“Don’t contemplate a life as a writer unless you have a huge appetite for solitude, and more than that, in some sense you are most alive when alone” – Martin Amis
I slip out of town late on a Friday. It’s dinner peak hour at home but Hank waves me off, children clinging to him like barnacles. I’ve packed my laptop and a stack of books and I’m heading west for the Blue Mountains. I’m escaping.
Night falls as I pass Katoomba. The road narrows here to a single lane and snakes through midnight gullies to Medlow Bath and Blackheath. My headlights dip and sweep the bends. It feels like the bush is closing around me, drawing me in.
I have a room booked at a pub in Blackheath. The New Ivanhoe Hotel commands the corner of the Great Western Highway and Govetts Leap Rd like a stout matron in a brown hat. The original Ivanhoe opened in 1889, burnt to the ground in 1932 and was rebuilt in 1940. With their country at war, people needed a drink.
Hank and I first stayed here seven years ago. We were trying for a baby but it wasn’t happening so we decided to stop for a while and take our minds off it, think about other things. We drove up from Sydney for a long weekend in April, just the two of us. It was cold and foggy. We drank a Barossa red, curled up in coveted armchairs in front of the fire. A band played jazz in the afternoon. We walked for hours through ethereal bush shrouded in mist and took a photo of ourselves, relaxed and happy, at the Ruined Castle.
Later in the car I had a funny swoony moment, like the lights flickered on and off in my head. I blamed the red. Back in Sydney, two blue lines revealed that was in fact the last wine I’d be drinking for a while. It wouldn’t be the two of us for much longer.
I haven’t been back for a few years but returning here alone to the old pub perched atop the Blue Mountains labyrinth feels like something of a homecoming.
It’s quiet for a Friday night. The bistro smells of ham hocks and split pea soup. An old man dining alone lifts a trembling spoon to his lips, like he’s leaning in for an anxious kiss. A handful of blokes nurse beers in the public bar and watch rugby on the TV.
The tiny lady behind the bar hands me a key with a shrewd once-over, “Just you, is it?”. Eyes flick from the rugby to me and then back to the rugby. I order a beer to blend in then fumble the change, scattering coins noisily across the floorboards.
Upstairs not much has changed since the forties. French doors open on to a cosy parlour; lampshades casting dusky shadows on sepia tinted photos and a pair of old velvet settees piled with tasselled cushions. There’s an empty wine glass on a side table.
The carpeted hallway stretches to the left and right, dotted with closed doors. I wonder if anyone else is staying here besides me.
Room 12 waits for me at the end of the hallway, door slightly ajar. The windows are open and the room is cold, I’ve forgotten how much the temperature drops at night in the mountains.
It’s simply furnished. A quilted bed. An overstuffed armchair. An antique wardrobe with a bevelled mirror. A bathroom with pale yellow tiles opens off to the side and the table and chair I’ve requested have been left in the middle of the room.
I drop my bag at my feet. This is my spartan retreat for the next two days. And it’s perfect.
I have come here to write. That’s the plan at least. The work has been queuing up in my head, jammed behind the everyday noise and mayhem and constant kid wrangling, behind the ever present ‘pram in the hall’. I’m craving quiet, solitude, space.
“Do you have what it takes in this sense? Do you have a willingness to be that alone?” asked Will Self in the BBC Radio series The Sins of Literature, of those aspiring to write. Admittedly the man is a bit of a Calvinist when it comes to the discipline of writing, likening his muse to a belligerent sergeant major ordering his arse into the chair daily, but he has a point.
The psychology of writing and this idea that creativity flourishes in solitude is a persistent one. Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Roald Dahl, Maya Angelou: they all form part of an illustrious line up of writers working in garden sheds and isolated huts (Angelou rented a hotel room and paid for it by the month) who have attested to the necessity of seclusion and the power of solitude to crack open the mind.
Some, like American writer Susan Sontag, find solitude essential yet intolerable. “Without others to respond to her ideas, or a book to provoke them, the ideas vanished”, wrote Emily Cooke in her essay The Lonely Ones on Sontag, Vivian Gornick and Alejandra Pizarnik – three female writers who struggled with the tension between the lure of connection and being alone to write. Observes Cooke, “But women, in modern history, feel the tension with special acuteness, we who are assumed to be talented at interaction and rudderless when alone.”
Danish author Dorthe Nors, in a conversation about Ingmar Bergman (who habitually secluded himself on the island of Faro, north of Gotland, in order to write) talks about the courage required to be alone with our human experience. “But it is the job of the artist to sit with our feelings, to be receptive to them, to examine them, turn them into narrative or paint or film.” She insists that “the artistic process unfolds in the lonely hours.”
In truth, I don’t feel alone when I’m writing. Not in a lonely sense at least. Probably because as a mother of three I am so rarely alone in the first place that it’s literally aspirational. But when I’m writing (and actually writing, not just faffing about with emails and Facebook) I turn inward, away from the world. There’s a door I step through and I have to sequester myself in order to find it, to focus the fragments of creative impetus. I can’t even tolerate music playing. Navigating past all the monkey chatter in my mind is task enough.
If I’m writing fiction, it’s the story or the characters that transport and those occasions are all the more satisfying because of their rarity. They are a gift. More often than not, I simply become absorbed in the methodical (and at times frustrating) interior task of problem-solving, of finding the right word. And then the next right word. And then the next. Until I finally complete the puzzle.
I can edit and rewrite in a storm of chaos (and usually do) but for the actual writing itself, in order to ‘hear myself think’, being alone is essential. That’s where the real work happens, when there’s nowhere to hide.
And so here I am. In a room of my own, without children, without husband, without endless demands. Even with the whole bed to myself, no sideways sleeping two year old, I have kept to my customary three-quarter-inch. Outside I can hear the village coming to life; a greeting, a bicycle bell, the sudden staccato of the pedestrian crossing. The morning sun slowly fills the blinds with a soft block of light.
I wonder about the people who have stayed in this room over the years. Travelling salesmen, returned soldiers, day-tripping couples, likely a few in the clutch of a clandestine affair. I imagine that my name is Mildred and I’m passing through town at the end of the war, a woman of mystery and means, with pin curls and a brown suitcase. My hat and nylon stockings draped over the back of the chair. The hotel has sat here stoic and silent, through raging bush fires and icy squalls, and housed us all.
I kick off the quilt, restless. I’m suddenly anxious that the writing won’t come, that I won’t be able to summon the muse. Considering the logistics involved in organising this weekend, I’m feeling the pressure to produce.
Stepping out into the bright Saturday morning, I buy a coffee and croissant from the cafe across the road but the noise and bustle soon beats me back to the quiet stillness of room 12. It’s a relief to close the door. I avert my eyes from the laptop sitting open with cheery optimism by the window, take out my Womankind magazine with Frida on the cover and sprawl across the bed like a teenager.
Yet despite my best efforts to distract myself and ignore the task at hand, it won’t leave me be. Mildred is tapping her foot impatiently downstairs in the bar, waiting for me to get started, to get in the chair. I know nothing can happen until I do. That door is not going to find itself.
I put Frida to one side and sit down to write.
Over to you my dear readers, how do you plug in creatively? Do you need to take yourself far to write or create? Or is solitude an empty room for you? As always, I’d love to hear from you so please leave a comment below.
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