In the spirit of it all, having only just realised that this is a new decade as well as a new year (bit slow, me), I thought about 1999. That was the year I wrote the first short story that was ever published, during my first visit to the sublime Anam Cara writing retreat which I have since revisited several times and where magic always always happens. Anyhow, I may really regret this, but that first story, Doing it in Eden, is still available online, in The Beat's second issue. Ok, yes, you can read it. Hmmm. Perhaps you shouldn't comment. No. Don't!
So, a momentous ten years, one that saw me starting to take writing seriously, attending two Arvon Courses, at the first of which I met J, my partner, and at the second was instructed by my writing idol Ali Smith to drop everything and write full time. An MA in creative writing, several workshops in the US, various publications and some lovely prizes, and then... my first book was born. What a decade!
Finally, I get it
After all that, it is fairly embarassing to admit this. But in the spirit of honesty I shall do it: only this week have I felt that I am really living The Writing Life. A few months ago I was asked to write about my daily writing routine for Branta and, perhaps stupidly, I wrote candidly about all the ridiculous things I do every day online. As someone commented somewhere, I should have been too ashamed to admit it all. Yes, I should have been. it wasn't so much a writing routine as Wordscraper tournaments and Amazon ranking checks with some writing slipping in there purely by chance every now and then.
Now, thanks in great part to the Twyla Tharp book, The Creative Habit, which I blogged about here, as well as being castigated by several far more efficient writers (thanks Adam M and David G!), I have made a radical change to my life, implementing it before Jan 1st to get a good start. And a good start it has been. I finally feel like a Writer. Let me elaborate:
Tip: if you can get through the first hour after waking up without checking your email, it gets easier, believe me. I was really tired the other day (see later for why) and felt weak, felt like I needed email. But I fought it. Didn't give in. And the craving vanished.
- Feed the imagination
So, first thing in the morning, after breakfast, I go out and, following Twyla Tharp's example of what a writer she knows does, I determine to come back with something. I take a notebook and pen, phone (for emergencies, switched off).
The first day I went for a wander around the neighborhood streets and while this was physically invigorating (damn cold) it didn't give me anything to take back. So on Day Two I headed the other way, to the shops, and went and sat in a cafe I'd never been in before. Because I didn't have my mobile on, I didn't sit there and check email obsessively every few mins. And I didn't look around for something to read or entertain me.
I just watched.
And I discovered how much I never normally see. The place was very busy, I watched everyone, and I wrote things down. And as I did this, I felt myself seeing in a whole new way, looking out for things no-one would see unless they paid careful attention. And, writing it down made me feel like a working writer. I was working. I sat for an hour and that day I definitely came back with something: a character. She then provided the inspiration for not one but two stories, or beginnings of stories.
- Don't write yet
- Make an appointment / Write at night
Are you surprised to hear that I got a lot done? I wasn't sure what would happen. At first, I thought I might fall asleep. But I didn't. I love nighttime, the darkness, the different kinds of noises (city foxes squealing in our garden). I wrote several stories, the beginnings of stories, transcribed things I'd written, and in one hour on Wed night adapted another of my stories into a play.
I tried to simulate the conditions in which stories come into my head as I am dropping off to sleep by lying on some cushions on the floor and letting myself drift a bit. Hmm, sort of worked. Not great. Let's just say it might take some time.
For me, as a short story writer, it makes so much sense to write at the end of the day, when stuff has happened, when you have material, rather than first thing, when I am not very awake, when it's all a bit of a fuzzy blank. A novelist has what to work on, what to return to, so that's different, perhaps you need that clarity, that lack of stuff, in order to get back into it. But for me, this seems to work.
- Don't beat yourself up
Not smooth sailing yet
Suffice it to say, the new routine has created some sleep problems for both of us, since I am creeping into bed at around 2.30am, and waking up at 11ish. We haven't got that one sorted yet. The other night I couldn't sleep til 4.30am. And, of course, I can't schedule anything for myself before 12 every day. Ok, that might be workable. I don't see why my writer-in-residence position at the Uni's Science Faculty should be morning-based? I bet a lot of the Faculty keep odd hours. Frankly - and I know I am not alone in this - this society is far too morning-based. New Scientist reported a while ago that, given the choice, the majority of us would go to be at around 1am and wake up at 9am. (Of course, if you have kids this is pretty impossible, I know. Sorry!)
So, there you have it. My first week truly feeling like a Working Writer. It is a relief to have got here. Because I didn't have a Creative Habit, because I didn't have a way of working, I was coming up with a load of bizarre scenarios - getting a job in a flower shop, for example - that might serve to force me to write. But now it all feels right, at last. I have a routine, I have time slots for different things, I have ritual activities to do, I have a way of generating inspiration.
It's all new and I know it will take time, will evolve. I am really excited to see how it goes, to incorporate days in the Nanoscience and Quantum Information Centre into my routine. I will write more as it happens - and wish you all a wonderful year in which you are able to do what you most want to do, calmly and without too much frustration, guilt and angst. Happy New Year!