This is an observation about observation.
A comment on social media yesterday: the Zoom invitations have dried up, group messages are silent and people have nothing to say.
Next, this article on how writers block is affecting everyone due to the lack of interaction, concentration time, interruptions and domestic drudgery: Writer’s Blockdown.
It’s true for (almost) everyone I know. Creativity takes a lot out of us. A lot of what? I think Neil Gaiman says this best. Everything we encounter, every random thought, snatch of conversation, idea provoked by news story or strange juxtaposition of scent and colour goes onto the compost heap. None of these are fully formed stories, but ferment and cohere until that rich soil is ready to sprout something new.
When we’re not encountering experiences, sniffing strangers, exploring hitherto unknown avenues and instead filling our minds with the equivalent of junk food (news, chores, memories) – that compost fossilises. Unfertilised soil is now immovable stone. The stubborn rock won’t move, so what next?
Two people I know suffered debilitating childhood illnesses. One hospitalised, the other confined to his room for years. They watched other children play and grow and form attachments, their noses pressed to the glass. Both these adults are now brilliant minds, displaying a creativity and energy in their fields which leaves me in awe. I asked John Hudspith the greatest influence on his writing life. This was his answer.
That’d be Perthes’ disease. It snatched me from the streets aged seven, sealed both legs into plaster casts and slung me into bed for two years. I went from player to observer in a blink. My bed was moved into an already too small living room, and when my siblings were packed off to bed I was allowed to indulge in grown up telly. Andy Pandy was dumped in favour of Hammer Horrors, King Kong, and Boris Karloff. So as not to scare the pants off their seven year-old, my parents explained the techniques used to create movie monsters and horrific special effects and, from there, armed with an unending supply of sketch pads and plenty of time to think, my imagination exploded. Imagination is the key for my writing and for my reading. Being plonked into bed for two years, forced to observe, was certainly a colossal twist in my own plot.
Confinement for John and many like him was unfair, but refocused his attention on the detail. This is my current obsession. Without the big picture, I must find inspiration in the little things.
Two books are percolating away in my writing room. One is a psychological thriller set in the world of classical music. If I got in my car now, I could be in Salzburg in four hours, strolling the streets and listening to students play Mozart on every street corner.
Two years ago, I’d have packed man and pug and set off for Austria in a heartbeat. I’ve been to Bordeaux, Porto, Naples and Rome all in the name of research. Those trips enabled me to paint a picture of a location with broad brushstrokes, sprinkling enough aromas, tastes and textures to bring a setting to life. Not now.
Instead, my husband and I are playing live recordings, noticing the acoustics, watching the bow action cellists on YouTube, devouring the sleeve notes and listening, really listening to this music. This attention to detail I would typically skim.
Not all the Zooms and groups dried up. Others continue, digging a little deeper, providing us with what we need, even if that’s a moment of connection and a laugh. Now, if I talk, I talk about the detail. We’re not at the level of Howard Molson’s Shovel, at least not yet. But the big events, activities and ideas are in abeyance.
So I’m finding delight in the detail. What does resin actually smell like? How do you describe the shape of a cello and its precise shade of varnished wood? Is there a reason for my mistrust of Wagner? Why have I never noticed the significance of architectural dominance on a concert hall?
One of the writers in the article above finds his imagination stultifying when he dreams about emptying the dishwasher. What if we embrace the reality of words, choosing the exact nouns and verbs to crawl inside, explore the minutiae and observe through the glass from a miniaturist’s perspective? What if we look, really look, at the little things?