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Writing in the Dark, Getting to the Dark

19 July, 2011

Sometimes when I sit down to write, things do not go as planned. Too often I am interrupted or I procrastinate. But the other week something different happened to hijack my writing plans.

I was reworking a short story to submit to a national competition. The deadline was drawing near. Halfway through my final edit, disaster struck. The winds that had been howling all day in the upper Blue Mountains, where I live, began felling trees, which in turn brought down power lines.

                                                                   Source: Blue Mountains Gazette. This large tree fell on a passenger train. No one was hurt.

Luckily, my house was not damaged. But the power went off, and it stayed off over two wintry days and nights.

Despite  the dangerous wind, plummeting temperature, and no electric heat or lights, things were not that bad.  I kept warm in front of my log fire and stayed rugged up with layers of thermals and wool, plus gloves, ugg boots and a beanie. My gas cook-top meant I had hot meals and steaming cups of tea.  Torches, candles and a Coleman camping lantern gave sufficient light for me to cook, read and write. No hot bath, but I made do by boiling water in the kettle and filling the wash basin.

Despite knowing I had no power, habit persisted. I found myself automatically pulling light cords and flicking buttons to get instant heat, light and entertainment. Without juice, many things I relied on—washer, TV, toaster—became nothing more than inert cubes. I felt thrown back in time, once again a child staying with my grandparents on their farm in Kansas. Like they used to do, I turned in at sunset and woke up at dawn. Unlike them, I went to bed with a hot water bottle, which provided only a fraction of the heat I was used to with my now dead electric blanket.

Despite the inconveniences, the power outage provided some writing benefits. For those two days, my life was uncluttered. Meals were necessarily simple, housework was forgotten. I was not wasting time on the Internet, and the wind made it too dangerous to garden.  The hours stretched out, ample time to read, do crosswords, and write.

The problem was my story for the competition. The most recent draft was stuck in my laptop, with no way to print it. I began scribbling changes on paper. Then I turned on my computer and revised, bit by bit, keeping an eye on the battery level. Luckily I type fast. I repeated this process each time new possibilities came to me.

Once the power returned, I completed a final edit and printed out a copy. But rather than posting it immediately, I  put it aside for a couple of days. Why?

My story concerns a confronting subject. In rereading my latest draft, I found it had taken on an even more disturbing feel, as if I had somehow found my way into the dark nub of my plot.  It was not simply that my story grew dark when I had to sit in the dark. The change was due to my short-lived privation, which forced me to work differently. With the days uncluttered, unencumbered, I was able to focus wholly, to ask my story where it wanted to go and then follow to see what happened. Because the laptop’s power diminished with each word I typed, I was thinking and planning more before seeing my ideas on the screen.

But would my dark changes hold up to scrutiny when I read, now snug in my a warm sunroom, with the lights on? They did.

I made a final copy, watching my printer, transformed again from inert to working cube, magically shoot out one printed page after the other.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 July, 2011 6:02 pm

    Good luck with the competition!


    • 25 July, 2011 7:08 pm

      Thanks Robyn, especially for your help with my story, and good luck to you as well. When I was at Varuna again, the other residents were all entering the comp, so I imagine the judges will have hundreds of stories to work through.


  2. 20 July, 2011 2:36 pm

    Wow! You had a good experience compared to us! Time to read and write and do crosswords.
    Here in Katoomba we had power most of the time, but were surrounded by people who needed us. My lounge room was taken over and I had extra to cook for. My friends were letting the deprived who still had to work, use their shower. We gave away candles and matches, and there were none left in the supermarket. In fact the shops were emptied of kero, lamps, cold food and anything else useful. It was surreal to have everyone else around us in so much need.
    I’m sure there are lots of people here who have the same story. Perhaps this disaster will become a story in my repertoire or in other people’s. But there sure wasn’t any time to read or write.


    • 20 July, 2011 5:55 pm

      I heard that the supermarkets had a run on batteries and the cafes were packed. Luckily, I stay pretty well stocked with necessities, a habit from my Midwestern childhood, where we always had canned food and other supplies on hand in case of lines down during winter or tornadoes. And because my place had no power, no one thought about coming to disturb me. Knowing you, I’m sure you’ll get a story about this.


  3. 20 July, 2011 2:16 am

    Must’ve been an interesting few days for you. Two days was the longest power cut we had. It made me glad I had candles and a pen and notepad to hand. What a nightmare, having your pages stuck on your computer and the battery slowing draining down. It sounds like you made the best of it though. I bet the story that came out of it was better for the interruption in your normal reality.

    Great post, very haunting.


    • 20 July, 2011 9:16 am

      I was lucky that I had a laptop, not a desktop computer, with the battery power that let me view my draft. I would have felt totally deprived it all I had to work with was some old printed drafts.
      The mental space, provided by the power outage, was a gift, enabling me to sit with my story without the usual interruptions and dis The challenge is how to incorporate something similar now that things are back to normal. I am planning an Internet-free writing retreat.


  4. 19 July, 2011 12:14 pm

    This post is like a ghost story.


    • 19 July, 2011 12:40 pm

      Maybe it was the influence of the ghosts at Varuna Writers House, which some of the other writers experienced the last time I was there


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