Workrate and the Masters


Somerset Maugham had one of the world's most sublime views from the writing room at the top of his house - across the Cotes d'Azur or something similarly wide and blue. He kept his back to it, setting his desk against the inner wall, so he would not become distracted from his writing.

I've just done the same - though my view is across the neighbourhood close and ends at the trees that surround the local middle school. The move was spurred by a dramatic moment yesterday - a woman walking her new puppy looked up at my window and waved at me. It had never occurred to me that people would look in as much as I look out. Though I waved back I felt both invaded and a little parochial, getting my buzz from the comings and goings and smalltown dramas of the street. Now my desk is set against a side wall and I've just this screen to stare into.

Maugham has always impressed me with his work ethic. In starting out as a writer he copied out favourite novels in longhand, so as to absorb some of their techniques.

I haven't the patience or penmanship for that - though if I were to choose such a novel I might go for a late Patrick White. I've been proving my work ethic today by 'googling around', searching Google for hours looking up places to submit review copies of ON SACRED MOUNTAINS to supplement my publisher's own list. My throat's sore, my head's full of a cold, my body aches, and I know any creative work I managed would only be thrown away when I read it with a clear head. Admin and marketing make me feel professional even if it has little to do with writing.

Having summoned the discipline to set his view behind him and gaze at a wall, I wonder if Somerset Maugham would have succumbed to surfing the internet given the chance. Would Henry James have dismissed his secretary and given us even more verbose later works by intoning into his Dragon voice recognition software?

I play a game with myself sometimes. I wonder if civilization would be very bereft if limited to the five major works of any writer, all others discarded. Salman Rushdie, for example, would still have three or four more books to produce and be committed to quality rather than quantity. Martin Amis would perhaps be free to start his oeuvre again from scratch. Committed to the daily grind of writing, with the extra speed of computers, we probably all bash out more works than the world really needs. Colds and search engines are just sent along to stall us a while.

Give me a blue view over France, and I promise to stare into it for hours every day.

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