At the weekend, I caught myself doing something that – I now realise – I’ve been doing all my life, without really appreciating its significance. It’s something that’s as natural to me as being, and it’s the reason why, I think, that I love to make up stuff that’s not true.
I was in the company of one of my oldest friends on Saturday. He, his wife and their little girl were in attendance at a family event, and since it’s been some time since we’ve seen each other, we got talking. Inevitably, the conversation turned to work and what we were doing with our lives now, and he began to tell me about his professional life, his role at his workplace, and how he feels about his job.
As he spoke, my brain filled up with images – like I was watching a movie – and I saw my friend striding across an office landscape, making for a desk that turned out to be his, in a cubicle surrounded by several others, all of which were occupied. I saw him settling himself at his workstation, a photograph of his family beside his screen, and rolling up his sleeves as he got to work. It was as real as the surroundings we were sitting in; I felt like I was standing right behind his shoulder as he turned his computer on. However, all he was telling me was what he did for a living; he mentioned nothing about his work environment, what it looked like, whether he had colleagues in his immediate vicinity, whether he even worked in a cubicle – but my brain was busy filling in the gaps, nonetheless. I was fully engaged in listening to what he was saying, but another level of my mind was simultaneously telling his ‘story’.
It might sound strange, but it’s pretty much ‘all systems normal’ for me.
Whenever I am in a car, or a bus, or any vehicle really, I find myself being distracted by thinking about the houses and buildings that I’m passing. Who lives there? I ask. What are they like? What sort of house is it? I see buildings that, for whatever reason, will catch my imagination and I’ll let my mind’s eye flood with ideas about what would greet me if I walked up to the front door and opened it, what sort of hallway I’d see, the people I’d meet, the family dynamic they have. I am constantly burning with curiosity about the things I see – who built that? Why is this here? What was the point of that structure? – and sometimes I think it’s sad that I’m never going to see what it’s like inside the houses I’m passing, or meet the people who live in them and find out what their individual tales are. I wish I could see behind every door, peep through every window (not in a weird way, of course; simply out of curiosity! Don’t worry, neighbours – I don’t have telescopes trained on your domiciles right at this very moment MWAHAHAHAA… No, seriously, I don’t) and talk to the people I meet about their lives. But then I think that imagining these things, creating them for myself, is just as good. On an average bus journey, I’ve written a hundred stories in my head, all of which are ephemeral as dreams and which have faded away by the time I reach my destination – but the important thing is they existed, if only for a fleeting moment. It keeps my imagination-muscles primed and ready, and it lets my mind stretch, which means by the time it comes to actually creating stories I have plenty of brain-room to work with.
I think to be a writer you need a few things: an ability (nay, a compulsion) to work alone, on your own terms and entirely self-motivated; a strange mix of humility and utter delusion about your own ability; a comfortable chair; a supportive family; a background of reading; an ability to live on very little money, and – probably most importantly – a never-ending, insatiable curiosity about life, people, and stories, which will feed your imagination, which will then go on to create worlds that seem better, in so many ways, than the reality you’re living in. So, daydreaming is a good thing. Time alone to think is a good thing. If you see someone’s eyes wander off while you’re talking to them, it doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you’re boring; maybe it means that what you’re saying has grabbed their mind, and that they’re busily imagining everything you’re telling them.
It could mean you’re boring, of course. But let’s pretend otherwise, just for fun…