In November, sitting at the breakfast bar on the 12th floor of a New York hotel, I started writing fiction again.
It’s the first time in more than five years I’ve written anything new – the fact that I can’t remember exactly when I stopped is somewhat shocking, considering I spent the previous twenty years writing almost every day. I knew it would take something unusual to get me started again, and no advice or encouragement from others would make a difference. The internet is awash with smug articles on how to overcome writer’s block, generate writing ideas, and craft them into shape, but frankly I think any attempt to explain this mysterious process is nonsense – writing-by-numbers just produces copies of copies, a hall of mirrors where every reflection is dimmer than the last.
Over the last few years I’ve nurtured four ideas for novels, a bit like those dragons’ eggs in Game of Thrones, dormant ideas lugged around, part-burden part-treasure, just waiting to be plunged into fire.
So why did I start writing again? What started the inferno?
The spark was New York itself. Last November, my wife started a 5-week work secondment in the city and I joined her for two and a half weeks. The timing of the trip couldn’t have been better, as I had just finished my MBA studies –four years of weekends spent with my nose in textbooks, and writing assignments – and suddenly I had the free time and headspace to go back to my second love (the first one of course being my wife – an insurance in case Anna is reading this).
New York swept me up into its crazy energy almost immediately. Anna had a couple of free days before starting work, and that first long weekend we mapped out the city’s matrix of streets on foot, dislocated by jetlag, surprised at every turn by the familiar and the alien. The Empire State, the Chrysler, Broadway’s brash trashy canyon. Central Park surprised us with its smalltown calmness. Ripped open blue skies framed the skyscrapers, gentle autumn sunshine illuminated the streets. We walked over Brooklyn Bridge at sunset, Manhattan blazing with light, the Hudson metallic and oozing sludgily below. Our hotel in a quiet section of Midtown East was a refuge from the crowds and honking sirens, and the days began with eggs and pancakes at the nearby diner, and were bookended with a quiet table at the local Thai restaurant or at Blackwells Irish pub. Those early days were a palate-cleanser – a brain-cleanser – wiping my mind clean of the grey Europe I’d left behind.
Once Anna started work, so did I.
It has happened before that a new place frees me up to write properly about another place, gives me the perspective to understand an object in the distance. And so it was with New York – the Big Idea was suddenly liberated, unleashed. I wrote two thousand words that first morning in the aparthotel, the peak of the Chrysler building visible from where I was sitting.
It helped that the city had a feeling of being under siege by the forces of history. The Trump v Clinton election build-up dominated every overheard conversation, every TV screen. And after the election itself, there was a sense that New York wasn’t just new to us, but to every single person in the city – everyone’s world turned upside down by the result, everyone suddenly an alien in a new America. The novel I’m now writing features a main character whose world has been capsized by the death of a loved one, so some of the chaos and disorder and grief I saw on the streets of Manhattan bled into the writing.
The Big Idea took shape in the grid of streets, in museums and Irish pubs. I alternated between writing and taking notes, mapping out the architecture of the new novel. One afternoon I sat in PJ Moran’s under a portrait of Brendan Behan, frantically keying the plan into my iPhone. The next day I was in the research room at the New York Public Library, typing away in the reverent silence. That must be my most beautiful post-writing walk ever, going down those grand stairs and out onto 5th Avenue just as dusk was settling.
And so a pattern was established: write something every day, or at least scribble notes, and always walk the streets and work it through in my head. Sometimes New York got too deep into my headspace, and it helped that I had a soundtrack for the new novel – the music of King Creosote helped take my imagination back to the east of Scotland, to the gentle thunder of the North Sea and the wet streets of Edinburgh.
And so I wrote, then walked, then walked some more. I had forgotten that feeling of embarking on a novel, where the direct – writing it – is complimented by the indirect – thinking about it, and having experiences that contribute to it in some unknown way.
I carried my Kindle with me on those long walks, and in the moments when I needed to rest my aching feet (most often in an Irish pub with a decent IPA selection) I read Tyler Anbinder’s City Of Dreams: The 400 Year Epic History of Immigration into New York. It’s a brilliant book, and encouraged me to make the trip to Ellis Island, which was an absolute wonder. I was there for four hours and could have easily have stayed for twelve. Set against the backdrop of Trump’s election days before, visiting the tiny island that welcomed eleven million immigrants was nothing short of astonishing. Equally unsettling was the fact that a quick search of their database threw up five Cockers from Aberdeenshire – knowing how unusual my surname is (thankfully for humankind) the fact that five from my ancestors’ county, no doubt all related to me in some distant way, had been through the island hit home the massive scale of emigration to the US around the turn of the twentieth century. Something of this also leaked into my writing in the days that followed, into the main character’s displacement and relocation to a new city.
I now have fourteen thousand words of the new novel – generally I’m a slow writer – but the world of the novel exists, and the characters that inhabit it are now alive. I don’t like to talk about projects when they are in progress but I don’t mind allowing you a glimpse. The Big Idea is about a young grief-stricken archivist who starts work in the mid-90s at a forgotten Edinburgh basement archive. One day he stumbles across a document that seems to suggest an old folk tale is in fact true – and by pursuing his interest, he uncovers an even bigger secret.
On my final day, sitting in the lounge at JFK, I really didn’t want to leave. Not only was it the best break I’d had in years, New York had unscrewed my head, rebooted my writing brain, and screwed my head back on again. New York pushed me in an unexpected direction and gave me a map of the way forward, a way to lead the idea into the light, and now every time I click save and shut down my laptop, I nod a quiet thanks to the city of dreams.