While we continue to pay daily tribute to International PEN’s 50 imprisoned writers through 26:50, I find myself constantly trying to imagine how they managed to write; where they found and concealed their materials, how they avoided the scrutiny of guards, from what miraculously still-luminous corners of their hearts they managed to summon the words.
I picture damp, dingy cells and furtive scribblings on shreds of paper with pencil stubs, scrapings on prison walls with bent nails, even etchings with pins on crumbs of soap, all from minds crammed to bursting with precious ideas. Yet these extraordinary constraints often gave rise to work of great power and even beauty.
In the free world we have to engineer our own constraints. The choice of where and how, let alone what, we write is something we take for granted. Here’s Hemingway: ‘It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write.’
Most unusually for rural Scotland, I live within walking distance of both a small community arts centre with an excellent café, and a mainline railway station. These days I write less and less in my converted garage at home, and more and more in either the café or on the train. In both cases I draw energy from my surroundings.
On the train it’s both the movement itself that encourages my words to flow, and the sense of moving through a world I can see but from which I am temporarily isolated. In the café it’s the feeling of being fixed in a particular corner of the world but not really of it; I can observe it at close quarters if I want to, but I don’t have to engage with it.
In both cases there’s a sense of being removed but connected at the same time, and in both cases I feel nourished by the humanity that flows around me as I write, as if I’m being borne along on the tide of life. It brings an odd feeling of completeness, a sense almost of inner homecoming, that seems very conducive to creativity.
Try it when you next have something to write – find a café or take a train ride. And if you do, spare a thought for those writers who weren’t, or aren’t, so lucky.