When I first saw the name of the tent we are in today, at Edinburgh International Book Festival, I didn’t know what to make of it, and it got me thinking... I know of no such retreat. I had never spent any time contemplating such a retreat. When I was young my father, a well-known writer, never once spoke of such a retreat.
I thought about this for a long time: What is this writers' retreat?
In my opinion such a retreat does not exist.
There is no place into which a writer can retreat.
A writer can retreat into nowhere but his own writing... And in fact, this writing is a battlefield for the writer.
The place into which he is forced to retreat is the site of his fiercest battles.
His rivals in this battlefield are powerful ones: death, life, time, and truth... Wherever he turns, the writer is faced with these rivals, and there is no place for him to escape.
The writer tries to understand life, to overcome death, to defeat time that humiliates him by taking something from him at every moment by tearing pages out of the hands of time, and to reveal the truth.
For thousands of years people have been trying to understand the meaning of life, death, time and truth.
I believe that this is the reason they invented literature.
Some say that literature is the imitation of truth.
But personally I do not agree.
Literature is to create a new and pure truth from fragmented truths.
Life gives you truth in fragments... The truths you see, witness, experience and feel are not the entirety of the one great truth.
Because as they go through their lives, people hide their truths, they spend most of their energy hiding those truths.
Is there anyone around you who you think you know in their entirety?
Even the person who is closest to you has their secret thoughts, desires and weaknesses.
At the same time as revealing to you certain truths, states, companies and organisations hide from you the real truths.
Truths are hidden behind a perforated piece of cardboard; all you can see is what is visible through the holes, and even though you accept these as truths you instinctively hold doubts.
Literature doesn’t imitate truth, it reveals that hidden truth, rewriting it and sharing it with the reader.
Even the person closest to you has emotions they keep hidden from you, but when we, as writers, make that person the character of a novel and start to describe him, you see his most hidden emotions, his deeply buried desires, his frailty and the hidden weaknesses of which he is ashamed.
The truth is revealed in the lines of literature.
Novels and stories also reveal to you the things you yourself have hidden.
Those lines manage to say the things you could not.
This has a healing effect on the human spirit... You see that the malaise and weakness you try to hide, your embarrassing desires and your frailties do not belong to you alone. You realise that in fact you live alongside people just like yourself, with your share of the common malaise of mankind... Our common malaise and weakness is perhaps the thing that is most healing for humanity. It shows people they are not alone.
The retreat in which writers, struggling and fighting, take shelter is a retreat that in some way helps to heal the reader by showing them the truth.
I think that this is why readers feel a sense of gratitude, hidden behind admiration, for the writers of books in which they believe they have found the truth.
The truth that you cannot find in life, you find in literature.
In life, truth becomes fragmented.
In literature, truth becomes whole.
Working with these issues, finding the truth and putting it into a novel in the most beautiful and understandable way, is the main retreat of a writer...
A writer is happy when he believes he has succeeded in doing this.
But this belief and happiness lasts no longer than thirty seconds... Because he immediately starts to question himself, wondering whether he explained this truth well enough, and he again finds himself alone in his retreat faced with new questions.
Literature, the writers’ retreat, has incredible power against time.
However much scientists say that “zeroing your mass” would allow you to travel through time, your non-zero mass makes you a wretched prisoner of time that advances constantly... You drift through time like a blade of straw.
Neither can you stop in any particular moment, nor can you turn back.
But a writer can describe a single moment over pages, he can extend and expand a moment, can place great truths inside that moment.
Furthermore, literature can roam, as much as it pleases, within time... I can choose to go to the future or to the past, and I can even do both within the same paragraph.
In life, time is the master of the writer, but in writing, the writer is the master of time.
I believe that this is one of the most important reasons why literature is a retreat for the writer.
In the battle between life and literature, it is always literature that comes out on top.
Life is full of extremely ugly and unnecessary details... The brilliant and important moments of life are surrounded by thousands of dull and insignificant moments.
The writer weeds out these unnecessary moments from life...
And this is the secret to the writer’s success... Everyone knows what needs to be written, but it is only writers who know what should not be written.
They brush off the dust of life, recreating life anew with all its emotions and truths.
The many unnecessary moments that we live due to god’s indifference and laziness, are purged from life through the diligence of the writer.
In one sense, it is we who show god what kind of life he must create.
The life created by a writer is much more full and meaningful than that created by god. The writer is not afforded the same luxury to create empty and meaningless moments that is afforded to god... Because we do not have as much time as god has.
And what’s more, the characters we create always live longer than those created by god.
This is an area in which god can never compete with a writer.
Even the most incredible characters created by god rarely live to be a hundred.
But the characters created by a writer can live hundreds if not thousands of years.
God created Shakespeare, who lived just 52 years, but Shakespeare created Hamlet who has lived for four hundred, and will live even longer.
Literature is the place where humans surpass god.
For this reason it is both a bright and gruelling retreat.
Because god takes out his revenge for this defeat on writers... He crucifies them with pain, doubt and pangs of conscience.
Shakespeare created characters that would live much longer than those created by god, but during his own lifetime he had no idea that they would live so long.
No writer can know how long his characters will live, whether they will withstand the test of time... The writer is constantly plagued by this doubt.
These are the thorns that adorn this bright retreat... These are the thorns of which writers prefer not to speak.
And as for death, our greatest rival... Death annihilates the writer, but it cannot annihilate the writings of a good writer.
In this battle a good writer will always win out against death and against god.
We will win this battle, but we cannot know what death is.
This is perhaps the only thing we are unable to explain.
But it is a cruel and absolute certainty that we will all find this out sooner or later.
My advice to you is to be in no hurry to do so.
Even if you learn about life and the truth from us, sooner or later god will teach you about death.
You just need to be patient.
"Writer's retreat" is Ahmet Altan's address to the Edinburgh International Book Festival August 27, 2015. Read the Turkish text here.
Photogragphy: Sinem Babul.