Where I write today
The bright Spanish sun that forces me to wear the children’s factor 50 sun cream on my face when I leave the house, and which has made the left side of my legs darken a little from where I sit on the balcony to read but has so far been ineffective on the right side which typically faces away from the glare, this sun is not present today.
Instead, I sit inside, on my sofa, in my room below the main house, peeping out from behind barred windows, past the palm tree that stands in the front garden and a lamp post which feels it could belong in Narnia. Most days, I can see the tops of the mountains, and a statue of Jesus with his arms outspread as if he were blessing the village in the valley below, but today the trees of the hillside hide behind the mist. It might be May in Spain, but the rain is Welsh-like, moving left to right across my window in great sheets like a GCSE textbook diagram of a sound wave.
To compensate, I’ve wrapped myself in a huge thick fleecy blanket and nestled within the cushions. There are four, two for this sofa, two for the bed with elephants embroidered on them in what looks like an Indian design which I can’t help thinking doesn’t fit with their pastel yellow and purple colours. It’s a fabric haven in a room without carpets or curtains.
Pulled up, right against the sofa is a little black metal table, which rocks precariously as I type. I mustn’t stand too quickly or my mug of tea, made using a microwave and UHT milk, will splash and end up flooding the floor, again.
The temporary nature of the situation is further exaggerated by the music playing out of the tiny tinny speakers on my phone. Spotify has decided I’m Spanish and its recommendations are for playlists of mostly Spanish songs. Occasionally something familiar pops on and my memories drag me to a different place, a club in my home town when I was eighteen, sunbathing in the garden at university whilst mentally chastising myself for not revising, or an argument about my distinctly bland taste in music with a friend who’s own taste involves pirate songs.
Bland music though suits me when I write. Anything too rich can be too much of a distraction and writing requires my concentration. It does not involve hoisting the sail on the Jolly Roger.
The importance of variety
The best advice on writing is always to write more and read more. But is it really all that simple? I’m reading How We Learn by Benedict Carey. It’s a book I wish I’d read before doing a degree, for it has taught me that I never learnt how to learn efficiently. Surprise, surprise but practice, practice, practice isn’t the quickest way to get better at a task. And almost more startling, it’s better not to have a single dedicated quiet study space. Variety promotes learning too.
The idea runs like this. If you study the same material in multiple environments, with different background noises, if you’re mixing up working inside and outside, switch between the bedroom, the study, the dining room table and the coffee shop, you’re somehow providing your brain with more context to the information, which makes finding a way back to it easier. Or at least according to my understanding of Carey’s analysis of the scientific studies on the effect of context.
The same goes for mood. Only studying when you are in a single mood limits the moods that your brain associates with that information. Cleverly they tested this with people who are bipolar and people who were under the influence of mind-altering drugs. Mock exams are important because they train your brain to work in the environment in which you’ll have to regurgitate the same information. Laying on the beach after months of stressed revising and exams, your brain probably still contains the same information, but without the cue of mood struggles to know where it went.
A tangent on sleep
I wonder if the idea can be transferred to sleep. Do people who regularly switch beds have an easier time finding the path to content sleep in a new environment?
There are few places I struggle to sleep. It’s not that silence and comfort aren’t extremely valuable to me, but that their absence doesn’t prevent me resting. For years I slept to the not quite audible drown of Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter in the room next door. I hate sleeping with music on, but sometimes it’s not worth the argument to get it turned off. (Although I admit there is occasionally some music or radio adverts are too aggravating for even me.) I have slept soundly in tents beside loud and drunken festivities and in the centre of London with sirens sounding all times of the night. Hostel rooms aren’t my favourite but their cheap beds and the sound of cheerful chatter at 3am have never stopped me sleeping.
Ideally I sleep in silence on my super soft foam covered mattress snuggled under my own cosy warm duvet. Here in Spain I play a game with the blanket and the window, trying to gauge whether it is going to be a warm night or a cold night. Tonight, will surely be cold after all this rain, but it is a continuous guessing game.
I switch beds and desks with ease. Travel forces me to keep adapting, for I must write and sleep anywhere. When the children are at school I’ll move my computer out to the dining room, or upstairs to the living room sofa or, should that bright Spanish sun change its mind, I’ll be out in the balcony frantically scribbling into my notebook or down on the high street beneath the parasol of a little coffee shop. And just a few weeks ago, I’d never seen any of these places, and in a few weeks time I’ll take my last look at them. Where I write changes, and that, I hope, gives the end product a little more richness.