Five-minute Memoir: Natasha Soobramanien on the baked beans that cured her writer’s block

 

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

Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tv Review: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series began tonight with a feature-length special
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee