Time and Space

Zoë Sharp

I have always viewed myself not as an artist, but a craftsman.

I take an enormous amount of care over my work, and yes, pride in it. I’m constantly striving to improve and hone what I do, but the word ‘artist’ always conjures up images of ego and eccentricity. I just can’t take myself that seriously.

I can never forget that I am asking people to buy into a myth, a dream, a jumble of thoughts and ideas that have been tumbling around inside my head, and have finally made it out in some semblance of order onto the page.

The fact that anyone wants to read them often frankly astounds me.

And yet, I had an email from someone recently who told me that she cried while reading the ending of FOURTH DAY. Having that happen at all is pretty humbling for a writer, to be honest. But the fact she cried while reading the book in the airport is even more so.

The power of words on a page, in a public place with all the distraction that entails, actually reduced someone to tears.

Other people’s books make me cry, I admit. And soppy movies, and heroic rescues, and onions. But writing doesn’t.

Having said that, to write dark emotional scenes, I need a dark and emotional atmosphere. I find it much easier, for some reason, to write in the winter, with just a desk lamp providing a pool of light around my keyboard and screen, and moody broody music playing in the background. The volume has to be right, though. If it’s too loud I just listen to the music. What I want is for it to manipulate my feelings on an almost subconscious level.

I’ve written on planes, ferries and automobiles. Not so much on trains, but that’s only because I do find it off-putting having the stranger sitting next to me reading over my shoulder. Same goes for planes. I’m fine if Andy’s next to me, but I struggle if I’m in the centre of a row. Of course, I don’t have that problem at all if I’m in the comfy seats up front, which sounds like a damn good reason to upgrade right there!

I write in the car – a LOT. Maybe this is because we spend a lot of time on the road, but making notes on sheets of scrap paper on a clipboard while we’re motoring along is often my most productive time. I once wrote an entire short story on a car journey to a bookstore event. And while I can hear some lip-curling comments being muttered about the quality of something dashed off in such a fashion, can I just say that story was long listed for a prestigious award and turned into a short film?

I write in doctor’s waiting rooms, even in hospital, in hotel rooms, in friends’ kitchens while everyone else is sleeping during a weekend visit. If I have a pencil, and paper, and enough light to see one joining the other, and I’m awake, I write.

I write at my desk both early in the morning and late at night, often on the same day, which can be a bit of a problem, even though I’ve known for years that sleep is very overrated. Sometimes I write until I start producing utter gibberish because I’m nodding off at my computer. Often when I open the file up the following day, the final paragraph from the day before needs a lot of tweaking because of this. In fact, on Tuesday I found I’d managed to insert half a dozen completely extraneous words into a sentence – correctly typed but utterly meaningless. Thank goodness for the delete key…

But, the long and the short of it is, I don’t care where I write. The writing is the thing. If I had to wait for the perfect moment, I’d still be working on my first novel.

The perfect moment, like tomorrow, never comes.

I was at the Bodies in the Bookshop event at Heffers bookstore in Cambridge last week – with fellow ‘Rati, JT Ellison, as it happened – and found myself buttonholed by a successful writer for whom the perfect moment was something of a necessity.

He could only write, he told me, in a cabin in the wilds, miles from anywhere, with no phones or anything else to take away from the prose.

And I know there are going to be those who would wholeheartedly agree with him. To create, they require a level of tranquillity and isolation not available in their normal surroundings. So, they borrow friend’s beach houses, or go on writers’ retreats.

Equally, there are others who regularly go and sit in noisy, crowded cafés and quite happily lose themselves among the places and people they’re creating. And, in some ways, I can’t help thinking that if the story is strong enough to suck you in to the exclusion of all else while you’re writing it, then surely it will suck you in while you’re reading it, too?

I know it’s a constant refrain of mine that there are as many different methods of writing as there are writers. There is no wrong way to do it, providing you get the words on the page. You can do it one word at a time while bungee jumping from the landing if it gets the job done. But which method do you favour?

And are you one of these readers who gets emotionally invested in the book you’re reading? Have you ever cried in an airport at the ending of a book?

