The Writing Process: Peter Ackroyd gives permission

“Well, I think it’s male, a great age, unpredictable, it’s diseased, it’s impatient, it’s energetic… that’s it.”

This is how one of my living literary heroes Peter Ackroyd describes London.  I’ve just taken an hour-long walk under that city’s ominous gray skies, heavy with the answer to London’s daily mystery: will it rain?  And like the cantankerous old man Ackroyd says London is, it would not give an answer.

Also known for not giving answers is Peter Ackroyd himself, who has written many books set in this city, as well as the massive and brilliant London, a Biography.  Now he has taken on a three-part history of the city from its inception to the present.

Although I admire his facile erudition and ridiculously prolific literary life, what I like most about Peter Ackroyd is that he gives me permission to be as odd as I want and need to be, validating the strange habits I’ve developed to immerse myself in and write about history.  As someone who is always trying to maintain a balance between my work and my life—and often “failing” because the nature of the work demands a certain obsessive quality—I admire someone who does not bother with the balance at all!  I’ve often chastised myself for the time I devote to my historical obsessions and my lengthy solitary periods, which can last weeks and weeks, even months.  Needless to say, one loses touch with the conventional world, which operates on an entirely different schedule, and which does not approve of one’s disappearing acts!

Hence, the man who professes not to care a rat’s ass about or take pleasure in anything but researching, writing, and drinking—and has the audacity to admit it—gives comfort to this also-eccentric soul who does not care if she leaves the flat for twelve days straight as long as there is an ample supply of caffeine and the work is going well.  Though I will never come near Ackroyd’s legendary drinking sprees, I, too, celebrate the end of the day’s work with a ritualistic glass of wine, though blacking out is not part of the routine.  Still, I understand Ackroyd’s need at the end of the day to wipe his brain clean of the mountain of information that we spend our days scrutinizing and absorbing.

Then there is the strange disappearance of my books from my head once they’re written.  What happens to them, I’ve often wondered, as I try to recall what they were about and why I wrote them.  Moreover, I have wondered what the heck is wrong with me.  Do I suffer from literary amnesia?  Or am I not as intelligent as I think I am, or as I have fooled my readership into believing? During the publicity phase, I often find myself groping to remember enough of my plots to answer readers’ questions.

In fact, my relationship with my books takes on the phases of a love affair destined for ruin.  When I am researching a book, I’m utterly devoted to it, as if it is the master and I the slave.  But once I start writing, I inevitably try to cheat on it by beginning other projects.  My manager has noticed this pattern and has declared me “naturally promiscuous.”  If I call her with a new idea for a screenplay that I cannot wait to begin, she always replies, “Oh, you must be on deadline for a novel.”  And often, while I am actively writing a piece, my mind is already obsessing on the next one, like the man who is making love to his wife while fantasizing about his mistress.  Then, like the worst kind of roué, once the thing is finished, I forget it entirely, as if I didn’t mean all the lovely things I once thought about it.  It goes right out of my head, and I’m onto the next.

According to Ackroyd, he follows a similar pattern.  When asked if he is going mad with all the information from his many, many works of history and historical fiction, he replies that he doesn’t keep any of it in his head.  In fact, he can’t even remember his last book, the one he’s being interviewed about.  “I dump it all. I don’t keep it in my head, as you can tell. I can’t even remember about that book we were talking about now. No, I can’t,” he says joyously, “And the same with Chaucer [the subject of another of his books]. I can barely remember the date of his birth. Or his first name. Yes, if I kept everything in my head, I’d be, as you say, a mess.”

And apparently, Mr. Ackroyd and I have the same experience of time and the past.  I have said many times that for me, the past is not past but is unfolding before me as I write about it, which has brought both skepticism and smirks from whoever I’ve told.  Again, Ackroyd confirms the experience!  When asked if he spends time in the past, he replies, No, not at all.  I don’t believe necessarily the past is in the past. It’s eternal, it’s all around us.”  He talks about the Aztecs, who regarded time as circular, and the Incas who saw time as a recurring 20-year period.  “So when people talk about the past, they’re talking about something I don’t recognise as being past.”

I read this interview at a time when I was questioning my process and its implications in what I guess we could call “my personal life.”  I will state for the record that unlike Ackroyd, I am emphatically not done with relationships and romance, but still, those things must always be considered in relation to the work, which is and forever shall remain a constant in my life.  With the work comes these oddities and obsessions that are not a result of the writing life, but a necessary part of the process.  As writers or artists, we must not judge ourselves for leading lives out of step with the rest of the world, but embrace the patterns and habits that bring us the energy and inspiration necessary for our work.

Here’s the link to this wildly entertaining interview with the brilliant and unapologetic Mr. Ackroyd: