Pensive Prowler #9 by Dmetri Kakmi
The Writer at Work
W. H. Auden relied on amphetamines, alcohol, coffee and tobacco to keep him at his poetry from 7:00 AM until 11:30 AM every day. Patricia Highsmith, who viewed writing as a compulsion without which life is a misery, applied herself to the novel from three to four hours every morning, completing two thousand words. She sat in bed, surrounded with doughnuts, cigarettes and a mug of coffee, intending to create “a womb of her own,” as her biographer noted. She also carried snails under her breasts and in her handbag but that’s another matter all together.
I’m interested in how writers work. What are the daily habits, the routines, if they have any? How do they summon the muse so that they may hedge closer to a blank page and fill it with tentative words? Or is it just hard slog, dependent on sitting down and bloody well doing what has to be done?
The answers to these questions are stepping stones, guidelines, and perhaps even crumbs that deliver us out of the forest into the glade.
Writers’ working habits are relevant because I’m a year late delivering the manuscript for my novel. The agent asks and I tell her it’s coming. But then so is Armageddon and any number of porno stars. Finally, in a rash moment, like an elf, I promised delivery next Christmas. And I’m determined to make it happen, come what may.
No sooner did the email go off, promising a December money shot, then panic set in. Can I do it?
Yes, you can, chirped a small voice in my head. You just need focus and discipline. But where do I find a surplus of these elusive qualities?
I am, by and large, a disciplined individual. I have to be. Otherwise nothing will get done. When not writing, I work as a freelance editor and writing tutor. In the normal course of the day, I’m either teaching, mentoring, reading someone else’s manuscript, copy editing, or composing a manuscript assessment. The monetary proceeds from these tasks bring in the moussaka and the Bombay Gin, an enticement at the end of the day.
The problem is that I prioritise freelance work and squeeze in writing when I can. This is usually the weekend or a rare free day. Sometimes weeks go by without me so much as glancing at my novel. The fallout is incredible. You lose track of events. You can’t remember character names, what they were doing and why. You fall out of the novel’s mindset and then you scramble hard to get back up there. Only to find that after a day’s work you can’t go near it again for another fortnight. It’s hopeless.
When I was at Penguin Books I worked with Ursula Dubosarsky, a well-known children’s author. She had a family and held a day job. Where did she find time to write? I often wondered.
“I get up at five in the morning,” she said, “and put in two hours a day before I prepare the kids for school.”
The pronouncement stuck and came chiming back when I read about Anthony Trollope’s writing habits. The Victorian novelist began writing at 5:30 AM every morning without question and continued for three hours, before taking breakfast and going to work at the General Post Office.
Going by his stopwatch, he produce 250 words every fifteen minutes. This allowed him to write ten pages a day, which explains his prodigious output in fiction and non-fiction.
By Pan’s beard, I thought, if Dubosarsky and Trollope can do it, so can I.
As a consequence, for the past few weeks, I’ve been getting out of bed at 6:00 AM and putting in 2.5 hours a day, before turning to other tasks. Excluding Fridays (my day off), that’s 15 hours a week. Not being particularly numerical, I have no idea how many pages or words that is per day. But you know what? I’m now in the rhythm. I’m writing almost every day and I don’t feel like climbing walls any more. The frustration is gone and I can bend my energies to my clients’ work for several hours without resenting them.
Like Trollope, I start by reading what I wrote the day before. I make corrections, adjustments, fix infelicitous sentences and add any new ideas that might have cropped up over the course of the previous day. Then I tackle new material and try to push through the fears and hesitations that find their way into my thinking as I work. The trick is to work quickly and following the dictates of the story. Like Trollope, I don’t allow myself to nibble uselessly at my pen or gaze at the wall before my eyes. I try to train my mind to focus and to work continuously during the precious 2.5 hours.
It’s amazing how time flies; it’s 8:30 before I know it and it’s time to log out of one document and get stuck into someone else’s manuscript. In the afternoon, I go to the gym or walk to the beach for a coffee. It’s my treat for applying Sadean discipline to weak mind and still weaker flesh.
The trick is to keep at it. It’s winter in Melbourne, bitterly cold and dark until 7:30 AM. Still, I’m determined to enchain myself. He who dares do less is surely not a writer but a newt in a hag’s blackened cauldron.
Dmetri Kakmi (Episode 158) is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. The memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. You can find out more about him here.