The following is reposted from the 4th Estate blog to coincide with the UK release of Birds Art Life (Death).
A few years ago, I became an air writer. I was not bereft of ideas. I was simply unable to commit any of them to paper. Instead, I wrote paragraphs in my head. This may have been interesting in a conceptual John Cage sort of way, but it was more than a little frustrating.
There were reasons for this stoppage. My father had recently suffered two strokes, and even when the pressures of emergency care subsided into a quieter form of durational care, I found myself in a permanent state of vigil and anxiety. I had grown so accustomed to being interrupted by emergency calls and hospital news, I began interrupting myself whenever I sat down to work.
Unable to write in any sustained fashion, my desk had become a place of grim wriggling.
There are many things to hamper creativity. We know something of the effects on the mind of living in a sped-up digital culture, of having our attention minced and sautéed by news and social media, but there is also the effect on the mind of receiving bad news, of simply being spread too thin. Sometimes we cannot edit out the distractions because the distractions are actually pressing and essential and maybe it is our project in life is to be decent and loving humans as much as good writers. This is hardly news. As Virginia Woolf noted in A Room of One’s Own, the books we write are “not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.”
I know of very few writers or artists who can claim the privilege of ideal writing conditions. A perfect writing day comes around so rarely. Our days are the really just the sum of the time we “waste” meaninglessly and or “give away” meaningfully.
Eventually I decided to leave the solitude of my own room. I began taking ‘bird walks’ with a local musician (as I recount in my book).
I also began walking to local cafes to write in the company of others. The ambient din quieted the noise in my brain. On warm days my favorite café opened its door to house sparrows. They would hop about my feet as I worked.
I am back to working at home. I write in a tiny area at the peak of our Victorian house. (If you want to know why, listen to “Little Room” by The White Stripes and/or read my chapter on “Smallness”.) There is just enough room in my attic office for a long desk. My cats are usually underfoot. My desk is cluttered with pencils, photos, bird objects and, right now, a cover design for a picture book I did with the wonderful Barcelona-based illustrator Júlia Sardà. The best thing about my attic nook is that all the windows on our top floor are single paned so I am always accompanied by the sound of birds calling from the trees.