How do I write this without coming across as a lonely, isolated and introverted drunkard? Perhaps best not to protest too much as they say...No, I’ll stop you there, I am not any of those, full time anyway, in fact I’m going to try and convince you of the merits of something I only started doing this year, something that may easily be seen as those things, but in practice can be the opposite.
It began in a long ago abandoned land, full of dark corners that no stranger should explore…my bedroom. I had decided to write as much as I could and finish my first short story but as a novice and unpracticed at prolonged spells of concentration (even with 6 years of Open University behind me the masterly scholar had not developed, some may say regressed) I was still in the habit of having the television or radio on in the background. I thought I needed something to relax to, something that would avoid the pressure of silence and for a while I managed it. I was so excited by the realization I had found focus to work that my attention wasn’t drawn to watch the television or listen to the radio; it was simply a background hum. That lasted perhaps a couple of weeks. I had the same routine, I would get home from work, have something to eat and then disappear into my bedroom, switch the television or radio on and settle down to write on the laptop.
Then of course, as most of you reading this will predict, the early adrenaline of committed action slowed and I found myself snapping out of ten or twenty minute phases of comatose staring-at-the-telly that I didn’t even realise I was doing…the focus would be broken.
That’s when I decided to get rid of the T.V. You see, the radio wasn’t as much of a problem. Long ago I knew that I could listen to anything without words and still carry on doing whatever I was doing, be that studying, writing or reading. If it was regular radio then I would find myself focusing on the words and there was nothing I could do to prevent it, so I became a bit of a jazz and classical fan. Not so much as I could reel off names to you here, but enough to by several albums and compilations and it really worked, I could and I still can, happily work while lyric-free music plays in the background, in fact it actually helps, I like having music on and jazz and classical can motivate me without being disrupting. However, the tv was impossible, I don’t need to tell you how easy it is to be hypnotized and I knew that if I wanted to really make the most of the evening hours I couldn’t have that temptation near me. So for the first time I can remember I was without a television set.
It works! I would advise anyone that wouldn’t get lynched by the family for the mere suggestions of it, to get rid of their tv. The evenings now seemed like decent periods of time for myself, rather than just quick nap sessions between work. Now when I got home, I would eat and then go to write and not have the automatic switching on of the tv and my productivity increased dramatically.
Let’s skip forward a month or so and something else now plagues me. Everything at home is how I want it, there are no excuses not to write, there are no interruptions or temptations…in fact, there was no life at all! I had the feeling I was too isolated, there was no movement, no noise, no feeling of time passing. It was strange as it was what I had wanted but it had an unwelcome displacement effect; it was like I was watching myself write from the outside, I was watching the development of my own story. Sounds odd I realise but it was beginning to be a distraction, I felt the pressure of the situation combating my feelings of wanting to still be an active man, going out and seeing friends, going out to eat and things like that. I would stand up sometimes and warn my reflection not to become a hermit, I could see it was easily done, I was having a tough time in my personal life and it was easier to stay in and wish the weeks away than it was to go out and have to pretend I was okay. The danger with that is that I was convincing myself it was the best thing for me, I was more productive and focused than ever, but I was also withdrawing into myself and the balance between feeling good because I was really enjoying the writing and feeling depressed because I felt the best years of my life were slipping away from me was tough.
This is where I was getting to, took a while sorry. The pub. Hear me out before concluding I became a barfly to drink my woes away! It was the opposite I promise!
I still wanted to write but I didn’t want to lock myself away every night so I decided I would see what it was like to try and write in the pub. I am lucky, there is a very nice, quiet and welcoming pub near me that doesn’t have the flashing lights of fruit machines, or have football on big screens, etc. so this was a possibility. If you don’t have one like that near you, then this may not help you out much. I went in one night, laptop in hand and ordered…a coke.
How many of you regularly go into pubs or bars and don’t drink? You may be driving or you may take it in turns with your partner or sometimes just quickly meeting friends before going on somewhere else so on occasion you may just order a soft drink, but let me tell you this, walking into a pub knowing you are going to be there for a few hours, on your own, resisting the urge to order a pint was not easy! I had to start that way though, what I feared was it becoming a replacement for the television, an automatic movement, walk into the pub and order a drink. If I intended on coming here regularly to write I was not going to become an alcoholic. We all know people who drink too much and I’m not going to go into that here but it was something I was not going to let happen to me and if I started off drinking alone then I felt it would be a slippery slope.
