Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Alain de Botton

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author answers three questions about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.

Please welcome Alain de Botton, a philosopher and the author of many books, including The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary.

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

A young student once wrote to the French novelist André Gide to ask him whether he should try to become a writer. “Only if you have to,” answered Gide, neatly summing up the best advice any writer can give a prospective recruit. The job clearly makes no sense from any practical point of view. It only intermittently satisfies ordinary longings for security and status. Trying to tie writing talent to a mortgage is akin to connecting a bicycle to the national power grid. So if one’s to become a writer, it clearly has to be from a motive other than the search for money or status. It has to because of the deep fulfillment that some people feel in arranging thoughts on experiences on the page.

I wrote my first book at the age of eight. It was the diary of my summer holiday, spent in the Normandy seaside resort of Houlgate with my parents, dog and sister. “Yestday nothing much happend. Today the wether is lovely. We went swiming for the hole day. We had salad for lunch. We had a trout for diner. After diner we saw a film about a man that found gold in Peru,” reads a typical entry headed Wendsay 23 of August, 1978 (not dyslexic, just learning English). If the book is unreadable, it’s because, despite the best intentions and neat handwriting, the author is unable to capture much of what is actually happening. There is a list of facts, the trout and a weather report, but life has slipped out of the picture. It’s like watching a home video, in which you’re shown only the feet or the clouds, and wonder, bemused, what might be going on at head-level.

The desire to record experience never left me, but as I matured, my technical skills slowly improved. I learnt that wanting to say something very badly doesn’t always mean that one has managed to do so. Writing is about capturing experience. Behind the desire to write is a wish to gain mastery over beautiful as well as painful feelings. Inspiration comes in many forms: a fine weathered brick wall, a humiliation, a painting, a face glimpsed in the street. For me, the finest books are those where an author has put his or her finger on emotions which we recognise as our own, but which we could not have formulated on our own. We have a feeling that the author knows us–perhaps better than we know ourselves. I aspire to write books that offer a feeling of recognition, and ultimately, of friendship.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

I constantly procrastinate over anything. The writer’s life is suffused with anxiety. In a highly productive, entrepreneurial age, it seems odd, even insane, to be locked away in a room, trying to hammer words into their correct places. I often have intense longings to go to an office–in order to share the burdens of my work with other people, as workers in offices can. Currently, I am overwhelmed by a desire to become an architect. I have always been marked by how much the buildings we inhabit shape us and I would love the chance to improve (in my eyes) the environment around me. I have a running dialogue with myself about what is right and wrong with the buildings I pass daily. I admire the ability of architects to be artists and at the same time, practical people of the world, whose visions translate into a solid mass. I don’t only want to interpret the world, I also want to change it and there are days when I am painfully struck by what a modest object a book is as an instrument with which to make a difference, compared that is, to the power of a government, a university or a business.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

I worry constantly about my future. Few writers are able to turn out a decent book a year, three or four years is more typically necessary, and even this rate is unlikely to go on over an entire working life. The idea of a Muse may be fanciful and sexually incorrect, but the lady evokes well enough the insecurity of the hold most writers have on their creative faculties. An element of chance lurks behind the birth of masterpieces, which aggravates financial anxieties: it is one thing to be poor and convinced of the worth of one’s work, far harder to combine poverty with an awareness a book isn’t going well.

As for where I write, it seems that my work is always best done in places where it isn’t supposed to happen. At a desk, in front of a computer, my mind goes blank, but as soon as I take off (to the supermarket, to Australia), inspiration strikes. Journeys are the midwives of books. Few places are more conducive to the internal conversation that is writing than a moving plane, ship or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of my eyes and the thoughts I am able to have in my head: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts new places. Introspective reflections that are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape. The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to do. The task can be as paralysing as having to tell a joke or mimic an accent on demand. Thinking improves when parts of the mind are given other tasks, are charged with listening to music or following a line of trees.

Of all modes of transport, the train is perhaps the best aid to writing: the views have none of the potential monotony of those on a ship or plane, they move fast enough for me not to get exasperated but slowly enough to allow me to identify objects. They offer me brief, inspiring glimpses into private domains, letting me see a woman at the moment when she takes a cup from a shelf in her kitchen, before carrying me on to a patio where a man is sleeping and then to a park where a child is catching a ball thrown by a figure I can’t see. Out of such fine filaments, books are born.


Readers/Writers/Looky-Loos: Comments? Thoughts?


Alain de Botton is a philosopher, who has started up his own school and architectural holiday home business.