It’s the first day of September, and Edinburgh breathes again.
For locals, whether we love or loathe the culture, chaos and crowds of the Festivals, their departure can feel like a special moment. The circus is packed away, and the city begins to settle back into itself. The sudden peace is often accompanied by the first hint of a change in the weather, a suggestion that autumn won’t be long.
This year I’ve spent a lot of time at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Edinburgh Book Fringe. As well as readings, discussions and literary cabaret there have been book launches and parties and a steady and very welcome stream of guests – plenty of opportunities to meet up with old writing friends, and to make new ones. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s also been distracting; I’ve written very little in the past couple of weeks, and lack of time isn’t the only reason. Just as important is the lack of mental space. Of silence.
I recently came across an article that describes how mice exposed to silence (rather than white noise, music or baby mouse calls) developed new, functioning neurons in the areas of the brain associated with memory and the senses. The study hasn’t been replicated in humans, but the idea of silence as actively beneficial resonates with my own experience of quiet as something restorative. In common with many writers I’m more introvert than extrovert: though I don’t think I could go as far as Sara Maitland, embracing silence as a way of life, frequent spells of quiet time and time spent alone are essential to me. It’s why I work in a studio space with no internet, away from the noiseless noise of email and social media – and why I’m hopeful about what will happen to my work rate when I take up a Hawthornden Fellowship this winter and experience a whole month of silence.
Yesterday, walking through the quiet city streets, I found myself talking out loud. Voice, for a writer, is a kind of metaphor encompassing what is said and how it’s expressed as well as technical issues like characterisation and point of view. As I heard myself narrating my thoughts, it struck me that what I was doing was literally tuning back in to my own voice, now it was audible again in this emptier, quieter space. Preparing to get back to writing, now the party’s over.
This quiet moment reminds me that a writer’s job is to make the work, and to make it as well as she can. The rest of it – the events, the reviews, the interviews, all the stuff that Helen Dunmore calls litbiz – is just glitter and confetti; as shallow as those artfully arranged instagram pics of colourful notebooks or shiny MacBooks accessorised with coffee and croissants, filtered and hashtagged: #amwriting #writerslife.
The truth of it is, no matter how perfect your notebook-and-coffee still-life seems in the sun streaming through the cafe window, you still have to take yourself off on your own to a silent place – actual or metaphorical – and focus on what matters. #shutupandwrite. #writerslife. #nofilter.