Five-minute Memoir: Natasha Soobramanien on the baked beans that cured her writer’s block
Saturday 11 August 2012
I see now that a writing retreat is productive only if removing yourself from a life so full of distraction that you need the isolation in order to focus on your work. But if you are the kind of writer who doesn't do much of a day to merit this or any other job title, two weeks on a remote Scottish island will not help you chip away at your writer's block.
And if you share that retreat and the remote Scottish isolation with your best and most annoying friend, also a writer and also suffering from writer's block, writing is probably the last thing either of you will do. No. You are more likely to want to, say, empty a pan of hot baked beans over the head of the other writer, who is cornered and cowering and alive to the fact that they most probably deserve the threatened bean shower for whatever annoying thing it is they have been doing to the pan-holder all afternoon. This is the sort of thing that two such people on this sort of retreat might end up doing. And what kind of ending could such a story have?
We had come to this tiny island to work on our first novels. Both involved characters living in self-imposed exile, inexorably drawn towards a lunacy induced by loneliness. Our lifestyles back in Norwich might have been considered a kind of 'method writing' then, if we'd actually been getting any writing done. It was no longer clear if the writer's block we both suffered from was due to depression, or if the inability to get down to any work had itself become the cause of depression.
We had our coping strategies. I would routinely escape my basement flat for the pub and not return until I had run out of money, while my best and most annoying friend – Luke – would hide away in his bedsit, watching squash matches on YouTube with a goggle-eyed intensity that put me in mind of the monocled Patrick Moore. And then we were kindly offered time at a cottage on the remote Scottish island. The very thing! Bracing walks, a spartan regime. There was not even a TV! The words would be falling over themselves to come out. It would be like striking oil.
But, inevitably, along with our laptops, our research reading, our walking boots and some tins of beans, it seems we had also packed our writer's block. This proved even more depressing on an island where we were deprived of our usual distractions: no internet in the cottage, and the island's only pub closed until further notice. We vented on each other, morphing into Roald Dahl's Twits, that horrible old couple yoked together by an irretractable hatred. Six days into our retreat, successive Quentin Blakesque tableaux of scratchy malice culminated in the aforementioned baked-bean incident. But the beans were not thrown. This is important to note. Something momentous in our friendship developed as a result of this.
It doesn't matter now who the pan-holder was, and who the cowerer. To this day, our memories of the incident do not correspond. But we both agree that at the point the pan-holder registered the fear and – worse – resignation on the other's face, the pan was set down, unemptied. We do remember sitting down together to eat the beans. And we both hold the moment as significant because we realised then that we had no choice: we must give up our respective lives of isolation, we must open ourselves up to the consolations of writerly companionship, and the hope of beating our writer's block together. What occurred to us that night was this: we had no choice but to throw – not beans – but our lot in together. Who else would put up with us?
We left for London, and shared a flat. We established a routine of cycling to the British Library, sitting in the Reading Room until closing time, sometimes even writing. Slowly, our word counts crept up. But we could not know where this throwing in our lot together would lead. Not only did we find a way to continue our novels, but we completed them and published them, too. We even found the creative optimism to embark on a novel together, a move which arose directly from my friend's strategy for combating his writer's block: getting me to write a bit of his book for him.
It seemed only right to set some of that story on our island of retreat. When I came to write about the place, the bickering and frustration of our days there receded. Instead, I remembered the long walks we'd taken around the island on the clear days of cold, glinting sun, our guides two local dogs with the run of the island. The rash leaps into flooded quarries and our shivering swims in those pools cut deep into rock. The experimental dishes we cooked and left half-eaten. The two chapters Luke asked me to write concern his lonely, freakish protagonist's only love affair. I did not put her on that island alone, though her time there was a retreat; feeling she had suffered enough in life so far, I made it a romantic one.
Natasha Soobramanien's debut novel, 'Genie and Paul', is published by Myriad on Thursday. To order a copy at a special price of £7.99, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0843 0600 030
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