Wherever You Can, Whenever You Can
A dear friend tells me he is writing a cycle of seven books. He has never written longform before and shows no inclination to do so. He’s decided to start his career with a world-and-ages-spanning epic that has a vast cast of intergalactic characters. He says he’s just waiting for the right time to start, after he moves house. Or countries.
We’ve been having this conversation for about ten years.
A neighbour who already has a name in certain circles is writing a self-help book. I have given her tips and ideas for the best way to tackle it. She keeps changing the theme of the book, but says she has a contract and the publishers are happy to wait. The thing that most concerns her is typing. She doesn’t want to do any, and has found a company in China where you send them recordings and they put it all into a document for you.
We’ve also been having this conversation for about ten years.
Here’s Toni Morrison on writing:
‘I never have had sustained time to write, long periods or a week away to do anything—I never had that. So I would always write under conditions that probably are unbearable when people think of how one writes. I never applied to go to those wonderful artist retreats. My wish sometimes was that if someone would just take care of the children for a little while, then I wouldn’t have to go any place: I could just stay where I was (…) I once went with a friend to the country, and we said we would just stay a week or two and write, and both of us brought back blank pieces of paper. I just looked at the deer, you know; nothing happened.’
She taught not passion and vision, which she assumed aspirant writers already had. She taught craft, which is far more useful. What was the biggest problem she encountered with young writers?
‘Students are frequently unwilling to rewrite, because rewriting suggests to them that what they wrote the first time is wrong, and they don’t like that feeling. But it’s not that, it’s just that writing is a process and you are cleaning up the language.
It’s not that you’re changing it: you’re doing it better, hitting a higher note or a deeper tone or a different color. The revision for me is the exciting part; it’s the part that I can’t wait for—getting the whole dumb thing done so that I can do the real work, which is making it better and better and better.’
I couldn’t agree more. To this I would add, you write anywhere, everywhere, in any situation. I’ve written on a stack of paper bags with a pencil, on the backs of business cards, in a thousand unfinished notebooks.
This year I faced a new challenge. Not writing in the face of illness; I’ve done that often enough. Writing without a dedicated place to sit. The pandemic has brought my spouse home to work, and now two separate locations are needed in the flat. He took my glass desk because he needs more space. I thought; why do I need a dedicated spot at all? I don’t open spreadsheets or keep half a dozen windows running. I don’t even use online notes. I’d honestly never given it any consideration before. So I jotted down what I needed.
A Danish company called Office Stance helped me out. They only make one thing; I like that in a company. It means they do it well. Their steel stands for laptops come in one simple shape and a few colours. I matched the measurement of one with a wooden storage box from Ikea, so that the stand could cover the box. Inside I put my laptop, my iPad, my Kindle, a hard drive, cables, a pen, a paper notebook, earpods. The ideal height to write, for me, is around 44 centimetres, the height of most kitchen tables. By day I set the box in an armchair or at the dining table, and work. At night I pack it away.
The main thing is to not think about where you are or what you’re using, but to get lost in the story. And you can do that without having to move house or send recordings to China.