As I write this in the early summer of 2020, going out is not, in most places, particularly encouraged, and in some parts of the world mostly forbidden. I’ve seen in several places the suggestion that confinement might be good for writers, that creativity should bloom under restriction, that – for those of us fortunate enough to be weathering a pandemic in sequestration – these weeks should bring opportunity. That is not my experience. My writing practice has always begun in museums, with conversations, on walks. Once a book has taken root in a museum or gallery, its ideas shaped by the expertise of others, I do most of my best thinking on my bike and most of my best not-thinking while running. I prefer to write in cafés and libraries, on trains and at airports. For me as for many women and perhaps especially mothers, ‘home’ is not where I feel free to prioritise my own intellectual and creative work.
There is, I find, no substitute for going out. I am not willing to pretend that any on-screen experience mediated by global technology companies and monitored by goodness-knows-whom allows the creative relationship with the world that you can develop by real-life encounters with material culture, the natural world and real live other people in the flesh. There are nonetheless ways we can begin to write the world without travelling, and most of my favourite writing exercises for workshops are deliberately planned for any environment; even without a pandemic, it’s unhelpful to most of us to say that the only or most inspiring landscapes are inaccessible to the urban majority.
Whether you’re shielding, locked down or temporarily housebound by lack of bus fare or a sleeping baby, try this:
Step outside, or put your head out of the window. Close your eyes. What do you smell? What is it like? Write a few sentences (you can open your eyes for that part). Step out again, close your eyes. Listen, for as long as you can. What do you hear? Be exact: wind, birds, traffic (cars? Buses? Trains?), music (what sort, how far away?), conversation (who, what language?), lawnmowers? Listen as if to a symphony, identify the layers of sound, think about the orchestra of wherever you find yourself. It doesn’t matter if it’s conventionally pleasing, that’s not the point. Right now I can hear my neighbour’s vacuum cleaner, a passing car, the cat snoring, wind, my teenage son tapping to music in his headphones, an intermittent rumble I can’t name. Find similes, doesn’t matter if they’re silly.
This may not feel like writing fiction – it isn’t, really – but it’s developing the observational and literary skills you need to build a world and you can do it wherever you are and in whatever time you have.
This article is from a series of ‘How To...’ guides for emerging and developing writers, written in 2020/21 by Sarah Moss.
Sarah Moss is the author of seven novels and a memoir of her year living in Iceland. Her most recent novel Ghost Wall was longlisted for the Women’s Prize. She was born in Glasgow and grew up in the north of England. After moving between Oxford, Canterbury, Reykjavik, West Cornwall and the Midlands, she is about to settle in Ireland. She teaches English and creative writing at University College Dublin.