Vladimir Nabokov captured butterflies. Emily Dickinson baked. Ayn Rand collected stamps. Last month, Kazuo Ishiguro wrote about how his love of film made him a better writer. Haruki Murakami is well known for his long distance running. June gets on down, Elen sings, Martin reads and Alastair writes (beautifully) – 26ers contemplate what they do, aside from writing.
I used to sing for the London Philharmonic Choir at the Royal Albert Hall, The Royal Festival Hall, in Madrid. It was sublime. Being part of a choir gives you a wonderful sense of peace during performance. I suspect it’s because there’s a purity in concentrating on something so hard that the rest of life falls away.
When I am all written out, and written off, I usually turn to dancing. Sometimes it might be an adult class at the Markova House, home of the English National Ballet where I can shut my writer’s mind and think only of the body, concentrating on a proper pirouette to Vaughan Williams’s ‘The Lark Ascending’. Their new creative director Tamara Rojo has made ballet sexy and accessible again. However, at other times, my body and my spirit needs something more funky to rouse it for a new stab at a story or a chapter. Then I go to Madame Jojo’s Free Your Soul on Sunday nights where down a set of narrow stairways in the heart of heaving Soho on Brewer Street, some of the meanest, baddest funk, soulful house and old skool 70s toons are played. That’s when I let the hair on my lil’ microphone head down and git down.
Actually, I’m not a writer: I’m a designer who loves words. There are quite a few of us lurking in 26. Design is my first art. Photography is my second. Not my choice – the light just grabs me and won’t let go. I would hesitate to apply a word as noble as ‘writing’ to the words that I hurl together so perhaps word-hurling is a better term for it. Music was my third art but it’s wandered off, and every time I try to catch it, a deadline diverts me. Though to be fair, when I was young, music was more an excuse for writing lyrics.
What helps my writing?
Being able to read it. Well, more than that. Actually, having quite nice handwriting. All right, I’ll say it. I have beautiful handwriting, when I put my mind to it. As writers, we all have to re-read what we’ve written. If it’s a complete mess I can’t see the beauty in the words. Yes, you read that right. And I know that good handwriting is a dying art. As I write this on screen, correcting all those little mistakes you will never know about (that even now I’ve just forgotten myself), there is no patina that conveys the care of crafting a sentence. No rough edges, pencil lines, crossings out, asterisks, doodles. The act of writing doubles the pleasure of writing.
I am a natural multi-tasker. I relax best on the move. Every morning I walk my dog alone in the park. I have to be in a park or some form of nature. It’s my way of meditating. At first my brain is crammed with busy thoughts. But the more I walk, look, breathe, the more my head clears, my focus sharpens and I’m ready to write. I also play bridge once a week. Talk about total concentration, two hours feels like two minutes. It’s a holiday for my brain.
It may sound a bit banal, but reading is the activity that best helps my writing. There is something about reading the very best writers that helps me to not settle for second best and to be inspired to do better. But the writers who are most useful to me in this respect are the ones that are most different to my own style, people like Hemingway, Murakami and Ishiguro. In terms of ideas, I’m more likely to find those in non-fiction, especially popular science.