This week’s Phrase of the Week is having your leg pulled meaning to be on the receiving end of a deception or joke. It’s thought to originate from a Scottish rhyme of the 1860s, in which old Aunt Meg was hanged and the preacher pulled on her legs to ensure she died quickly and without too much pain. Aunt Meg was probably innocent of the crime for which she was hanged, but was known to have been the victim of much deception and trickery, for which having her leg pulled was the result.

I’m off to the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate today, so please excuse erratic response to comments, but I’ll get there eventually!

20 thoughts on “Time and Space

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    I’ve not cried in an airport, but I have cried. LITTLE WOMEN always makes me cry, every time I re-read it. Ah poor Beth.
    And I may be hurting someone’s feelings, but anyone who has to have the perfect conditions in order to write, such as a cabin in the wilderness, etc., is not a professional — that’s a prima donna.

    Reply
  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi PK

    I’ve realised that I’ve made the question very specific. Maybe I should have said, "Have you ever cried IN PUBLIC at the ending of a book?" Better?

    Mm, also without wishing to hurt anyone’s feelings, I agree with you about the prima donna bit. But I get the impression the feelings of that particular writer were fairly robust. He didn’t quite come out with the line, "But that’s enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do YOU think about me?" But it was pretty close… ;-]

    Reply
  3. Louise Ure

    I can get deeply emotional about the end of a book, but rarely well up in public about it.

    And that derivation of "pulling your leg" is going to haunt me.

    Reply
  4. Dana King

    I’m more likely to be the idiot desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to stifle laughter in an airport while reading. (Two memorable occurrences were while reading GET SHORTY in Dayton and RUSH LIMBAUGH IS A BIG FAT IDIOT in Detroit; people were placing themselves between their children and me.)

    My most memorable crying episode wasn’t at the end of a book, but in the middle of John Irving’s A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR. I was at a restaurant (I’m one of those who doesn’t mind eating alone) and read the car crash scene and felt myself on the brink of actually breaking up in this busy restaurant. I ate and got the hell out.

    Reply
  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I don’t think I’ve ever cried over a book in public. I don’t usually cry over books at all, that I can remember. Movies, music, men, yes.

    I prefer to set a broody stage for writing, too, but it doesn’t really matter. As long as you sit there in front of a page or screen, the trance will take over. I hate noise, though, find it very distracting.

    Reply
  6. Cornelia Read

    I cried on a plane reading a novel, once. Sobbing, actually. It was rather embarrassing, but the book was amazing.

    And sometimes I make myself cry when I write, if something’s really sad, but those are almost always the parts that my editor wants me to rewrite.

    Reply
  7. PK the Bookeemonster

    I figured. But no crying in public over a book. I have sobbed at movies though, in the theatre. City of Angels did me in.
    It wasn’t in public but several years ago I was reading a SFF book and there was an amazing twist that I must have made some sort of out noise. Very loud, I guess. I had been reading in the bedroom and my husband came running in from somewhere else in the house to see what the matter was. Being a non-reader, he did not understand nor sympathize.
    Perhaps one can control tears a little more than laughing aloud. Been there, done that.

    Reply
  8. Robin McCormack

    That’s pretty potent being so involved in a story in the airport. I’ve never been able to concentrate fully and really get into a story in the terminal or on a plane – too many distractions and noise. If its one of those books that make me say "aw" and gives me a lump in my throat, then I’ll read it again later in private to get the full affect. I’m more like Dana and have found myself bursting out laughing at stories. Parents don’t hide their children, but I do get plenty of smiles and it generally sparks their curiosity. I never used to get affected by stories but as I have gotten older, find myself becoming more emotionally invested in stories. Last year is the first time, I found myself outright sobbing as I read because a character I’d grown to love in a series died. It was a poignant scene. You knew it was coming, but still….

    I’ve discovered I can write with the noise of my child’s video games or movies in the background. If my son says something I can uh huh him and he’s fine with that. Doesn’t interrupt my writing. My husband’s a different story. I can’t tune him out. I can tune most anything out except music and I find it annoying while writing. Yet, am able to write story in my head while driving the car and listening to Spanish guitar. Brain conundrum!

    Have fun at the festival!

    Reply
  9. Alafair Burke

    I have cried while reading countless times, but I’m not sure I’ve ever done so in an airport. I do write in airports, though. And in cafes. I used to think I worked best in the solitude of my home office, but I am increasingly tempted by the lures of the refrigerator, internet, and my ready-to-play dog. I actually work very well at a restaurant down the street. No wireless internet. Not too loud, but just enough of a buzz to create energy. Tasty, tasty food. I may gain 30 pounds by the time this book is done!

    Have a good time at the festival.

    Reply
  10. Barbie

    I’ve been forbidden to read in public when I’m with my mother. There was one incident once, a character died while I was at the mall. I just started sobbing. She was *really* embarrassed.

    Oh, yeah. I cry. I involve myself emotionally, give my heart and soul to a great book I love. They better take good care of it 🙂

    Reply
  11. pari noskin taichert

    I cry, guffaw, moan when I’m reading. In airports? Sure. Then I look around guiltily and hope no one noticed.

    Writing? I prefer to do it at my writing table when no one is home. But I rarely get my way.

    Reply
  12. JT Ellison

    I’m like Pari and Alafair – if moved, I’ll cry most anywhere. What’s amazing is being moved to tears by words on a page, that’s a true testament to the brilliance of the storyteller to me.

    It was great to see you and Andy in Cambridge!

    Reply
  13. Zoe Sharp

    Hi folks

    A huge thank you to everyone who’s sent comments. Only just managed to get some limited ‘Tinterweb access, so please excuse the global response. Fascinating comments from you all. I’m always intrigued by different writers’ processes, and what presses the emotional buttons.

    And yes, Harrogate is a blast so far!

    Reply
  14. Spencer Seidel

    The only book I think I’ve teared up over was the Chris Farley biography, The Chris Farley Show, written by his brother. Very, very sad. But, I was alone on my couch and probably in that sort of mood anyway. No airport in sight.

    I too get much work done in the car! There is something magical about riding in a car for me when I need to fix plot or character problems. The minute I hit a problem, I’m off with my mini tape-recorder, driving around, wasting gas(!), talking it out. Works wonders. I can’t think straight about stories and characters any other way!

    Reply
  15. Allison Brennan

    I’ve cried in movies … hmm, last time? Toy Story 3. Sobfest. Good tears, great movie. My oldest daughter cried too. Not my 14 year old, though . . .

    Books? Hmm, I don’t think so. I’m sure there were times I teared up, and I really don’t care if it’s in public or not.

    As far as writing, I can write anywhere, too. I can write with noise, loud noise, quiet noise. I PREFER to write with my iPod because something about wearing the earbuds and listening to loud music puts me in the zone. I don’t do as well with complete silence, or worse, classical music (which I like.) I can still write, but I write slower and I’m more frustrated.

    However, I do have a difficult time writing with interruptions. I CAN do it if I have to, but it really slows me down and frustrates me.

    I can’t write in the car, but I also can’t read in the car. Motion sickness thing :/

    Reply
  16. Debbie

    I sat with my hubby while he read my MS. Kept asking what was funny each time he laughed – most of the time it was the typo’s! I cried at the end of Gone With The Wind, laughed out loud walking down a street in Toronto reading the story of Absalom and his tree in the bible, and read Fellowship of the Ring with the bedroom door closed and the lamp on anytime the Nasgoul were on horseback (and that was on a subsequent read, not the first time through). I might add that I’m blind, so I’m reading these on disk or years ago, on cassette with just ear buds. It’s not even obvious that I’m reading a book.
    BTW – In my den there is the kids computer and a piano. The den is adjacent to the living room with a TV and stereo. Two kids under eight, two cats, a husband and…writing without distraction, what’s that?

    Reply
  17. toni mcgee causey

    I, too, have cried at the endings of some books–the ability of the author to get me to set aside my world and identify so well with the characters puts me in awe of their skills.

    I can write under a great many busy circumstances–airport, in the midst of construction with workers stepping around me, or hammering three feet away, or in the midst of a huge hurricane (Katrina, Rita, Gustav). I have a harder time writing in a coffee shop where people sit nearby and have conversations–I end up watching them and listening and making up stories, having nothing whatsoever to do with the work in progress. If I’m going to have noise around me, it needs to be less personal, or I can’t focus on the screen or notebook.

    Reply
  18. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks again for the comments – all wonderful. I’ve realised that I cry much more reading autobiographies than fiction. I can’t write easily if people are talking loudly around me, either, but music’s fine – any kind of music.

    Reply
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