As a reader and a writer, living in this digitally-saturated world, where consulting Dr Google, downloading a fancy app, or going on a digital detox retreat seem to be the solution for lots of modern-day woes, I’m heartened by the continued affirmations that plain, old-fashioned reading – getting lost between the pages of a book – is highly beneficial to our health and one of the best forms of escape. In our attempts to get away from the stresses of information overload and the pressures of an always-on culture, all we need to do is put down our smartphone long enough to read for a while.
It’s been proven that reading relaxes our brains in a pleasurable way, not unlike meditation. Being attentive and present in the reading experience helps us to overcome stress and it lowers our blood pressure and heart rate. It also develops our empathy skills. Instead of ruminating over our troubles, we can be transported temporarily to an imaginary world where we meet and engage with new people and observe them dealing with conflicts that deepen and plots that thicken until a resolution is reached. It’s a therapeutic form of escapism that helps the reader to disengage for a while.
But what about us, the writers? Surely writing a book from start to finish must be one of the ultimate forms of escape? After all, over the marathon course of committing 100,000 words to paper, the writer is putting real life aside and spending the day with imaginary people in locations that could be anywhere in the world. According to Gustave Flaubert: “It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself, to move in an entire universe of your own creating”. It all sounds very enticing, but before we get carried away, Hemingway had something different to say: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
In my view, although appearing contradictory, both are right.
The idea for my latest book, The Visitor, sparked last year when I came out of a meeting held in an office in Mountjoy Square. After a day spent listening to presentations and discussions, in a crowded room where screen glare meant closed window blinds shuttering the sunlight, walking out into the bright March afternoon was a champagne-like gulp of fresh air and sunshine. The square was quiet, almost slumbering in that pause of time before it upped a gear and tipped into rush hour. I walked around, drawn in by the various frontages of Georgian houses, some newly renovated, others with hoardings guarding their secrets, and a few with the wear and tear of generations stamped on doorways and window frames that were stripped to wooden bones. I felt centuries of history and the people who had walked this place before me whirling around like invisible ghosts. I began to imagine who might live in these houses now, and what kind of lives they led. I thought of what the Georgian square might look like at Christmas, in the snow. For several weeks I enjoyed playing with the raft of ideas simmering in my head, as various characters emerged from shadowy outlines and plot lines began to form. It was creative escapism. That was the delicious part.
Two months later, I began writing the book. That was the blood-letting part.
Most stories are about a protagonist dealing with a crisis situation that always forces change in some way. As a reader, escaping into a book helps us to see the world from a different point of view, relate to characters, feel connected to them, and see how they deal with the curve balls life throws at them from the safety of our sofa.
For us, the writer, there is no such pleasurable escape. Once we starting the writing process, the story and characters hold us hostage. Most of us have to climb mountains of self-doubt as we wrestle words onto the page. There is a lot at stake. To create characters the reader can empathise with, and a story that resonates with them, we must take risks, take out our beating hearts and paint them across the page.
Creating good characters demands that we have the courage to be honest. Our characters are fictional, but in playing with the messy, complicated and beautiful debris of their lives, in exploring their flaws and difficult relationships through dialogue and narrative, we have to mine our own life experiences and emotions. We need to take a deep dive down to places inside us where hopes and dreams, grief and darkness collide, and open those places to the floodgates of our imagination and use those emotions to give life and a heartbeat to our characters.
We are the ones in charge of the story direction and we have to look within ourselves and our subconscious for a resolution to our character’s predicament. We can’t slay our character’s dragons with any degree of truth and honesty without facing our own.
In spite of what Hemingway had to say, most novelists don’t run a mile from the desk in their attempts to escape the torture of writing. We show up to the blank page time after time and write story after story. A lot of us discover that as the story evolves, the writing process can be almost cathartic and a form of meditation in itself. In writing a book, we meet ourselves on a level we never have before. It might not always be a delicious experience as we stare down the scary blank page, but far from escapism, we writers find ourselves.
The Visitor by Zoë Miller is published by Hachette Books Ireland and is out now. www.zoemillerauthor.com @zoemillerauthor