There are so many things to do other than write. All writers know that’s true.
I’ve been on a Pelee Island writing retreat for nine days with no other task before me but to write. Divine, dedicated, and delicious, this time has been a big chunk of heaven. Here, I have no problem sitting for three or four hours straight in the shared silent company of my friend, Sue, as we write and edit, write and revise, write and structure, write, oh yes, and read. We eat and we walk, too, but mostly, we write.
We have had the great good fortune to have had a master class with Margaret Atwood organized for the eight of us, where I witnessed again what I witnessed about forty years ago when I went to listen to Margaret read in British Columbia.
At the time, I was living in the Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia and planning a trip home to London. I’d sent her some poems and written a letter expressing a desire to meet. She’d been generous enough then to send me a card saying that she wasn’t at that time seeing anyone, but that she would be reading in British Columbia later that winter and I could speak with her then.
After reading from Lady Oracle, dozens lined up to speak to her. As I waited, I watched and listened. She stood, giving undivided attention to each and every person who approached. I heard: “Oh yes, we met…” and “You’re the one who…” I remember thinking, Good god, all these people know her. Who do I think I am?
Then it was my turn. I stammered my name and was about to babble on about the poems and thank her and … But she said, “Oh, yes, you sent me those poems.” She then gestured to the auditorium’s front row seats. “I think you had some questions you wanted to ask. Let’s sit down.” And during our brief conversation, Margaret Atwood gave me her undivided attention, despite the fact there were dozens in line waiting for a moment with her, despite the presence of many who hovered and presumably served.
It is an encounter that has stayed with me for four decades.
Last week, I witnessed this single-pointed focus again during her book signing after the 15th Annual Springsong Festival Banquet (where we were delighted by Miriam Toews reading the opening passage from All My Puny Sorrows) where when each person stepped up to the table, she, and whoever was sliding one of her 60-odd books across the table to be signed, glowed in a singular spotlight.
Again, a couple of days later, one by one she turned her light on each person who had submitted the first pages of their story for this master class.
This post isn’t simply to extol the meditative virtues of M.A. However, I noticed yesterday, when a few of us walked down the pathway to the bakery, past where one of our group was interviewing her, that Margaret Atwood did not turn her head, nor look up to nod a greeting. Her focus was right in front of her. Totally, completely, fully.
One of the questions put to her during our master class had to do with the remarkable number of books she’s written. To this, she responded that it was simply because she was old and had many years in which to write. I would like to put forward that her fruitfulness is due more to single-pointedness; an ability to stay only with the moment.
That said, I was astounded at the breadth and depth of her knowledge. She eased into every topic – from Finnish history to drone warfare to the Dead Sea Scrolls to cinema noir – as if that was the very thing she found most captivating.
These precious days away from every other thing that calls to me – duties, plans, and relationships – have given me the opportunity to complete the revisions on my entire manuscript, write some new pieces, and transcribe some handwritten scenes for the new novel. It has given me the luxury of single-pointed focus, and the reminder of how crucial that is in order to get the work done.
Here’s my point: There are so many things to do other than write. But if one’s heart is pressed with the urge, the ache; the need to put down words, then when one is writing, one has to do only that.
I want more.
I’m going to give myself more.
To paraphrase Stephen King: Sometimes you have to write with the door closed.