You may know I’ve been reading the latest installment of Michael Palin’s diaries. They cover his travelling period, 1988-98, and reflect a very different stage of his life. Python is a distant memory, although he remains in close contact with all of them. He’s now financially comfortable although, reassuringly, he never comes across as ‘rich’. That’s a clumsy way of saying that he keeps his feet on the ground, works hard and seems to live as normal a life as anyone else.
But I’ve been driven to write before finishing the book. The entry I have in front of me is for Wednesday, July 13th, 1994. It is a reflective piece about Palin’s inability to concentrate on his novel. The novel never was finished, and the diary piece comes on the heels of five months intensive labour. He wrote and remained closely involved in “The Weekend” through its provincial try-outs and into London’s West End. By any other standards, the play was a roaring success. But Palin’s name and the casting of Richard Wilson in the lead role led to pressure and expectations that could not be met.
Palin admits that he is prone to “an inability to concentrate on one single area of my life, the ability to be easily distracted by a phone call, a book, maybe something more abstract - an emotion, some obligation remembered, a twinge of remorse or regret at some connection made, but not sustained.”
Surely now, with the internet and everything associated with it, these kinds of interruptions are even more regular. I recognise these behaviours in myself: almost looking for an excuse to not do some productive writing. Perhaps even this blog is a distraction from that. But I found them striking here. First of all, because Palin is so highly regarded as a writer and performer. But secondly, because of the juxtaposition with the following from 14th July: “As so much of Python was born in or looking out over TJ’s garden, I feel a sort of completeness…”
This suggests to me, and fascinates me with, the possibility that some writers, especially those involved in television and theatre, work better with someone else. The archetype of the novelist is of a lone wolf, someone perpetually detached from what the rest of us consider to be daily life. Yet here is a supremely successful, and somewhat famous, writer admitting that he just can’t concentrate.
Writing anything demands concentration and an element of solitude. But I also believe that the creativity which results in something written is primarily social. The strange incident witnessed outside the pub, the stand-off in the car park, the bizarre story in the newspaper, the weird family grudge. These are the ingredients of fiction, and also comedy, and they are so odd that very few of us could make them up. This is material. Everything bad that happens to any writer, or anyone they know, goes into the box marked ‘material’. Virtually nothing bad that ever happens in the world can happen to a solitary human in a small, dusty room unvisited by man or canine. To get to the point at which you write, you need a lot (a surprising amount) of background experience.
And this leads me to my unsolicited advice to Michael Palin, just over 20 years later. Writing on your own is much harder than people think. But I wonder if it actually leads to the very best quality? Perhaps the very, very top notch stuff only happens in groups. Perhaps Python felt so much easier to create precisely because it was a team effort. Less pressure, no expectation of course back in the 1960s, but I think it’s far easier to spark off a second person than it is to come up with every single word on your own. So, Michael, don’t see this butterfly behaviour as a negative. It’s okay to write with other people. Perhaps some people are just predisposed to be either lone wolves or pack hunters, and never both.
I felt this very strongly when I was moved to write about it. However on reflection, I can’t think of any towering colossuses of world literature written by two or more people. Perhaps novels and TV/theatre really are worlds apart. Or perhaps novelists just don’t make enough money to have to split it 50-50 with a friend. And we’ve all seen how bitter musicians often get when their band splits.
Nevertheless, I hold it up for debate: is writing really as solitary an endeavour as we all think?