I have recently returned from a blissful week at Varuna Writers’ Centre. For the uninitiated Varuna is writers’ heaven. Housed in author Eleanor Dark’s former Blue Mountains residency, it is the only place of its kind in Australia where writers can stay and focus solely on writing. With four other writers living in the house, evening conversations often turned to the writing process. We talked about how, when and where we write. About the perfect space in which to create. Varuna aside (for surely there is nowhere more perfect than this place), I confessed to a love of cafes. There you can write in a bubble but are surrounded by life that feeds you. The novel I went to Varuna to work on has mostly been written in this way, fuelled by many a cup of coffee.
I also confessed to erratic nocturnal habits (my long-suffering husband is regularly subjected to three am scribblings). Some years ago he bought me a gift that has pleased us both. The marvellous invention of a pen with a light on its end. So at least he no longer has to endure the flickering of the lamp – on, off, on, off – as the words come in spurts.
The kind of writers I admire most are those who wake before dawn and crank out a thousand words before breakfast, then head off to a ‘real’ job. On the rare occasions that I’m up at this hushed time of day I romanticise that I should do it more often. But in reality I’m not a morning person, and knowing how and when you write best is part of the key. So I snatch time in cafes while my partner does child minding duty or at night when the children are sleeping, and find myself scrawling on the pile of paper I keep beside my bed in the dark, my pen casting a quiet pool of turquoise light.
There are writers who have far stranger habits than mine. Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov all liked to write standing up, with Wolfe often leaning over the top of his fridge. Truman Capote, on the other hand, always wrote lying down, in bed or on a couch. Junot Diaz likes to lock himself into the bathroom to write. Edgar Allen Poe wrote with a cat on his shoulder. And when writing The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker grew a beard, dressed in character and filmed 40 hours of himself giving poetry lectures in the style of his main protagonist. Yes, writers are a strange lot.
But writing is not as simple as heading for the bathroom or grabbing a cat. There’s the issue of procrastination, something every writer wrestles with at some stage or another. Paul Rudnick puts it nicely: ‘Writing is 90 per cent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.’ One of my Varuna cohorts told a marvellous story about a writer friend who has attached seven leather belts to his writing chair. When he sits down in it at dawn, bleary-eyed, he straps himself in, preventing procrastination and forcing himself to write (it is more effort to undo all the belts than to just get on with it). I repeat, writers are a strange lot.
But procrastination is not necessarily empty time. Sometimes it can be crucial to the writing process. While you play solitaire or dust some obscure high shelf ideas are either consciously or unconsciously percolating. The writing is gestating. But these days – sandwiching writing in between children and editing work – I rarely have the luxury of procrastination. Time is precious. That percolating still happens, but it happens in the midst of life. Now when I get one hour here, three hours there to write, I just do it. Toni Morrison once said that when her writing habits were no longer driven by work and children she felt ‘giddy’ in her own house. I look forward to a little giddiness. In the meantime there are invaluable interludes like Varuna where I cracked a problematic section of my novel, Love and other small things, and everything somehow fell into place. Almost two weeks on, it seems I am still surfing a post-Varuna high, travelling ever closer to a finished final draft.
As I write this my clock is rudely reminding me that it is 4.12 am. Time to put the turquoise-lit pen down, post this, and hear your stories about how you write.