Taormina, Sicily: Etna early in the morning.
I don’t really like holidays. To misquote from the film Withnail and I if I am on holiday I usually feel it is a mistake and I agree wholeheartedly with Henry David Thoreau who said:
“Beware all enterprises that require new clothes.”
Some people book holidays and then look forward to them. When I book a holiday it looms over me like a dark tower filled with bats. But recently I’ve come to the conclusion that instead of dwelling too much on the catastrophes that I am absolutely certain will occur when I leave home, I should adopt another policy which, for want of a better expression, I will term embracing disruption. And I thought I’d blog a bit here about habit and disruption, as it relates to my writing life.
So, first of all, habit. God knows how many hours it has taken me to develop a writing habit. What I do know is that one of the most difficult writing years of my life was when I took a year off and stupidly told everyone I was going to write a novel. It was awful. Everyone kept asking me how it was going and as far as I could tell it wasn’t going very well at all. I hadn’t done this before and I struggled. But at the end of the year I had a first draft. I thought it was terrible but at least I had written something and I had established some sort of writing habit. That novel was never published but I did complete and polish it. It was a step in the right direction. I was no longer a person who wanted to write a novel. I was a person who had written one. In terms of my own identity as a writer that made a huge difference to my confidence levels.
The Greek Theatre in Taormina, Sicily.
Now I know that if I have a pen in my hand and a blank sheet of paper I will generally start writing in the same way that I will at a certain time each day automatically brush my teeth. I don’t have to think about it. Of course, what I write may be utter gibberish but I don’t really mind. Somerset Maugham said that he would just sit there and write his own name until something came to him. I’ve never tried that one but I’m happy to write myself into something. I don’t suffer from first sentence perfectionism; I’ve written too many awful ones in my time to have any illusions that what comes out first will be useful or kept. I just jump in and blunder around in my mind until I come across something that takes my fancy and then I follow where it leads.
Taormina, Sicily: Etna at sunset.
While on holiday I was reading The Writer’s Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes. It’s a great book and so is the one he wrote about writing and fear, The Courage to Write. I was reading it while the plane was coming into land at Gatwick and being buffeted by the end of Hurricane Gonzalo. The experience was not unlike being a dry pea in an empty tin can, tied to the ear of a horse, competing in the Grand National. So I was feeling little hope and lots of fear when this sentence caught my eye.
“Regular work habits and high tolerance for tedium characterize working writers.”
Hmm, I thought, that sounds just a tiny bit familiar. Maybe a high tolerance for tedium contributes to my low tolerance for holidays. Because on holiday everything is different and new. The temperature, the food, the money, the language and the interesting range of biting insects. There is also the fact that one is a tourist. Writers, on the whole, like to observe and that’s much harder to do as a tourist because you are the observed. You’re bound to be because you are a source of cash to the local tradesmen, restaurants, tourist guides and postcard sellers. This loss of the ability to fade into the background makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s a big disruption to how I generally am in the world.
There was a bar just off the Corso Umberto. White cushions on the steps, neon cocktails and the super cool crowd dressed in hippy chic. Unfortunately we had to pass them on the way back to our hotel. I tried smiling at some of the more hatchet faced ones a few times and then gave up and decided, charitably, that Botox was probably inhibiting their normal facial expressions. Near the end of our stay, as I was puffing past them, puce-faced and sweaty, I saw a very large, reddy-brown cockroach lever itself out of a drain and begin to climb quickly up towards them. It was a lovely moment. It reminded me of the scene in the film Victor Victoria when the impoverished Victoria Grant, played by Julie Andrews, goes and has an enormous meal in a grand Parisian restaurant secure in the knowledge that she has a cockroach in a matchbox that she can throw in her salad and use as an excuse not to pay. The cockroach escapes and crawls up the leg of a large woman and the whole restaurant erupts in chaos.
The gardens in Taormina.
So, had I gone on holiday by mistake? No, of course not and it would be arrogant to suggest it. Taormina in Sicily is spectacularly beautiful and it has a history of attracting writers from Oscar Wilde to D.H. Lawrence to Tennessee Williams. It’s also supposed to be the place where Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I enjoyed the sun setting over Etna (very beautiful), the temples of Agrigento (spectacular), and the mosaics of Piazza Armerina (you must go). And I really enjoyed a large cockroach heading towards the cool crowd.
I also came back with an idea for a novel that would never have come to me if I hadn’t visited the gardens in Taormina. Showing, I think, that a little bit of disruption is good for the creative juices.
When we got home there was a postcard waiting for us from a friend who’d been on holiday in Crete where the temperatures had been rather higher than she’d expected. She wrote:
“So hot I’ve aged 100 years and taken up knitting.”
Now that’s a holiday I can relate to!