Im 2012, I had to take a year out to write. I was doing the kind of job that (a bit like the nematomorph hair worm that colonises the belly of its host and eats them alive, causing erratic behaviour and, eventually, death) wasn’t leaving any space for thought and creativity. I needed time – and solitude – to write. To write badly. To re-write. To clear my throat. To get the junk out. To deepen my craft. To scrunch up bits of paper and throw them over my shoulder. And then, to strike gold. It’s the ‘10,000 hours until you’re an expert’ thing. I would never have brought What Milo Saw into the world without that year.
To be free from the clutter and distractions of working life, was a gift. For the first time in years, I could hear myself think – and my thoughts didn’t just skim the surface, they went deep. How does that old saying go? A stone sinks faster – and further – in still waters. For hours at a time it was just me, Radio 4, Vi and Seb (the Doodles) and, depending on how many parcels my neighbours had ordered that week, the postman. It was wonderful. My characters became my primary company and so, by necessity, I had to make them real, to hear their words and thoughts, to feel their breath on my neck as they looked over my shoulder at the page.
And yet, taking a year out came at a price. The very solitude that allowed me to create, became painful. Not at first – for a good 12 months I was thrilled by the change in pace, by the lovely silence. But, as year one turned into year two and as pregnancy hormones crept in, I began to feel, well, a little lonely.
I missed the structure of working life. Above all, I missed the people. The Office, of Ricky Gervais fame, has given that most basic of human activities – going to work – a bad name. In some ways, rightly so. Colleagues can be infuriating and boring and ridiculously petty and bureaucratic and self-important and downright nasty. But they can also make you feel part of the gang – something we humans seem to need as much as we do food and water. It’s a tribal thing. I missed getting up when my alarm rang, I missed getting into proper, adult clothes, I missed driving to work, bumping into the cleaner and having a chat, exchanging a good-morning nod with an early-bird colleague. I missed letting off steam at break time over a cup of economy instant coffee with curdled milk from a stinky fridge. I missed someone asking me how my weekend-half-term-holiday was. I missed sharing ideas with people who didn’t live inside my head. Believe it or not, I missed meetings. I was lucky, perhaps, because I worked in a department with a motley crew of quirky, intelligent colleagues. Our meetings felt like eccentric dinner parties – with cake!
And yet, I knew that if I went back, certainly if I went back full time, I would have to give up the lifestyle that had allowed me to fulfil my dream of becoming a published writer, the lifestyle which brought Milo to the world.
Nevertheless, I had to do something. I had to get out. I had to find new colleagues.
So, I packed my rucksack, put on my trainers and walked to town. First, to Costa Waterstones in Reading (that’s where I wrote most of Milo). And now, to Costa Crowthorne, just up the road from where I live and work.
A friend who works for O2 mentioned that they were doing a study on the Coffice phenomenon, and I immediately identified. This is where I work best. Surrounded by the buzz of strangers and the loyalty of barristas who know me by name, who start making my drink before I’ve got through the door, who ask me how Tennessee is, who buy my books and tell me what chapter they’re on. The cynical amongst you might say that they’re just doing their job – that they learnt to do this on their customer-relations course. Maybe so. But life’s too short to be cynical – and being cynical doesn’t do justice to the complex motivations that make up our actions. I’ve got to know Katie (the best manager in the world – I wish she were my boss), Richard George (musician extraordinaire), Thomas, Toufik (the Picasso of barristas), Mike, Sylwia and Emma Potter (writer of fantasy – watch this space) – along with some others (Hannah, Emma and Probhat, the part-timers): and they’re awesome and kind and funny. And they care. They’re my buddies. My colleagues. They make me feel part of the gang. And they let me write.
So, with my laptop plugged in, my biscotti crumbs, my latte (thick with that yummy silky foam I love), my notebook and my imagination – I have the best of both worlds: the social kind of solitude that we writers need.