Thursday, 19 September 2013
Deep Sea Diving
Writing intensively for an hour or two is, on the surface of it, a little bit like suspending life. Your body temperature drops; your pulse slows. Peripheral concerns and worries rise up and away as you drop deeper. You don’t eat or drink. Communication with the outside world shuts down. Breathing changes. And writing with headphones on, as I do, is like a kind of additional sensory deprivation; you can’t hear the TV, the movement of people in the house, the kids in the street, the distant ice-cream van.
Coming back out of that intensive period of concentration is like surfacing again and dragging in a great ragged breath of air. It’s weirdly disorientating to realise that life has moved on; things have happened. I remember once as a kid, waking up and coming down the stairs at nine or ten at night and being shocked to see my parents still up, talking and watching TV. What – life goes on while I sleep? Incredible! All these years later, I still feel something close to that as I swim up to the land of the living after a couple of hours in the writing deeps.
Then there’s the challenge of shaking off one world and re-entering another. Rise too fast between them and you get the bends – you’re blood’s full of bubbles and you find you’ve brought up a whole host of stuff with you to the surface – it’s clinging to your wetsuit and struggling to breathe and the change in pressure makes it apt to explode. It can take an hour or more for the brain to realign and everything to seem normal again. Even then, you might still find a wriggling bit of fantasy lurking at the bottom of a drawer or in the pocket of your jacket.
Hilary Mantel confesses to worrying over this. “Is writing a way of living,” she asks, “or not living?” Is hour after hour of deep-sea diving a way of embracing life, or ultimately just a retreat from it?
I don’t know. But rather than fret about the state, let’s look at the process: wherever we go when we write, we spend our time there trying to bring other things to life.
Swapping a bit of ours for theirs, maybe.