‘The Write Tools’: a blog series featuring authors, artists and their favourite tools.
Today's guest is award-winning novelist Jennifer Mills. Jennifer is the author of two novels, the most recent being Gone. Her collection of short stories, The Rest is Weight, was published in mid-2012. Jennifer is now working on her third novel.
I can write almost anywhere, and I have done: in a freezing cold shed in Alice Springs, on park benches and bench seats while living out of my car, in abandoned buildings and in the bush. I have edited manuscripts on the beach in Hawaii, on a train in Siberia, on a rooftop in Beijing and on the porch of some nice people in Tucson, Arizona. All this sounds terribly exotic now, but at the time, it was a matter of necessity – working while restless.
I live somewhere quiet and still now, with a daily routine. I love, defend, and will never take for granted my room in a small house in the country where I can be completely alone with what I am writing. But there is something essential about traveling.
It’s not just gathering data, though the world is endlessly interesting. There is something about being in motion that makes writing happen. I think well on planes; it could be the aerial view. In a plane you are alone, above, apart – but also passive, receptive, and bored. Long train journeys lend themselves to poetry. These are the perfect conditions for contemplation and daydreaming. Often, I work best when forced to be unproductive.
One morning, arriving in an otogar (bus station) in rural Turkey, I found myself stuck with no town to explore, no internet or book to read, no-one to talk to, and eight long hours ahead. For a long moment I was despondent, outraged. And then I realised what a gift it was to have eight hours in which to have nothing to do: to let the mind idle, to watch people and think about their lives, to daydream. Even now, eight years later, when I feel angry at time, I think to myself: Otogar!
Boredom is as lovely to me now as it was hateful to me as a child. Travel is the ideal mix of over-stimulation – firing new neural pathways and having your world tipped up and shaken out – and under-stimulation. Business and laziness.
Hitch-hiking has taught me to come to terms with the creative process. When no-one picks you up you battle with patience, rage, superstition, exhaustion and despair, until a moment when you hit a plateau of acceptance. In that elevated state, somehow giving up and yet persisting, ideas flow and patterns and connections appear. Trying to cross Spain, on a highway where the only people who slowed down were men yelling misogynist abuse, I had been hiking for hours, was exhausted and ready to give up. I walked down an off-ramp to rest on the guardrail. When I looked up, I saw that I was sitting under a tree laden with ripe cherries.
Someone picks you up eventually. Or your imagination does.
I didn’t write a word on that highway, but these tests of stamina and faith are what writing is composed of for me. The long walk into nothing, with blind trust that something will come along; the argument with despair and superstition; almost giving up, and reaching a place of what I can only describe as grace. The loneliness of the long-distance runner, as Sillitoe put it (and Bruce Dickinson).
Long drives are good too, and traveling with other people doesn’t shake the value of it, if they are people who know how to be companionably silent. But walking alone is the best kind of travel.
At home I walk almost every day, usually the same route. I observe the changes in the farmland around me, watch the weed and crop cycles, and steal fruit from trees. Shorn sheep, wild roses, new lambs, green fields, hay fields, burned fields. I find in the subtle shifts that there is room for my mind to wander. When it does, problems solve themselves. It isn’t much of a tool, practically speaking. I don’t know how it works. But I trust it more than anything else I have.