We all know that writing comes out of a man or a woman sitting alone in a room with the telephone off the hook, a cup of coffee and in the good old days, a cigarette.Ben Hoyle, writing in the Times, points out that the remarks expand on thoughts expressed in Lessing’s Nobel lecture on December 7*, which was recorded and played to the Swedish Academy hall in Stockholm because of the 88 year-old author's ill health. In this Lessing said:
Writers are often asked, How do you write? With a processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand? But the essential question is, "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas – inspiration.(* I'm so glad that Hoyles' piece sent me off to read the whole lecture. What she says about the hunger for books and thirst for knowledge in Africa compared to western indifference among plenty, is something I can personally vouch for after living in Nigeria and teaching in a school as poorly equipped as the one she describes.)
If this writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn.
When writers talk to each other, what they ask each other is always to do with this space, this other time. "Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?"
Let us jump to an apparently very different scene. We are in London, one of the big cities. There is a new writer. We, cynically enquire, How are her boobs? Is she good-looking? If this is a man, Charismatic? Handsome? We joke but it is not a joke.
This new find is acclaimed, possibly given a lot of money. The buzzing of paparazzi begins in their poor ears. They are feted, lauded, whisked about the world. Us old ones, who have seen it all, are sorry for this neophyte, who has no idea of what is really happening.
He, she is flattered, pleased.
But ask in a year's time what he or she is thinking: I've heard them: "This is the worst thing that could have happened to me.
Some much publicised new writers haven't written again, or haven't written what they wanted to, meant to.
And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears. "Have you still got your space? Your sole, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold onto it, don't let it go."