The Tongues of Men

A novel in redraft by Gabriel Smy

Is the country better for writing?


And stepping westward seemed to be
A kind of heavenly destiny.
– William Wordsworth, ‘Stepping Westward’

At the end of July we’re moving to the county where Henry Fielding was born and where Chaucer worked as a forester whilst writing The Canterbury Tales (apparently). It is the county in which Thomas Hardy dwelt for a time, where Arthur C. Clarke grew up, where John Steinbeck stayed to research and where T.S. Eliot chose to have his ashes interred. More recently, it is where Terry Pratchett dreamt up Discworld, where John Le CarrĂ© resided and where Fay Weldon and Charlotte Bingham are united in prolificacy, if not in style.

Specifically, we're heading to the hills and moors where Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was penned, where his friend Wordsworth moped about for a year, in the wild country of Lorna Doone.

We have just been filmed for a TV property show about the move (on your telly in December) in which the storyline of ‘writer moving to country for inspiration’ will play a part.

It’s a pervasive myth, that the countryside is more inspiring for writing. I adore the graphic novel Tamara Drewe, with its old Dorset guest home packed full of frustrated novelists retreating to the pastoral to find the space to work.

But is the country really a better place to get writing done?

The occasions on which I've written productively in remote places in the past owe a lot to being away: away from family and work life, with nothing else to think about. This time the crew are coming too. I’ll be working still, with a much longer commute. There'll be all the resettling of kids into schools and possibly all the work involved in modernising a historic building.

It certainly won’t be a retreat. The first time that we have to drain the septic tank will put paid to any romantic notions of the rural writing life.

As for whether or not it is a more inspiring setting, it is said that some authors face the window and some face the wall. There are those for whom a landscape stirs creative thoughts and those for whom it distracts. Looking out at the fields does not make me want to write: it makes me want to go out in the fields. The inspiration for my books is inside me. Writing needs no external vista: it is more the discipline of shutting out the view to single-mindedly type the internal ideas out.

More to the point, for an urban novel you're probably better off in a city. And if you get energy from interacting with people and culture and ideas then you need to be around those too.

Plus there are the issues of improving as an author and getting published. Isolation is good for neither. In Cambridge I have been part of a writing group that has been critical for my novel in at least two positive senses of that word.

Of course, there is the Internet for research and culture and connection to other writers – as long as you can get it in your village. Practical considerations such as broadband access and the temperature of the room will have far more influence over my productivity than the scenic location. The discipline of creative writing is largely a practical one: arranging a warm, quiet, uninterrupted space in which to tap the keys.

On the flip side, as long as the practicalities are available, space is one thing that the country move will deliver in spades. I’m ridiculously excited about having my own study or shed to make into the perfect creative den (facing the wall, not the window).

And there’s more to the countryside than that. I find a pastoral setting the perfect place to clear my head and make good decisions. Writing is writing wherever you do it but I’m looking forward to cultivating a clear and focused mind for the work at hand.

Above all, it's an exhilarating move all round; a new chapter of life after 17 years in a university city. It might not be the dream ticket that country life is often romantically conceived to be, but change and a new adventure are good.

Wordsworth did the same, living in Somerset for a time after studying in Cambridge. And it’s his ‘Stepping Westward’ that's rattling round my head while we plan this move.


Yet who would stop, or fear to advance,
Though home or shelter he had none,
With such a sky to lead him on?

 
 
 
 

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