Lately it's been one thing after another keeping me away from my desk: life and art tugging in two directions instead of pulling in harness together. I'm not such a delicate flower that I can't work without perfect peace and quiet, but when daily life makes too many demands and keeps me out of the studio altogether, I start to feel oddly unmoored (if you'll excuse the pun) -- as though the deep focus of creative work is what roots me in the Devon soil. I'm a sociable person, I love my family and friends, but I'm also an introvert by nature; and we introverts need solitude the way plants need rain. We wilt without it.
Today, I am back in the studio, drinking in the silence of early morning and feeling my parched soul turn green again. In the woods and fields, wildflowers are blooming and their abundance seems miraculous. I am grateful for the quiet, and the bird's dawn chorus. I am grateful to be back among paints and books. I am grateful for the hound snoring beside me, and for the wildflowers brightening my desk. I'm even grateful for the things that pull me from my work -- for they challenge me, stretch me, keep me from being too self-absorbed and self-contained -- but I am doubly grateful when let me go, allowing a return to the moss, brambles, and daydreams of my natural habitat.
All of us have different needs, however. The solitude that invigorates me would be dull or stifling to an artist of a different temperament -- my husband, for example, who thrives on the collaborative nature of puppet and theatre work, or urban friends who need the pace of a great city to keep their creative juices flowing.
Here's K.M. Peyton (author of the Flambards trilogy) with a charming description of her work/life balance, from an essay published in 1975:
"When I get frustrated by the demands of other commitments deflecting me from the writing, I console myself that they are the lifeblood of what I am writing about, and the ivory tower, attractive as it may appear at times, would not suit. The [stereotypical] writer, quiet in his room with coffee and lunch served, the interruptions deflected by a devoted wife, is at times my great envy; but at other times I feel that the very frustrations are somehow a part of my driving force. My most difficult book to date, A Pattern of Roses, was written through the winter when a forty-foot boat was being built full-time in the garden and a constant stream of nautical maniacs was in and out of the house at all times, drinking coffee and needing a labourer's meals, as many as twenty-four one weekend.
"I have no help at home, and consider myself fully occupied with the normal ferrying of schoolchildren, housework and looking after five horses (since, in desperation, cut down to two). It was during this winter that one of the horses, lent by a farmer from the village three miles away, used to get out of the field and and go home, sometimes taking the other four with her, at a flat gallop. When this happened in the middle of the night my husband used to turn over in bed and remind me, as we listened to the departing clatter of hooves down the lane, that the horses were my department; his was the boat. But out of these calamites, nice cameos remain: creeping through someone's back yard with headcollar in hand, dressed in long nightdress, anorak and gum-boots, and being speared by torchlight from the bedroom window, or returning home in the car with my daughter riding the mare ahead in the light from the headlamps, cantering fast along the verge with only a halter for tack, and me thinking, 'Oh, God, if she falls off the mare will go all the way back again....'
"I think now," Peyton concludes, "if I only had a book to write, and nothing else to do, I would just sit and stare into space. To know that on Tuesday, for instance, Fred will call for coffee and chat at half-past ten, the butcher will interrupt and want to know what I shall want next Friday, and that I've got to get to the nearest shop, three miles away, to buy a loaf before it shuts at one, concentrates the mind wonderfully. My mother needs to talk to me at length twice a week at least, a pony needs shoeing (five miles there and five miles back and an hour in the middle), and in the summer the garden and the field are a full-time job (mine). It is no good at all pleading my vocation, for my only local claim to fame is not in writing but as Secretary of the Pony Club, and when this keeps me almost fully occupied throughout the summer months I console myself with the richness of material I am building up in this direction. The fact that ponies are now out of fashion, a relic of the nineteen thirties and forties, will not deter me from embarking on this saga before long, so eagerly does the spring bubble up. Where would I be without my interruptions? Still staring at a blank sheet in the typewriter."
Likewise, Katherine Paterson (author of Bridge to Terabithia) reflects on the problems of work/life balance in the early part of her career:
"I had no study in those days, not even a desk or file or bookcase to call mine alone," she recalls. "It might have happened sooner [the writing of work worthy of publication] had I had a room of my own and fewer children, but somehow I doubt it. For as I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who took away my time and space are those who have given me something to say."
"The great thing, if one can," said C.S. Lewis, "is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one's 'own,' or 'real' life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one's real life."
The passage by K.M. Peyton is from "On Not Writing a Proper Book," published in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, edited by Edward Blishen (Kestral Books, 1975); the passage by Katherine Paterson is from Gates of Excellence (Puffin, 1981); all right reserved by the authors. The C.S Lewis quote is part of a passage from a letter to Arthur Greeves, 1943. My "Writer's Prayer," in the picture captions, has appeared here previously but seems appropriate for re-posting today. The drawing is by William Heath Robinson (1872-1944).