As a child, I dreamed of being a writer. I read every profile of an author I could find in the Irish Times books section. I idolised Jo March, Emily Moon, Jo Bettany from The Chalet School series, all fictional writers who have so far enjoyed more success than me. I imagined I would have a study with a vast wooden desk, and the built-in shelves would be lined with my copies of my books, and I’d shut myself away in there and produce great masterpieces. Nowadays, since I moved into my new house last year, I finally have my own study, and the shelves (flat-pack rather than built-in) actually are lined with books I’ve written. The desk is vintage, the top scarred, the drawers deep. The walls are hung with pictures and inspiring postcards – places I’ve been and found interesting, quotes or messages, pictures of artists’ studios, even some paintings done by friends and family. I have an aroma burner, a space heater, a small couch – in short, everything I need to get on with writing.
Except creativity doesn’t always come when called, and I often don’t want to work in there in my lovely office. Many afternoons I find myself with my chin propped in my hands, bored, listening to the toddler across the street howling in anger, watching the leaves fall from the Japanese maple tree outside. Now that I can write full time, something I’ve never done before this year, the lure of doing the washing is often stronger than that of my office. I’d sometimes rather cook the dinner or sort the socks than be in there.
For years, even after I had a book deal, I wouldn’t give my writing any proper space or time. I wrote at the kitchen table, in a chair that gave me chronic back pain. I wrote on my commute, sometimes sitting on the floor of a packed train. I did a lot of work in bed (a childhood dream realised, but which also gave me chronic back pain – writing should come with a prescription for chiropracty). I wrote when I was exhausted or sick, or when I had no idea what my story was. It was just placing one word after another, with a deep and blind faith in the process. I never plotted or planned. I didn’t know how my books came together, I just believed that they would, if I kept on typing. I worked on a cheap netbook, held together by duct tape and hope. I worked with a laptop cable that had been partially chewed through by a dog. More than once these cheap computers died on me, taking reams of words with them Sometimes I worked on my iPad, with a Bluetooth keyboard. It was glitchy and took ages to connect, and Pages messed up the formatting of my novels, creating hours more work. I told people I’ve never got a Mac, too expensive.
It was a strange state of being – before I was published, I knew that being a writer was all I wanted, and yet I wouldn’t invest any money or time in it. I would take night classes in anything else – Spanish, philosophy, meditation – but not writing. Almost like I couldn’t give myself permission to even try. The fear of failing made me paralysed. I remember the day I first told someone ‘I’m a writer’, and immediately, ashamed, had to qualify it by saying I wasn’t published yet, I just wrote in secret. Even after publication, I still wouldn’t spend on a decent computer or desk or chair, as if afraid to admit that I was doing this professionally. It’s only now, seven years into a writing career, that I’ve started to unravel why this is, and invest some actual money in what I do for a living. So, I now have a nice office and a proper chair, laptop, and keyboard. I get massages and do yoga and take writing classes, I read books about the craft of writing and try to learn as much as I can. All of this helps me take myself seriously, even if none of it is strictly necessary.
Since I’ve been teaching writing – about six years now, including running an MA at City University in London – I’ve become almost as interested in the emotional side of the work as the craft. Some writers are born geniuses, with an innate feel for technique, but they hold themselves back because of various blocks and hang-ups. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of exposure. Literary snobbery. The quest for perfection. Bitterness. A belief that nothing worthwhile can be done unless you quit your job, write for eight hours a day. I’m fascinated by the many barriers we put up to achieving our own goals. In some ways, writing a novel is the simplest thing in the world. You just get a computer, or a pen and paper, and you start. No need for training or equipment. And yet it can feel like the hardest thing, forcing us to confront our own limitations right there on the blank page.
After writing some fifteen books (eleven published so far), I’ve settled into a well-worn routine, where I know not to panic if it seems like things aren’t working, and I recognise the different stages of pulling a book together. I’ve learned over the years that you do whatever works to get the story out, whether that’s writing on the floor of trains or in beautiful silent libraries. Writing retreats have done wonders for me – heading off for a few days of seclusion, though it takes a while to adjust. Complete concentration and flow is harder to find these days than it was when I wrote my first book, eight years ago. Back then, I didn’t know how to get email on my phone, and I had a three-hour commute, every minute of which I managed to wring dry for writing. I wrote my first book this way, and I’m convinced my concentration span has now been vastly reduced by social media and smartphones. In the Facebook groups I frequent, writers bandy back and forth various ways to deal with this issue of focus– leaving the phone in another room. Internet-blocking software. Punishments and rewards. I’ve sometimes written 17,000 words in three days on a writing retreat, with no chores to do or meals to cook. It’s amazing how much time you can fill up just with living, and also how much you can get done in a short space of time when you have to.
I’ve also learned to take it in stages. The initial writing can be done piecemeal, throwing down a thousand words whenever time presents itself. The quality doesn’t matter so much as the regularity, growing the narrative an inch every day. During this time I let myself enjoy the writing without worrying if it’s any good. The story comes as a surprise to me, since I haven’t planned it. I write in stages – the enjoyable first 20-30k, which inevitably slips out easily. The hard grind between 40 and 60, where nothing makes sense and the story feels like it will wobble over and collapse. The relief of 60 to 80 or 90k, when the story limps to a close, and you know it’s just a case of filling in the gaps. For me the hard work is done in editing, when I have someone else’s notes to brace myself against. It’s when I fix the jumbled timeline and work out who the characters really are and why they’re doing these ridiculous things. For this I need large blocks of unbroken time, and peace and quiet, and vast quantities of tea and biscuits. It’s when the real book gets written.
So, to sum up my perfect state for writing. I would be somewhere with a large desk, so I can spread out all the scribbled notes I write to myself. There would be peace and quiet, but enough background noise to sooth my agitated conscious mind. In her wonderful book Writing Down the Bones, which someone gave me at eighteen and which I’ve lived by ever since, Natalie Goldberg recommends writing in cafes and launderettes. A good compromise is to use white noise, like the excellent website mynoise.net – it has an ‘Irish coastal experience’ which I find very soothing. I would have access to gallons of tea, a fancy leaf kind. Maybe the Marco Polo from Mariage Freres in Paris (hideously expensive). I would have biscuits that magically would not contain any calories (writing involves a lot of sitting down). A good chair and a mouse and ergonomic keyboard (to try to stave off Writer’s Shoulder), a space heater ( I get so cold just sitting typing, even on hot days) and ideally a writing friend on-hand to talk through plot knots with. What I’m saying is my ideal writing place is a fancy country spa hotel, with a friend. But the work can also be done in hammocks, on buses, in waiting rooms, anywhere time can be snatched. We’re lucky that we can get in business as writers with so little outlay, and that even five minutes is enough to keep the story bubbling away, if that’s all we have. So even if we might rely on rituals and routines to get our work done, these are tools rather than restrictions.