Friday, March 26, 2010

Writing while Cruising

I’ve always been a writer who could write only when the circumstances were right.  No distractions at all, no music, nobody talking, no radio or TV in the background.  If necessary, I could handle classical music, or any music without words, but it was still a strain.

 It’s interesting – words as a distraction makes sense.  If I’m trying to find my own words, other words around me will interfere.  I didn’t understand, though, why music, even without words, is also a problem, until I read an article a year or so ago.  It talked about how, in people who begin music in early childhood, the parts of the brain that handle language are also involved in music.  For people who have little to do with music, or who don’t become involved with it until later in life, the music section of the brain is separate from the language part.

The above is probably a gross simplification of the research findings of the article, but it’s interesting to think about.  Music has its own language, and language has music.  Different languages have different music.  I do know that the area of the brain that handles other languages is set up so that all the languages are interconnected.  When I was in Norway and Sweden, unable to understand anything I heard, I started thinking in French.  When I was in Spain, or South America, trying to speak my rudimentary Spanish, sometimes if I didn’t know a word I wanted to say right away, I would hear myself say the French word.  It’s weird, and amazing all at the same time.

Anyway, back to requirements for writing.  I’ve known writers who have no problems with distractions.  One friend could write and listen to CBC radio at the same time.  At the end of a few hours, she’d have pages written and could tell you what talk shows had been on the radio and what had been discussed.  Not me.

Another thing I’ve needed is unbroken time.  I’m a spurt writer, and so usually can be productive for one and a half to two hours before I run dry and need to do something else for a while.  But I always wanted at least a two hour stretch, just so I didn’t feel rushed or that I’d have to cram in material in too great a hurry.

I was pretty rigid, wasn’t I.  Happily, since coming on the cruise, all that has changed.  I can now write in the library on board, which unlike libraries on land, is a major social hotspot, and so is often filled with loud conversations and laughter.  And I hope none of my writing students or book club members are reading this, but there have been times when writing students are working on a writing exercise in class, or the book club members are having lively discussions all on their own and so don’t need me, and I’ve spent five or ten minutes working on a new scene, setting something up, or finishing something I started at another time.

This is fun and exciting, and I am getting lots written, but I do wonder why things have changed so drastically.  It’s not as if I couldn’t arrange a distraction-free couple of hours.  There are quiet places to be, and my schedule is not exactly jam packed.

So I’m not sure why I’ve experienced this change.  It could be that after living on board for so long, I’ve adapted to this environment.  Or, it could be the type of novel I’m writing now, one that’s very different from anything I’ve done before.

I’m working on a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of Caroline Bingley.  She’s a minor character, although she is an important and memorable one.  Since she is not present during much of the developing romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, I’ve developed a new plot line just for her.  This is fun, because it enables me to further explore one of Jane Austen’s themes, the position in society of educated, ambitious women who were unable to use their education and energy in any fulfilling way.  Caroline is one such woman who, because of her position in society and her need to maintain it, cannot shape her life in the way she’d like to.  The only way she can better her life, in her mind, is to become wealthier and the only way she can do that is to marry well.

I won’t go into a lot of detail, as I don’t want to bore you and I don’t want to write about the book instead of writing the book.  But it’s a fun project, and challenging, too, in ways I haven’t encountered before.  It’s easier in a way, because I don’t have to create a story world, or a structure, except for my new storyline.  I am trying to stay as true as possible to Austen’s style, use of language, and characters.  Where I can, I use the dialogue in she wrote.  At the same time, the reader will view my story through different eyes.  Each of us perceives the world through our individual filters, our senses and the way our life experiences have shaped our world view.  Caroline is not a pleasant character in the original book, but I don’t want readers to dislike spending time in her head.  I am trying to show why she is the way she is, show her weaknesses and follies, and that she has many of the same needs for love and attention and security that we all do.  I’ve created new scenes, new characters, and revealed some other parts of the society Austen wrote about.  By using this point of view, the story will change and I have to make sure it’s new and interesting while also being believable within Austen’s context.

The other possible reason I am writing so well under different circumstances may be excitement.  Once Carl left, I had no energy for anything.   Over much time, as I was able to pick up some pieces of my life, writing remained out of my grasp.  I thought about the novel I had been working on.  It had been going well, was interesting, I liked things that were happening in it, but I just couldn’t find any creative energy.  Then I got the idea for this Pride and Prejudice book.  There are many rewrites of that book, some modernized, some told from the point of view of Mr. Darcy, some sequels.  I haven’t seen one from Caroline’s point of view.  While there is a definite market for books that relate to Jane Austen’s novels, I have no idea if this one will lead to anything.  For the first time in almost a year, though, I was excited about writing again.  This was a major boost to my life, a big step in my recovery.  I’d been frustrated that I couldn’t be creative, and had wondered if I’d ever find that part of myself again.  Now, it’s here.

Probably my change in writing habits is fed by all the above reasons, and some others I haven’t thought of.  Whatever the source, though, I am very grateful.  Writing has always been hard work, especially when I worry about markets and editors but now it’s fun, as I am just writing for its own sake.

And really, that’s the only reason to write.


  1. I'm delighted that you are finding writing exciting again. I find that I can't listen to talk radio or music when I'm writing. It clamours for attention and makes it hard for me to focus, yet I can write in a coffee shop where there is music, people talking and the noise of the steaming machines--in fact the energy in coffee shops feeds me. Lately, I've been writing long hand, giving myself a goal of two pages a day. It's almost as though I'm reading my story rather than writing it. Feels good!

  2. I gave up writing and wanting to see my own things in print until I retired and watched soap "Port Charles" - became so intrigued with Granville Van Dusen storyline that I wrote pp. of Fan Fiction (dialogue and all) at the computer - then turned him into my own character, a German Colonel, & kept on for far too many chapters featuring him as military man studying law. I buried a couple of chapters about him in my sole self-published book (thank you, AuthorHouse)which apparently has sold 5 or 6 copies over past 10 years. Now I really write for fun - just on computer, in between reading e-mail, etc. Right now I'm rambling on about Scarlet Pimpernel's Chauvelin - what happened to him after Blakeney took him to England. is loaded with my successfully published cousins & my single short story collection (using an alias).