Sometimes, people ask me, ‘how do you write?’ This is in an interesting question, particularly as lock down has shed some light on the matter.
The truth is, I’ve always been a bit embarrassed about my writing process. I’d like to tell you that I have a writing shed, filled with colour-coordinated shelves of erudite books, framed motivational quotes from literary greats and healthy pot plants. I’d like to tell you that I squirrel myself away in this tasteful, Instagram-worthy shed for up to eight hours a day and write at least a thousand words in a stint. I’m thoughtful, considered, committed. A ‘proper’ writer.
But no. That’s not me. I write in my ‘study’ – which is basically the boot room by our back door. The dog comes in and out relentlessly, as do the kids. It’s messy, noisy and it’s where I spend most of my days faffing amongst teetering piles of paperwork, trainers and anything that’s been brought in from the garden in a hurry – usually piles of yet-to-be-folded washing, chair cushions, trowels and bags of compost, plus a skateboard I constantly trip over.
In this space, I spend a lot of time doing almost anything to avoid actually writing. I dither and procrastinate, until (usually about thirty minutes before I have to leave the house, for a school run or social appointment) a tiny snippet of conversation will appear in my mind. I chink of light into a scene. Then I will sit and hastily clatter out a thousand words.
This has always seemed to me to be a terribly shoddy way of working, even though I’ve come more and more to trust the power of my subconscious mind.
I’ve always felt embarrassed – guilty even – because writing is the thing I love doing most. I’m utterly in love with writing…still, after a quarter of a century doing it for a living. Surely I should treat it with more respect? Give myself over more completely?
I’ve always thought that the problem was time. If only I had more time to write. If only I didn’t have such a busy life and didn’t stack up my life with commitments, then my productivity would go through the roof.
But in these past three months in lock down, this is what I’ve learnt: That the absolute opposite is true. OK, so factoring in the issue of us being in the middle of a global pandemic and the stress that it entails (not to mention having three hungry teenagers roaming freely through my workspace), there’s been no excuse not to work. There’s been time. Oodles of time to write, but my productivity has nose-dived.
A friend told me about something Elizabeth Gilbert said. I can’t find her exact quote, but the gist is that you should treat writing like it’s an illicit lover. That it’s best to write in snatched, pressurised moments. Write as if you’re being pressed up against a wall having a furtive snog at a dinner party.
And that’s so true. I’ve realised that I do my best work under pressure. That my mind is firing when I’m busy. That between phone calls, lunches, shopping, booking holidays, seeing friends, those are the snatched moments where the scenes bursts forth. Without the pressure of normal everyday life, I can’t find my writing mojo.
I’m delighted that now lock-down is going to ease, it won’t be long before I can start to make arrangements (although I know this will annoy the hell out of my husband, who loves being a hermit writer).
With time being filled again, there’s even the possibility that my long lock-down ‘to-do’ list might finally happen. One item has already been scratched out, though. I’m not going to be building a writing shed anytime soon. I’ll spend the money I’ll save on lunch.