Are you a writer during times when you’re not writing?

This question tends to appear at two or three o’clock in the morning, when a sharp sense of as-yet-unrealised projects can suddenly rise as though from the dark itself. If I am not on guard, a shadow side of doubt can take fearsome form, impede sleep—and threaten best intentions for the next day at the desk.

So in mid-June it was a great pleasure to discuss the question with new friends, in a room flooded with summer sunshine. We were part way through this year’s Wolf at the Door writing retreat at Dhanakosa, in the Scottish Highlands. Here, for a full week, writing was allowed to matter: through all seventeen-and-a-half hours of daylight, and into the night. We were exploring correlations between writing, meditation, and the dynamics of imagination.

Following a day of shared silence, we gathered to talk in small groups. Below the open window—past a lawn strewn with buttercups, and over the winding road from Balquidder—Loch Voil was calm and glossy. In such enjoyable conditions we pondered the question, ‘are you a writer during times when you’re not writing?’. On that occasion it felt truthful for me to answer straightaway, inwardly, ‘yes’. As the conversation began, I mentioned ‘loyalty and disinterest’ as two qualities that, together, can continuously nourish creative practice, especially through times of ‘not doing’.

My friend Margaret Cameron (1955–2014) was in mind. In her study I Shudder to Think: Performance as Philosophy (published posthumously in 2016) Cameron examines the development of her ethos as a writer, performer, and director. She emphasises that ‘loyalty and disinterest’ became no less than a methodology for her work after she encountered American choreographer Deborah Hay, in Melbourne, in 1996.

‘This embarrassing poetry is all I have’: Cameron evokes her methodology as one of listening to her attempts at writing, and learning to hold them all lightly. Such delicacy, she found, allows the words’ shifting possibilities to ‘hover like a kite held with two strings, one string of “loyalty” and one string of “disinterest”’. Practised simultaneously, ‘loyalty and disinterest’, ‘like the like-ends of magnets that will not go together, create space—a paradox to work in’, she affirms.

Notwithstanding weeks, even months of fallow, when my notebooks are merely crisscrossed with lists or hasty reminders, I maintain respect for myself as a writer by rediscovering ‘loyalty and disinterest’ over and over. Both involve patience, and paying attention. ‘Disinterest’ points to a helpful emotional distance, an attitude of simple curiosity rather than judgement. If I notice feeling aloof from creative practice, the noticing is free from a larger story; rather, it is gently questioning.

Meanwhile, ‘loyalty’ infuses the space of ‘disinterest’ with emotional warmth, expressing faith in my fundamental connectedness to the writing life—confidence in the vigour of its energies. The simple curiosity, then, relates to what I will be writing next, not ‘if’ I will write! Loyalty counters harmful doubt. Disinterest acknowledges that fresh ideas and bright work can emerge in tender ways at first, and often need shelter from the glare of the appraising mind.

Among my souvenirs from recent travels in Scotland is the collection Subjects and Sequences (2004), a tribute to Margaret Tait (1918–99). ‘As both poet and film maker, she makes difficult demands’, observes Ali Smith in her essay for Subjects and Sequences. While savouring this handsome book, once again I have been reminded of Cameron: if each of these artists refused easy descriptions of her work, each was highly articulate about her creative intentions and concerns.

Discussing her early film Three Portrait Sketches (1951) for BBC Scotland, Tait spoke of ‘treating everything equally’. She was thinking aloud about ‘everything’ within the camera frame, whether woman, leaf, or wall. (On another occasion, she cited the equal importance, in filmmaking, of image and sound.) Yet the phrase ‘treating everything equally’ resonates beyond Tait’s film poems, seeming to point quite precisely to ‘loyalty and disinterest’ as aspects of equanimity, a non-judgemental composure. From there, ‘treating everything equally’ is easily an instruction for meditation, and just as helpful for keeping faith with writing when no words flow. In the frame of attention, ‘no words’, or ‘not writing’ is just one element. If I can remain curious, ‘not writing’ might become an exquisite silence. And that silence, or another, might become a startling question.

For the sake of silence and solitude, celebrated French writer Marguerite Duras (1914–96) took to her house by the sea. ‘When I was alone in the house, everything wrote. Writing was everywhere’: with stark fervour she wrote the five short pieces published under the title Writing (translated by Mark Polizzotti, 1998; read long passages from the first piece here). On this Wolf at the Door retreat I was far from alone, but silence and solitude could burn brightly in meditation, and through a few afternoons of hill-walking. I thrilled in the opportunity to be alive to writing ‘everywhere’, across landscapes without and within.

What luck: soon my notebooks were striated with images, ideas, words exchanged with the dearly departed. The open pages were being sown like a wildflower meadow. Since then, ‘writing is everywhere’ has become a stirring reminder of that week, and another source of encouragement in the deep of certain nights. Loyalty and disinterest. Yes, I am not writing, yes, writing is everywhere, yes, I am a writer. The breath of this body is breeze enough to keep aloft a paper kite or two.