I’ve been feeling a bit lost: halfway through the first draft of a rewrite; main character fading in and out; a sense that this is going to take a lot longer than I had first thought. I’ve shown chapters from the new version to two writers’ groups and both have had the same reaction: a bit disappointed, generally in favour of the idea, but not huge fans of the execution. It’s at moments like these I begin to drift.
But recently, I had a bizarre experience. I was visiting Vienna with a friend. On the last afternoon, I wanted to go and see the house that Wittgenstein designed for his sister – now the Belgian Embassy. My friend was not keen, so I went on my own.
I finally found it: near Rochusgasse station, past a building site, down a road. When I got there, there was a youngish bloke with a backpack hovering around the entrance. We both looked at the door, I shrugged and pushed it open. A sign said entrance was five euros, but there was no one around. ‘I feel like we’re breaking in,’ I said. We wandered our own ways around the rooms, which were spacious and clean. In one, there was even a small pile of stacking chairs. In Cambridge, Wittgenstein had used stacking chairs at his tutorials. Students would unfold them at the start and pack them back at the end.
I heard my fellow intruder climbing the stairs and followed him. He spoke to someone and I saw, on the first floor, that two of the rooms were comfortably furnished. This, apparently, was the Belgian Embassy. But they had no problem with us carrying on our tour.
We met up again on a roof terrace. Turned out he was an architect who had moved, a few years before, from a village in Austria to live and work in Vienna. He had been working in an office round the corner and had seen the building several times but this was the first time he’d actually been in. We chatted a bit and he told me I must go and see the Loos’ Bar. I had already seen Adolf Loos’ Haus, which was great. He said, no, the bar, and described the intricate design. I told him I probably wouldn’t have time, as we were flying out that afternoon.
But after he’d left, I decided that it was exactly what I wanted to see. By then, it was too late to get directions. I remembered that he’d said it was near St Stephans Platz and thought, sod it. So, I went there, thinking I’d be able to ask. At the station, there was an information office for the trains. The woman inside had never heard of the bar, but offered to look it up. Turned out it was two streets away.
And it was great. Tiny. Hidden away from the large shopping streets. Like most of his designs there were panels of dark wood and glass, the tables lit from beneath. There was a smell of old tobacco. No more than nine seats, with a small swing-doored galley leading down to the toilets. The barman offered me a menu for drinks but I told him I’d just come to see. It was, I think one the best experiences I had over the weekend, like a genuine discovery.
The Situationists had an approach to the anonymity of the City which they called the Derive. You start in one place and at each possible turn go in any direction that feels right. By the end, you will have created a new and authentic experience, a map based on your own responses. My little journey had something of this flavour, though maybe with a little more talking.
So, what has this to do with writing? Just that perhaps, when I’m lost, it might be time to set out on a journey of discovery. By looking for somewhere new, breaking a rule, speaking to a stranger, following advice, taking a risk, with the hope that I will end up in a place I had never expected to be. Where to start? I’m going to go and talk to my main character and see what she suggests.
This is an article on the Loos Bar from Vanity Fair. They have the best photos of it I could find: http://www.vanityfair.com/style/food/2013/02/vienna-american-bar-third-man-nyc
This is a site about Wittgenstein’s house. Ignore the fact that it’s in Russian, great pictures: http://www.haus-wittgenstein.at/
And this is a slide show about how to do your own Derive: http://www.slideshare.net/Prof_Rawlslyn/understanding-derivepsychogeography