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Sarah Britten

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Why writers need silent treatment

(Written on December 22)

It is important to choose your holiday companions with care. Holiday companions of the wrong sort can leave you feel exhausted instead of refreshed. There are the types who start drinking at 9 in the morning, or get restless and want to go out all the time, or incense you by flicking cigarette butts onto the lawn. The ones with verbal diarrhoea are the worst. All of this matters, because when you are a writer, especially one with a day job, holidays take on a different complexion entirely. For a start, getting the leave means getting permission from your manager and approval from HR. There are forms to be filled in and payslips to be updated. You can’t just up and go, as you could if you were a freelancer. So the time, hard-won, is precious, and it’s important that you make the most of it.

I like going to the bush to write because, aside from game drives and sitting around the fire drinking Merlot, there are few distractions. There is no TV or radio, cellphone signals are unreliable and internet access is a challenge; it’s possible to go for a week or more without having the faintest clue what is going on in the world. (This is something I recommend highly – we all need a news detox from time to time.) A lot of people find this arrangement daunting, and need to go out to visit the local cheetah-breeding centre in order to fill up the giant chunks of time available to them. These are exactly the kind of people you don’t want on holiday with you in the bush.

I’ve been staying in a camp in the Timbavati and in order to upload this blog, I’ve had to take a 20 minute drive to Hoedspruit. Here I like to sit at the Wimpy, because it has an outdoor seating area and a plug, which is important because the laptop I use for internet access has a battery life of 45 minutes if I’m lucky. Also, it is possible to spend time at Wimpy relatively cheaply, ordering a Coke Zero here and a plate of chips there. It helps that the service – in marked contrast to the ambient temperature, which hovers in the upper 30s – is glacial.

This time it’s just me and the younger of my two brothers (the other is snowed under in the UK, where he lives). Maybe it’s unusual for adult siblings to spend holidays together like this – I’ve noted the raised eyebrows when explaining to our neighbours here who we are – but since we’re both single, it makes perfect sense. In fact, it’s quite possibly the best arrangement for ensuring that I actually get some writing done.

My brother and I seldom clash and we’re never short of things to talk about, from Richard Dawkins (my brother finds Richard Dawkins intensely irritating) to the awfulness of South Africans in London, to family holidays past. Though we can talk all four legs off the proverbial donkey, we’re also perfectly happy to sit in companionable silence for hours at a time. This is very important for writers: not to be required to make small talk. Making small talk is distracting and ruins the flow of your thoughts. So if you’re not going to be alone while you’re writing, you need to be with someone who is not offended if you don’t talk. This makes going on holiday with significant others a challenge, because significant others tend to want you to pay attention to them all the time, and this means less time to write.

There we are, surrounded by the sounds of the bush, my brother bent over his model aeroplanes (this one is an F-117A), masked to prevent inhalation of paint fumes, me seated outside with a bag of ice on my lap to counter the swampy heat, my MacBook on a folding table. A Black Cuckoo calls in the distance – “I’m so si-ick”, one of the most consistently irritating sounds of the Lowveld – a Woodland Kingfisher trills noisily from one of the huge riverine trees in the camp, and the Arrow-marked Babblers babble.

Neither of us feels the need to talk. This is how it is possible to be when you know one another well and you’re not worried about whether the silence of the other signals a bad mood or a passing phase of melancholy or – most terrifying of all – actual silent treatment.

For writers on holiday, silence of the right kind is very important indeed.


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