“But how… do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?” (Annie Dillard)
Once, in order to start a book, I had to move into a small room. A house was too large. My book and I could not find each other in a house. In a house I could not prepare a space inside myself for my book to enter. Too many distractions were available, distractions which led to the belief that I would rather live than write. I was too full of life. I had to get rid of life.
I had to get to a place where, when I heard my husband in the kitchen, I could not say to myself, ‘I think I’ll go to the kitchen and talk with John.’
The room was near a lake. I took only one suitcase and left no forwarding address. In the room was one bed, one chair. I bought an electric kettle and a jar of instant, with caffeine. There was one window, before which I sat at a table to write. The window looked out on an inner courtyard that was covered with snow. It was January. In such a place, under such conditions, my book and I would have to make friends with each other in order to survive. We were all we had. At the very least we could not help but bump into each other. So I thought.
Most of the time it crouched in a corner and sulked. When we met by accident at the electric kettle it averted its eyes.
The woman at the front desk was elderly and spoke little. To her I said, ‘looks like more snow.’ ‘Yep,’ she said. I spoke to no one else except the woman in the bakery. To her I said, ‘I’ll take one of those please.’ She placed a bagel in a plain brown wrapper.
Once, a shadowy presence passed my door. Like a cool breeze it wafted down the corridor. Once, sighs and whispers drifted through my wall. Once, there was only a sigh and the creak of bedsprings.
I went out and walked around a pond. I went back to my room and stared at the blank page. I went out and stared at the lake. I listened to the cry of gulls. I watched the boats come in.
The lake was wintry grey, the sky was low, everything was colourless. I was like a mental patient who for her own good has to be deprived of sensory stimulation. The conditions were perfect to create a space inside myself for my book to enter.
After a week or a year, the lake appeared in my dreams. When I sat at my table and closed my eyes I could see it on the screen of my mind. That was when I knew that the lake had moved inside me. It had found a place there where it settled into a comfortable position. ‘I want to express myself,’ it said to me. So I let it.
When it was safe to do so I called up a friend. He said, ‘come for the weekend,’ so I did.
He lived on a hill and my car wouldn’t make it up because, of course, it was winter in Canada. My friend came out in his woolly jacket and toque and threw a spoonful of gravel under each front tire. I revved the motor. I moved an inch. He threw two more spoonfuls of gravel. I moved two inches. In this manner I made it to the top of the hill and his house. Once inside the house, he poured me a stiff drink. That’s what I call a true friend.
He gave me the subject for my book. Writing a novel is throwing a spoonful of gravel under your front wheels an inch at a time. I made a few notes.
When I returned to my room, for a few days my book pouted at my leaving it alone. ‘It was only overnight for god’s sake,’ I said. It didn’t answer, but when we bumped into each other at the kettle and instant coffee it did not avoid me. When I dared to turn on the television one evening, it sat on the bed beside me. We watched Seinfeld. I had never before watched Seinfeld. I found myself laughing and turned guiltily to my book. It didn’t seem to mind. It crawled into bed beside me. We slept curled into each other.
I thought maybe I could go home. I would have to be careful that nothing jostled the space inside me where my book had taken up residence. I would have to be constantly on guard to defend it but, truth to tell, I was longing for a good cup of coffee.