Patrick Gale: A Bulletin from a Verandah in North Katoomba
March 5, 2016
Writing is an activity that usually requires me to be quiet, stationary and ever so slightly bored, so that the work in progress is the most interesting thing in the room. Even then, eighty percent of my writing time involves no physical writing whatsoever (I write in ink) but only staring into the far or middle distance in a state somewhere between a trance and a horse’s deceptive standing doze. The story is there in my head but it repeatedly drifts in and out of focus, just as my conscious mind shifts constantly between what a character is feeling or doing in the scene in progress and what I suspect/know/hope they’ll be feeling or doing later.
I had a breakthrough at fifty when I took up running. My motivation was purely to be able to continue eating cake and bread; I did not quite believe my friend Patrick Ness’s assertion that it helps concentration. But it does. I think it’s to do with rhythm and breathing. The running writer focuses so hard at first on pacing so they don’t trip over, and breathing so they won’t die, that, rather as in a meditation or mindfulness exercise, their mind clears of clutter and thoughts become – for the duration of the run, and for about thirty exhilarating minutes after it – astonishingly clear.
In a less virtuously sweaty way, the same is true of walking. For a long time now I’ve found daily walks around the farm and cliffs with our dogs a productive start or close to the writing day, a sort of airlock between domestic reality and whatever fiction is currently possessing me, in which I can think through what I’m about to write, or analyse whatever I’ve just failed to produce, yet again. There’s something profoundly enabling too, paradoxically, in putting oneself in a position where physical writing is impossible so the brain is free to weave ideas uninhibited by the need to commit. It’s not so very different from the way a walk or even a long drive can provide a useful interval, suspended from human interaction, in which to rehearse a conversation one is dreading.
I’m writing this two-thirds of my way through a month-long book tour of Australia and New Zealand. The purpose of the trip is to take part in the book festivals at Perth, Adelaide and Wellington, with a few interviews and bookshop appearances thrown in. The unscheduled bonus, however, has been time off between festivals, first walking sections of Western Australia’s Cape to Cape Trail with my hubby – a man always more readily lost in silence and thoughts than I am – and now, walking on my own the feast of incredible trails and bushwalks on offer in the Blue Mountains, just a couple of hours’ train ride out of sticky Sydney.
I walked for two hours yesterday and five today and what none of the people passing could have told was that, while my eyes and camera were drinking in breathtaking views and unfamiliar birds, plants and reptiles, my mind was shuttling back and forth over a narrative in my head. Two actually. I’m simultaneously working on a new novel and a television script whose deeply English settings could hardly be further removed from the exotic heat and colour of the bush around Katoomba and Leura and yet, now that I’m back on my tiny veranda, kookaburras and parrots squawking as the sun goes down over the thickly-treed creek before me, I can honestly say I’ve been writing all day.