Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Cabin In The Woods

Dover Harbour, avant le deluge
my piece on writer's block from last week's Guardian:

The life of the professional novelist is an agreeable one. You make your own hours, you do your best work in your pyjamas and Uggs, no boss glares at you when you have crisps and Guinness for lunch.
            The only occasion when things can get a little tricky is when the dreaded writer’s block comes a calling. I’ve always liked the Charles Bukowski solution: “writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all,” but unfortunately that doesn’t really work when you’re a mystery novelist. Last August I had a deadline looming and the solution to the ending of my book was nowhere in sight. I decided that I wasn’t the problem, the problem was my family with their music and TV and annoying requests for daddy time, food etc.
Mark Twain, Roald Dahl, Virgina Woolf amongst others used to write in a shed at the bottom of their gardens into which no one was allowed to enter. George Orwell went further and moved to a damp, isolated hut on the Hebridean Island of Jura to finish 1984. Ingmar Bergman wrote and storyboarded most of his scripts on the small island of Faro, north of Gotland where he drank only buttermilk and ate biscuits.
But my model was Henry Thoreau who moved to a cabin near Walden Pond and lived and wrote far from the distractions of modern life. Well reasonably far – he did cheat a bit by walking to his mum’s house to get his dinner and his laundry done. Still, the idea was a good one. I would get a cabin in the woods and thus inspired and focused I would easily cure my writer’s block and finish my book.
I live in Melbourne and from there it’s a only 59 dollar, one hour flight to Tasmania which, when I was a boy, was an exotic land at the very edge of all the world maps. From Hobart I caught the bus south as far as it would it go and ended up in the little hamlet of Dover. From there I walked to a camp ground where I’d called ahead and reserved a cabin under the name Adrian (no credit card or surname required).
            The cabin was suitably isolated and remote. A plywood affair on the edge of a eucalypt forest it came equipped only with a gas cooker, a bunk bed, a desk and a shower. No internet, no wireless, no distractions. It was perfect. I plugged in my computer and went for a walk. It was a lovely afternoon, quiet, with not a soul in sight. I strolled past a charming little bakery and I took a photograph of the gorgeous harbour. I had nothing but praise for my decision making. I loftily recalled my Edward Gibbon: “conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.” I was going to get really good work done in this place.
            And that more or less is when the rain started. And did not stop for the next three days. Bone chillingly cold rain that had come up from a low pressure system over the Antarctic. I ran back to the cabin where I discovered that it was only usually rented out in summer as it came with no heater or fireplace. That night I was so cold I turned on the cooker’s gas ring, letting the flickering blue flame try vainly to warm the place a little.
            Fearing death by asphyxiation and shivering constantly I got no sleep at all. I was too exhausted to work next day so I trudged into town to discover that the sole restaurant in the place had burned to the ground, the pub was closed and the baker had left after his wife had died suddenly. The convenience store sold only baked beans and beer so I bought beans and a six pack and walked back to my freezing cabin through the apocalyptic, unceasing, Ray Bradburyesque downpour.
            That night it was so cold it snowed in the mountains to the west (a rarity in that part of Tasmania) and I again slept with the gas ring on. 
Next morning I was exhausted and homesick and getting no phone signal anywhere I fed fifty cent pieces into a weird Bakelite payphone that somehow had survived for decades in a forest car park.  My wife told me that the only bus of the day back to Hobart was leaving in twenty five minutes. I packed quickly and ran through the rain to the bus stop but the bus driver, seeing no one at the stand, had left early. Miserable, soaked and desperate I bought another six pack and plodded back through the deluge to the fucking cabin.
I spent a third night in there and to add to my hunger, cold and lack of sleep I began to hallucinate that there was someone watching me from the eucalypt forest, some escaped mental patient who was waiting for me to drift over into sleep so he could come in and kill me. The next day I was at the bus stand an hour early.
Drenched, chilled to the bone and behind on my work by another four days I arrived back in Melbourne that night giving my children teary eyed hugs as if I’d survived a shipwreck.
And I finished the book the way professionals finish their books: by getting up early, sitting at a desk and getting the work done before breakfast. Solitude may be the school of genius but if you’re looking to cure writer’s block or meet a deadline it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.