So coke in hand I walked to a small table in the corner and opened the laptop. There were a few stares. It was natural and expected. The pub wasn’t packed but there were maybe two dozen people spread around and all of them were drinking and chatting as normal. There was no one else drinking coke in the corner working on a laptop, I was definitely the only one…
It took me mere minutes to relax and get over the fact I had now turned into that person that everyone avoids sitting near when walking into a coffee shop or café or pub (or nutter on a bus as the sketch goes), you know the type, something slightly unsettling about them that just gives off the, ‘sit next to me and I will interact with you.’ You never know what they will do, from just start a conversation to jump on you and start chewing your ears, so you just sit somewhere else and wait for other unsuspecting customers to go near and watch the fall out. Anyway, I was now that person, and I was okay with it because it felt great! I was totally comfortable on my own, I found it very easy to concentrate and the revelation was that the pub became my background noise, just like a tv or radio at home except it wasn’t stealing my attention. I happily typed away while all the clinking of glasses, small chatter and rustling of chairs of people coming and going went on around me. I felt like I was both part of society and observer at the same time; I wouldn’t get distracted by people’s conversations, in fact I could dip in and out when I wanted, which was fun! There would be some absolute corkers of comment here and there…both pleasant and not so…sometimes funny, sometimes disturbingly stupid but it didn’t matter to me, it was an energy I felt able to draw on while not getting involved. So it had worked, I had found a new place to write.
Alcohol. I didn’t go every night and still don’t, sometimes I feel happy just sitting on my chair and writing at home, sometimes I’m in the library, sometimes I’m in the coffee shop, but when it comes to night time, the only option really is the pub if I want to go outside. Can’t write in the parks or open spaces, it’s too cold this time of year and I can’t write round friend’s houses, it’s chat and dvd time within seconds. So when I can’t settle at home I am confident and happy enough to go to the pub. Now, the first few times went fine and I would either order an orange juice or coke or perhaps a sparkling water and get on with it. Then one night, I was typing away when the urge for a glass of red wine came over me, just a glass I thought, a large glass…maybe two. It must have been one of the nicest glasses of red I’ve ever drank! I was sat there on my own, headphones in, glass in hand and reading through my efforts. The ridiculous nature of the scene then hit me and I got the giggles, what an absolute typical scenario someone thinks of when imagining a writer! I only needed to transfer the scene to a Parisian café or a New York bar and it would have been complete. What on Earth did I think I was doing! I’m a total novice giving off the pretense I’m writing the next Booker winner. That night when I went home, I was slightly intoxicated by both the wine and the sense of place I had given myself. I imagined doing that every night, I imagined not working and having the days to myself wandering around London and then retiring to the pub to write at night, it was a pleasant sensation that was shattered the following morning when popping aspirin and cradling my sore head on the packed rush hour train to work.
So there is a warning. How well do you know yourself? How disciplined are you? How focused on your dreams are you? It’s just like the trap I fell into when I was 18 working in the city. Just because you are working in the city does not mean you are working, ‘in the city’ if you get what I mean. Don’t kid yourself you are further ahead than you actually are and don’t fall into a lifestyle that suits your dreams but not your achievements. After a few nights working in the pub I realised that I couldn’t simply drink every night, even if it just was one glass. There is nothing wrong with that and I’m not preaching anyone on alcohol consumption here but for me it was becoming more about the illusion I was creating than it was the work I was creating. I liked the image of being this lone person writing in the corner with a glass of wine and keeping himself to himself and then when the occasional person asked what I was up to I would say I’m writing. That wasn’t what it was about though, so I refocused and went back to having cokes and juices, and every now and again if I did feel like a pint I would have one, but purely because I felt like it, not because it was a part of my routine. It’s worked out really well, I can get a lot of work done, it’s comfortable, close to my home and it’s nice to be around people rather than isolated all the time. To any writers out there that sometimes feel stuck for a place to work I would recommend it but with a firm proviso, make sure you work! Don’t become one of the regulars and spend an hour chatting to the locals or bar staff before sitting down to write, don’t drink too much if at all, don’t go to a place that isn’t suitable, if it’s got sports on tv or is full of 18 year olds slamming shots then you’ll be too distracted.
Lastly, don’t fool yourself into looking more like a ‘writer’ than actually being a writer. If you haven’t trained properly and you step into the ring you are going to get knocked out. That’s what I tell myself about pretty much everything.
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