This writing life

Varuna, Image 2 -- Irma Gold

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.

Varuna, image 3 -- Irma GoldThe 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.

Varuna, image 4 -- Irma GoldBut 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.

Irma Gold

Irma Gold is an award-winning writer and editor. Her short fiction has been widely published in Australian journals and her debut collection of short fiction, Two Steps Forward, was released in September 2011 (Affirm Press). She is also the author of two children’s books and is currently working on her first novel. You can follow her on Facebook.

More by Irma Gold ›

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  1. Irma, thankyou for a lovely post.

    I’m always relieved when I hear that procrastination is a widespread problem among writers especially writers I admire.

    There was a time when I was in paid work that I got up at 4.30 in the morning – it lasted about a year. I was very productive as why get up so early and waste that time that could have been spent sleeping. However, at the end of that year I scrapped nearly all of my 70,000 words and started again. I could blame my shitty first draft on lack of sleep – the truth is a little harder to bear.

    Now I have more time I don’t feel nearly so focused but I’m not sure that strapping myself in the chair or writing standing up would be for me. What I should do is disconnect from the online world, turn off the mobile and landline and stay home more.

    What I’d really like though, is that week at Varuna and a turquoise-lit pen.

    1. It’s funny isn’t it, we assume that more time equals more writing but it’s often not the case at all. I was last at Varuna about six years ago and I did wonder if I’d be able to work productively given the luxury of all that space and time. As it turns out I came away with so much more than I’d hoped for. I think because it was one week I was able to maintain that focus, but if I had endless time in which to write I’m sure I’d spend much of it procrastinating.

  2. Ain’t Varuna grand? I stayed there last year in the winter and the outside chill alone helped keep me at the desk. It seems a fitting place for your midnight writing, although I found the house incredibly refreshing – I never could sleep properly while I was there, preferring instead to write into the night and take the afternoon off.

    And how great is Sheila’s cooking? Sitting down like a writing family for dinner at the end of each day is an incredibly enriching experience.

    1. Yes, I didn’t sleep much there either. I spent a large chunk of every night either writing or reading.

      And I was fortunate to have such a wonderful group of writers to share the evenings with. We always loved how Sheila would say, ‘Would you mind if tomorrow I made [some culinary masterpiece]?’ I wish I could have brought her home with me.

  3. Agreed, beautiful post.

    I am one of those people that gets up at 5, sometimes 4 to write. But it doesn’t increase my productivity in the slightest. In fact, it’s practically the only time (4am–9am) I can get any serious work done. If I miss it, because I spent that time watching Al Jazeera or couldn’t get it together for whatever reason, I spend the rest of my day berating myself. (I freelance now so have the time to be at home berating myself.)

    What I can’t get over is how Nicholson Baker wrote The Anthologist. Oddly, it never before occurred to me that there is such a thing as method writers.

    Which reminds me of William Styron, who wrote that he didn’t get up until midday, at which point he would start drinking, and when hungover at around 4pm, he would start writing. Which he did day in, day out. He didn’t seem the, ah, happiest of fellows.

    And did I mention that I can only write alone and in silence? I envy being able to write with life happening around you.

    1. Thanks, Jack.

      Four am! Now that’s impressive. We writers are good at berating ourselves, aren’t we? It seems to come with the territory.

      Personally even half a glass of wine turns my writing to slush. Coffee, on the other hand, is the bomb. Especially if I’m finding it difficult to get started, a little caffeine kick-start works a treat! For one of the other Varuna writers loud music has the same effect (I seem to recall Metallica being mentioned).

  4. I have to leave the house to begin writing – longhand – so I can’t distract myself with, well, anything. Once I’ve made a longhand start, I need to return to the house, to the computer. I like to write late in the night but I wish I didn’t.

  5. I’m desperate! No more excuses… But seriously I have good reasons… try walking in my shoes. However these comments have lifted my spirits and as Christina Stead said somewhere “Hope springs infernal’ and she wrote at a very slow pace I believe.

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