Been a while since my last blog. I’ve been busy working with my editors at Honno on novel number two, Light Switches Are My Kryptonite, which is due out April 20th. I’ve also been finishing the first draft of novel number three, as well as tweaking a collection of short stories that I may very well self-publish, since very few publishers will be seen dead even standing in the same room as a book of short stories – seriously, I even heard a real-life story once about an editor who actually dared to touch a short story manuscript with her very own fingertip, and her hand shrivelled and blackened and she literally dropped dead, right there and then, and I hear her soul now burns in the fiery pits of Gehenna.
Today I’m going to take a break from the uplifting world of feminist indignation and dysfunctional motherhood to talk about my everyday life as a writer and, next blog, my experiences of publication. People tend to find this sort of thing interesting, otherwise, why would there be so many articles about author’s writing routines and pictures of their desks?
(And here, by the way, is a great little comic about Stephen King’s relationship with his desk.)
I first started writing at a desk in my bedroom in Fishponds, Bristol, over-looking the street outside. Pretty basic. I moved back to my grandmother’s attic room in Cardiff, deskless, so I put my PC monitor on top of a small, three-drawer bedside cabinet. I’d sit on the floor cross-legged with the keyboard on my lap, smoking roll-ups and popping dihydrocodeine tablets ten years out of date while my girlfriend at the time played with an acoustic guitar or the PS2, sometimes pausing to take wanky art photos of her pale foot.
I finally got a desk after my girlfriend moved out (not a bad swap actually). It was a giant pale oak one from Ikea which my nan had previously used for her voluntary secretarial work at the Union of Catholic Mothers – so a goodly, blessed desk – and the chair, also from Ikea, was one of those bendy recliners. I sat at that desk every spare hour, crafting poems or short stories. I started getting a bad back. I wrote sober, but in the evenings, once I’d finished writing, I’d get out some red wine, dim the lighting, lean back in the recliner and listen to Edith Piaf records on vinyl, feeling very pleased with myself.
I can’t listen to artists I love when I’m writing because I may get distracted and start singing along or else lapse into romantic fantasies about St Vincent (I’m miraculously as thin as her in these fantasies and she just lives for my poetry). So sometimes I choose music that I don’t give much of a crap about. Classical or jazz, for example. These days I tend to just play the radio – BBC 2 or 6Music, but if my daughter’s around then CBeebies will be on and I will write to the sound of Mr Tumble sticking balloon animals up his piss-hole, or whatever it is he does.
And on the subject of intoxicants – Catherine Merriman, a fellow Honno lady and my former tutor, once imparted some wisdom concerning writing and alcohol: ‘A glass of wine or two is useful for generating ideas and getting the story down, but stay sober for the editing.’ It’s good advice. Go beyond a glass or two and things will get shitty very quickly. The book I’ve been working on recently is unabashedly self-indulgent, with lots of stream-of-conscious narrative and no respect, basically, for the rules of good writing (because I am a brave maverick), so it lends itself well to boozy waffling. Most of it has been written sober, however, and that is how I will edit it, because I’m not that stupid.
Now, opiates. I used to think I took them because they helped me write, that they kept me focused and made the act of writing more enjoyable. This is so much crap. I took the drugs because they’re drugs and they make everything more enjoyable. I used to work a regular 16-hour night shift at a care home every Monday, and at the end of the shift, near 8:00am, I would go and have a quick wash in the resident’s bathroom, brush my teeth, take a few codeine sulphate which I’d nicked or bribed off my dad the previous day, then take the train to University. I light-heartedly and lovingly referred to these days as Codeine Tuesdays, as if they were jolly weekly jaunts to my favourite picnic spot, where i could look forward to washing down my pharmaceuticals with lashings and lashings of ginger ale. I had two hours before first class so I’d go to the student’s union and pop more codeine and write poetry in a notebook (poetry is the only thing I can write longhand). The combination of codeine and sleep-deprivation resulted in some good poetry, I thought. But actually, I’ve written plenty of decent poems sober. The little addict will always provide excuses.
Now, back to the writing space. Here is Sylvia Plath giving minus-zero fucks about ergonomic workplace solutions:
I don’t have a desk anymore. I have a small round dining table in my living room which I’ve spruced up with decoupage. This is where I do all my eating, writing and weeping, where I throw all my unopened post and the various random crap that I try and keep out of reach of my daughter, even though she can climb onto the fucking thing, so it’s like I keep forgetting that she’s a hundred times worse than she was last year. It’s covered in all these grotty little twists of toilet paper – if you use an electric cigarette, you’ll know what I’m talking about – and dried up pellets of rice from last month’s saag.
Tuesday is my main writing day; my daughter goes to her nana’s house straight after nursery (she’s good with maps): I’ll sit down with a strong cup of tea (two teabags), turn on my laptop and begin writing. My back will start aching after the first half an hour so I’ll do some stretches or lie on the floor with a cricket ball under my back.
At one I’ll make lunch and eat it at my laptop, reading articles from the Savage Love archives (a sex advice column) because clearly I cannot cope with just being alone with my thoughts and my food. Then back to writing. This, all day – writing, eating, vaping and struggling with chronic back ache. Walking the dogs at some point. If I feel they deserve it.
On a Wednesday and Thursday morning I write in a cafe near my daughter’s nursery. It’s the same thing but with even worse back ache, nicer food and music that ranges from good (Spanish David Bowie covers) to terrible (Rock a bye, baby? How about fuck off with your baby). The staff are friendly and there’s this nuts old-ish lady who parks up by the till every morning and argues with everyone. The toilet is right next to the till and kitchen, and everyone can hear you shitting so you have to time your fake coughs down to the exact second of impact.
Sometimes I’m able to write when the daughter’s at home. But this is the general result:
Are you a writer? Tell me about your writing space and process in the comments. What’s your desk like – messy, immaculate? Is your back in the shape of a question mark? Roughly how much Ritalin do you need to snort to get down your first 1000 words of the day?
And here is a rough prototype cover of my new book, which is out on April the 20th. It can be pre-ordered here.