If mood controlled my writing output, I might never write a line. I’m not blessed with a happy genetic makeup—I lean towards the melancholic, doleful and introspective side of things, all of which may be the very reasons I’m a writer. I’m a shy, introverted loner and while books have always been dear companions, writing is my sanity. I’ve been writing since I was a child—poems, stories, diaries—all in response to my great love of reading. The novelist Pat Barker reckons writers are arrested within some childhood loss; she says, ‘I think in a lot of writers…there is a damaged child who never gets a day older. And I think that’s possibly why we do it.’
I have an organised mind and, because I write full time, I use my love of order to make sure that I write regularly. Like any regular practice, I don’t think about my mood, or my health, when I go to write. Writing is my job, my discipline, my habit, so five days a week I go to my desk and I write. I work in sickness and in health, as it were. My somewhat rigid personality means that I like routine, and my Catholic upbringing means I feel guilty if I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, so I go to my desk and I produce. There are downsides to this: enormous anxiety when I miss a day’s writing. Even, I’ll admit, anger if the path to my desk is thwarted or upset by apparent trivialities, like housework or the demands of other people. The upsides: I write a lot and by doing that, I feel I improve. Added bonus: I always (always!) feel better, more human—more humane, even—during and after a writing session.
On days where I don’t write creatively, because my other writing workload is large and/or I have a deadline for mentoring, reviewing, or non-fiction commitments, I feel like I’m shirking. Even though the other work is part of my writing life, and I have agreed to do it, I have difficulty accepting that. In an ideal world, I would just write creatively and not be distracted by peripherals but, really, I know that all of the other stuff adds to the pot and I just have to work on my preciousness about time.
Having said all of that, I can and do write anytime and anywhere. Yes, I now have a dedicated space—a beautiful, wooden writing cabin in the garden—but I write when I walk, in the car, on planes, in waiting rooms. Anywhere that I have the freedom to let my mind wander over words and ideas and pluck and store them. Up until this year I was writing in a corner of my bedroom, but it felt unhealthy to spend the majority of my life in one room, so I had my writing cabin built. It’s a haven, a gorgeous, sacred space that is all mine. It wasn’t exactly necessary but it was much wanted and I love it.
I find it hard to write when there’s excessive noise in my vicinity and constant interruptions. I don’t like anyone to come near me when I’m working. When my kids were much younger, I dreaded school holidays because the children wanted me and I wanted my desk and my escape into fictional worlds. Now that the youngest is nine years old, I am freer to write in peace. The family knows to leave me alone when I’m writing.
I have a low boredom threshold, I like to be always occupied but, as I age, I find I need to learn how to down tools and just be. It’s necessary for writers to have solitude but, for me, as an introvert, it’s also important not to neglect the outside world and off-page human interaction. Given a choice I might stay in my writing cabin, nursing my hermetic tendencies, and not go anywhere. Thankfully, the call of the world is loud and seductive and travel is the great unsung perk of the writer’s life. I love to travel and see new places (much as I might dread going beforehand) and I always return to my desk alight with new images and ideas for work.
Writing is so woven through me now that, apart from family, it’s the biggest part of my life. I often neglect other things in its favour (e.g. socialising and maintaining friendships that have no connection to writing). Inevitably, perhaps, most of my friends are other writers—there’s a communion we share that is instant, valuable and nurturing. Fellow writers so often get me and my concerns. I will go to a literary event quicker than any other cultural one; it’s a matter of prioritising what’s important to me, I suppose, though I’ve begun to check myself lately as I find I’m slipping into a mode of living that may not actually be healthy: self-imposed isolation; not engaging with anything that doesn’t seem beneficial to my work, or immediately interesting; being a bit hysterical about protecting my writing time. I want to try to connect more with my community, with real life, and balance it out with this bubble I’ve chosen for myself.
Does being a writer mean that I relentlessly catalogue my life, my emotions and my experiences as art? It probably does. Is it an unceasing commitment? If it is, it doesn’t tire or bore me, as most things do. I can’t, for example, easily watch TV for hours at a time, or patiently sit through long plays, or continue to read dull books. I’m twitchy, my brain is continually conversing with me, creating narratives around every small thing. I don’t write down most of it, but it’s always there, that loop of thought/connect/possible story fragment. The unconscious clearly plays a part in this. I go to bed thinking about my work-in-progress and, in the night-fog, I’m often offered a key to whatever knotty issue I’m trying to unravel in the narrative. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember these dream-offerings but, often, they come back to me and I mull over their usefulness and implement them if they fit.
Siri Hustvedt has said, ‘The making of art takes place in a borderland between self and other. It is an illusory and marginal but not hallucinatory space.’ I sometimes feel like this, that I hover above what I’m doing as I write. Pleasing word clusters, phrases and plot twists seem to occur as I write. I’m not much of a planner, anyway, so I rely on an organic, as-I-write dynamic that is probably controlled by my subconscious.
The purpose, or meaning, of writing to me is to explain the world to myself—my understanding of it—and to tell myself stories. It’s also to expose and examine the vagaries and compulsions of humans, as they appear to me. And the act of writing is closely linked with my health and well-being. I write in order to stay sane and relatively at peace with myself and the world. When I don’t write, I’m unpleasant even (especially) to myself. Writer’s block is not an issue for me; I never seem to run out of things to feel excited or intrigued by so, luckily, fallow periods are rare to non-existent.
My ideal reader is someone who is not afraid of discomfort, who understands that humans are flawed and stupid and kind and mad and, therefore, that characters in stories are also all of those things. I have no interest in writing about paragons or reading about them. Show me mucky, confused people struggling through and gaining small triumphs and fucking up splendidly. They’re the characters I want to read and write about.
Research suggests that women see the world in a more detailed way than men: apparently we see more colour, more nuance. Whether that’s true or not, and whether our alleged emotional variances stand up to scrutiny or not, I feel that I do see and feel the world differently from, say, my non-writer husband. At a party, I will (usually accurately) gauge the emotional temperature of the other guests very swiftly; I can see who’s down, who’s fighting, who’s content. I notice people’s outfits and jewellery. I hear conversations that seem to pass my husband by. Maybe I’m just nosy, maybe it’s because I’m introverted, or maybe it’s just that I’m a writer and therefore obsessed with minutiae, but I seem to engage more with my environment than my husband does. He calls it passion, I call it sensitivity. I really don’t know if it’s because I’m female or not, but I want to understand and know the meaning of things; I seem to care—often too much—about everything. I experience the world viscerally—women’s bodies are sites of so much action, and we negotiate the world through them, and surely that feeds into the writing.
The act of writing for me is a soothing, bindless thing. In life, I’m organised, I plan things and I control my time meticulously. When I write I enter a less taut headspace. In the act of writing I loosen up, I forget my worries, I’m a little chaotic and unguarded. I trust myself in the written word—I trust my word choices and my instincts and my unconscious acts. I don’t want, or need, anyone else in my mind. I don’t need cheerleaders and I certainly don’t need naysayers. Getting the words down is the most important part for me, I know that I can impose order later. I enjoy editing, I like to ‘pause in holy fear’, as Hilary Mantel said, then dive in and improve things. But the first draft is the place of greatest immunity and abandon and in it—in the moment of writing—I’m resolutely free, and that’s what I love the most.