When writing is difficult - and I don’t mean those days when we stare at a screen or open our notebooks and there we are, a couple of hours later, with nothing but a few deleted sentences to show for it. We all have days like that - and some of us deal with them better than others. Hey ho, that’s just how it is.
Nor am I talking about days when we are so overwhelmed by Life that we need all our creative and emotional energies just to keep the show on the road. We all have those days too - they come and they go again.
No, I mean when there are huge physical impediments to writing.
When I arrived in Kathmandu, last week, it was seriously cold - not freezing, but cold enough for poor people without warm clothes or blankets to die. I’ve been here several times, and - though I knew in theory that Kathmandu could get chilly at night in the winter, I’ve not known cold like that here except in the mountains. So I huddled myself in the thermal clothes I’d worn to leave the UK and accepted the invitation to join a group of young men round a fire to eat flame-charred potatoes. What a story - but when I returned to my room my first concern was to get under the blankets and keep warm - and I have yet to master the art of writing under a blanket.
But this anecdote set me thinking - have I grown too used to my western comforts to carry on writing in any circumstances? For instance, how do men and women write from prison - and I don’t mean some of our UK prisons, where creative expression is seen as helpful and prisoners can easily buy paper and pencils.
But how do you write in a prison cell that you share with forty other people, with thirty blankets to go round and a slop-bucket stinking in the corner? How do you write, as Solzhenitsyn did, in the Gulag, where fingers can be frozen beyond the capacity hold a pencil? How do you carry on writing when every scrap of paper is like treasure, so you cannot shape and reshape each sentence but must get it right first time, every time? How do you write if you have to work till it feels your back will break?
I cannot - and do not wish to - escape from the privileged cushion of living in the UK. My mildly uncomfortable night in Kathmandu gave me a fraction of insight into the challenges for writers who keep going when it seems the world wants them to stop. And it does make me wonder how many essential stories remain untold simply because it is impossible for the writer to gather the energy, the materials, and the time to write them down.