In Out of Sheer Rage, English writer Geoff Dyer set out to pen a biography of DH Lawrence and instead his process was derailed by procrastination and dissatisfaction. The book is a near perfect depiction of trying and failing to write a biography (although the book that Dyer did end up writing is brilliant, better than any straight-up Lawrence study that he should have been writing).
Last week, I semi-isolated myself in order to start working on a novel, a form I hadn’t attempted for a few years. My last novel took eight years to write and rewrite – and made me a very small, almost token, sum of money.
Did I really want to go through that again?
No! Yet there I was. I had a story in my head that wouldn’t leave me alone. And its imagined structure and tone were part inspired by Dyer – not his Lawrence book, but his more recent novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.
I would write in a room in a hotel in Ubud, Bali, that looked idyllic in the pictures. The location was also inspired by Dyer. In his book of essays, Yoga for People who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, Dyer described a stint in Ubud that is defined primarily by boredom.
He writes: “Oh Ubud, lovely, boring Ubud! It was so lovely, but we were there too long, far too long, and became somewhat demoralised by all the time we had on our hands.”
My idea was to go to a place so dull, so oozing in time, that there would be nothing else to do but write a book.
Previously, I’d had a conversation with some friends about what I might say should I see Dyer in an informal setting around Ubud
During my visit, the Ubud writers festival was on. The plan was to write 2,000 words each morning, then in the afternoons attend sessions at the festival to get inspired by other writers.
But when I checked into the hotel, the “writing desk” – the epicentre of my endeavour – was sawn in half. The pictures on the hotel’s website indicated a vast expanse of desk with enough room for notebooks and a laptop, at least four mugs of congealing coffee and a packet of chips.
But the desk – if you could call it that – was strangely narrow, about as wide as a Samsung Galaxy phone and useless for writing unless I wanted to work with my laptop dangling off the edge. I tried it briefly but the pressure of my wrists on the keyboard kept flipping the computer over.
The desk was not the only impediment.
At night the balcony light shone into my room. On the first night after spending 20 minutes running my hand across every surface, I still couldn’t find the switch.
It was useless ringing reception. When I checked in they told me all the room phones were broken. All of them.
When I tried to close the heavy drapes to block out the light, the drapes fell on me. The curtains, which weighed about 20 kilograms, half hung off the railing, with the rest pooling on the ground. Gravity threatened to tear the runner and associated attachments from the wall.
I wondered, do I dare climb on a chair and attempt to reattach the drapes (or as they say in Ubud: Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?)
As I went to try and sleep, shoulder bruised from being struck by heavy curtains, a scarf over my eyes to block out the brightness, the half desk shining in the perpetual balcony light, I wondered if these were far from ideal conditions in which to write a novel. The bad room was a sign – perhaps I should abandon my book. After all, that is what Dyer would have done.
The following night, I found out that the balcony lights were controlled from a switch near the lobby. “Where’s the switch?” I asked the concierge.
“They are in a central switchboard at the back of the hotel.”
“Can you show me where it is?”
“No, it is not an area for guests.”
“But how do I turn off the lights?”
“Call us and we’ll turn off the lights.”
“But the phones don’t work.”
“Come up to reception and tell us when you are ready to go to sleep and we will turn off your lights. You can also close the curtains to block out the light.”
“But the curtains are broken. They FELL on me. ”
I left the hotel, day five now without having written a word, and went to see a session at the writers festival. Somewhat appropriately, it was Dyer in conversation with Michael Williams.
After the session, I went to an Indian restaurant for lunch. Dyer was there sitting at a table by himself, eating what looked like a dosa. In a different universe (perhaps the disturbed universe where I stand on the chair and try and repair the curtains) I would approach Dyer and tell him that his story about the boredom of Ubud was the very thing that brought me here to write, and that the novel I was going to write was a triptych, its structure inspired in part on the diptych structure of his novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.
But then I would tell him that in a strange twist, it was his Out of Sheer Rage that was the true template for my current experience: the half a desk, the broken drapes (still not fixed!), and the maddening distraction of the balcony light, burning perpetually like a tabernacle flame.
Previously, I’d had a conversation with some friends about what I might say should I see Dyer in an informal setting around Ubud.
“Nothing,” said one. “You say nothing to him. You DON’T LOOK AT HIM, OK?! You certainly don’t tell him that he is inspiring your current work.”
“And you certainly don’t tell the plot of your current work,” said another.
“That I haven’t written yet,” I said, with nonetheless a question in my voice. “I don’t tell him about the thing he inspired that I haven’t written yet?”
I had seen it before in signing queues (never my own) – the excited reader approaching their writer/muse, sometimes with a book to sign. A messy word vomit spills out. It’s horrible. The writer is trapped, seated, supplicant behind their signing desk, while the fan – standing, in a strange reversal of power – looms from above, gibbering. Telling a writer about a book you haven’t yet written, is like telling them about a half-remembered dream. They may listen out of politeness, but it is not a conversation that they can fully or even partially enter because the thing itself is not real. It’s not even real to the dreamer.
I looked at Geoff Dyer happy, alone, eating a dosa, unburdened by the knowledge of how he had inspired the book I was yet to write, my literal journey here to boring Ubud, and my current distress with my hotel room, which was in turn blocking my writing of the book – and turned and walked away.
• Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia writer and columnist