Perhaps it’s just anecdotal evidence, but it seems like you often hear about people who are afraid of the countryside. For those of us brought up amongst fields, trees, and wildlife, this seems an extraordinary concept; though I guess – as I have a deep-rooted fear of cities – the converse is not as unlikely as you might imagine. Personally, I hate the bustle, noise, and smell of city centres such as London and Birmingham, and I can’t imagine living in the midst of a constant rush of people, cars, and trucks; and the torrid sense of panic that life in general seems to require in these kinds of places.
So it was refreshing to be reminded by a TV documentary the other week about the life of Roger Deakin, who wrote about the wildness and beauty of the English countryside in Suffolk and Essex. He died in 2006, but others (including Robert Macfarlane in the recent documentary) have continued his work, showing how even the most industrially despoiled landscapes and man-made ugliness slowly convert back to nature. One thing I found interesting was how Roger worked from many different locations when writing. He collected a range of wheeled “sheds”, such as old railway wagons and carts, and parked them in different areas of his farm so that he could live and write in each one, depending on the season and the surroundings as they changed throughout the year. He said the style of his writing varied to reflect the features of each location, allowing him to change his view of topics and document them in different ways.
It struck me how I, like many writers, tend to do much the same. OK, so I haven’t adopted the local café as a base for writing adventures about a boy wizard, and I can’t afford to go off and live in Madeira or the South of France for a year, but it does seem as though – despite establishing a fully-fitted modern office with all the things you might need to be an author – I still exhibit itinerant tendencies, depending on the type and content of the material I am charged to create. Certainly at this time of year, with snow lying and a distinct chill in the air, the centrally heated office is my usual home. However, in warmer seasons, I tend to migrate into the conservatory – usefully equipped with a desk, power, and a network socket; and a glorious view of the garden, the fishpond, the birdfeeders, and a small copse of trees. And, at various times, I find myself in the lounge writing with a laptop on my – err – lap, or sitting at the dining table, or even standing next to the server cabinet during those “not really at work but working” moments.
And it seems that I do create different types of verbiage depending on the location. For many tasks, such as editing post review documents, creating schematics, teleconferencing, and writing and debugging code, I take advantage of the power of the big box and the screen space of two decent sized monitors in the upstairs office. And the view across the fields from this elevated location does make it a pleasant place to work at any time of year. In fact, most evenings find me wired to this machine through headphones for the conference calls and meetings that take place in US Pacific Coast Time mornings.
But somehow, as the winter wears on, I can’t wait to escape from the confines of the office, the random music stream from my media server, and the anti-SAD daylight lamp, into the warmth and brightness of the conservatory. It’s probably as near as you can get to working outdoors without actually being outside. There’s something special about the sun streaming in, the noise of water and fish splashing in the pond, the birdsong, and the occasional visit from a squirrel (or even, in the late afternoon, a vixen out early searching for food for her hungry cubs). And it’s here that I find I can so much more easily write those more lyrical sections of content, such as technology overviews, chapter intros, articles, and my seemingly endless stream of rambling blog posts.
Then there’s the times I need short, sharp, to the point content. A good location for this is ensconced on the sofa in the lounge, or perched on the edge of a chair at the dining table, as my wife watches East Enders or Casualty on TV. The almost constant yelling and screaming (from the TV, not my wife) seems to suit this kind of writing – keeping it tense and to the point. Though it does tend to need additional editing after I calm down again.
And then there’s those “in-between” times when I just need to check my email or send a quick note. The server cabinet includes a machine that runs a locked-down Windows 7 installation where I can administer the virtual servers and network devices, and do general administrative fiddling when required. It’s a perfect location for doing email and making brief notes because (a) I’m standing up, (b) it’s cold in winter, and (c) I have to use Notepad to write stuff. It keeps me focused on the job in hand, and tends to concentrate the mind into producing concise output.
The one place I find I cannot write, in a way that produces anything near to useful, is when I’m on site in the team room with all of my colleagues – as experienced in my recent trip across to Redmond. OK, so a constant stream of meetings doesn’t help, but even when there are a couple of hours to sit down and get stuck in I find I’m struggling to concentrate. It seems like my head is full of extraneous distractions and the words just won’t come. If this is an agile, writer in the room, close to the dev team process, I certainly need some serious practice to cope with it.
Maybe, unconsciously, I relate it to my fear of cities – and the accompanying torrid sense of panic. The only saving grace is that the corresponding requirement to complete the necessary work in my hotel room in the evenings means that I don’t actually have to watch US television programs. Not that they allow you to concentrate anyway. I tried to watch a late night political commentary show, which seems to allocate a maximum of four minutes to the program before breaking for five minutes of adverts. One of the guests was ex HP chief Carly Fiorina, who was fascinating to listen to. Here’s someone with real world business experience who has something to say about the state of politics and government. Yet, after four minutes, the presenter stopped “for a word from our sponsors” and then – after the ads – started interviewing somebody entirely different! No wonder our kids suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Mind you, back home again, there’s something tempting about buying some disused railway wagon and getting it dumped in the wood to provide another alternative writing location. Maybe I could equip it with a small stove and a camp bed, like Roger did with his, and move in for a week to write a chapter about some really complex technology that requires absolute concentration. Though, as my culinary capabilities barely stretch beyond Corn Flakes, I’d probably need my wife to establish a food delivery schedule to prevent me starving to death.