeky chappy

The inevitable cat

I say inevitable because many writers seem to have cats and we’ve pretty well always had them too. Magic is rather special. She’s been known to try out the keyboard. Most of the time she sits and supervises either my husband or myself. However, she has sometimes disrupted his international conference calls. She mainly understands the open-shut door rule, though will occasionally she will thunder on the door to be let in, then thunder on the door to be let out, making it clear that in this occasion she does not like the door being shut.
She comes in very handy when I’m doing the read-out-loud edit.  
Magic, supervising my husband


I have a great number of genuine writerly-friends on Twitter and Facebook. These two social-networking sites, along with Linked-in are very useful for writers anyway. I’ve found plenty of opportunities via all three. Yet there main use to me is as punctuation points in my hours of isolation.
For instance, when I’ve finished this blog post, before I go back to my major work in progress I’ll dally for a while – ten minutes or so- on Twitter. Another time it will be Facebook. I’ll say what’s on my mind, and reply to a few other posts. I may read an interesting blog and comment. I may admire a friend’s Tweetpic. I may join in a conversation.
I used to be a high school teacher and I actually miss the staff-room which Id’ visit on average four times a day. My visits to the networks replicate that somehow and the many friends and acquaintances I meet there are no less real even though most of them I’ve never met face to face.
My Twitter timeline

My critique group

We meet roughly once a month and I try and get there as often as possible. As I comment  regularly on my students’ work and as I edit for some publishers and am edited by others, I’m quite used to giving and receiving feedback. The value in these meetings for me personally is actually more to do with being amongst like-minded people.

Other writerly events

These include conferences, book launches and festivals. They can be very interesting. However, I issue a caution here. They can be costly and time-consuming. They can actually take you too much away from that precious solitude. Each opportunity needs to be weighed up carefully. I’m currently making my choices about the Manchester Literature Festival.

Singing with a choir 


Ordsall Acappella Singers at Victoria Baths 

A bit of a curve ball, perhaps. Yet a surprising number of writers do do this. Another writing friend recommended amateur dramatics. However that’s a bigger commitment and you have to learn all those words – perhaps more difficult for someone who is spending several hours a day working with words.
I have to add we do have to learn words and music but it’s less onerous as we learn by listening and doing.
Singing has many health benefits anyway. Physically, you’re breathing better and holding a good posture. Several studies have pinpointed mental health benefits.  Certainly no matter how gloomy life has become, my regular choir rehearsals always lift my spirits.
Over and above all of this, however, here I am doing something totally different from what I do as a writer and as an academic: I am working closely with other people and literally harmonising. I am no longer the isolated expert.
I’ve been in this choir for almost seven years. There are over 40 of us. I’ve gained a lot of friends. It’s refreshing that they’re not writers though they appreciate my writing: I write their blog.                          

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