The first time I read Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel (the daily notes he wrote to his editor while he worked on his classic East of Eden) I remember envying his solitude - he always seemed to be sharpening pencils (he really liked sharpening pencils) alone in his room while his wife kept the world from his door. But on re-reading the book several years later, now that I have children of my own, I can’t help noticing the little things I missed the first time round, and seeing just how much of that apparent solitude was an illusion.
Sure, Steinbeck’s two boys lived most of the time with his second wife, their mother. And his third wife did do a masterful job of ensuring his writing-time wasn’t disturbed. But even when his sons were not physically there, he still thought of them; worried about them. And when they were there, they were...well, they were kids.
‘The children are unusually noisy today,’ reads one of his entries, ‘but I haven’t the heart to make them stop.’ I know exactly how he felt, just as I understand his constant efforts to squeeze his writing-time into a schedule of birthdays and holidays, his step-daughter’s school plays, and doctors’ appointments. Like him, I have no ivory tower to write in, just a completely unfortified corner that’s breached on a regular basis...and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Among the many gems in Stephen King’s amazing book On Writing is the tale of his ‘T.rex desk’. I won’t spoil it for you, because you ought to read it for yourself, but here’s the moral: ‘Put your desk in the corner,’ King advises, ‘and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.’