I read these words over the shoulder of someone reading it the other day on the tube: “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” Franz Kafka. It made me laugh, and the person who was reading it looked up, and we both smiled at each other. Perhaps that other person was a writer too? Because for any of us who do that thing, of thinking and imagining on a piece of paper, as part of our day, of our livelihood, we know all too well what it is not to be doing it. We know how it feels to be living with that nagging sense of unease that we are not getting on with whatever it is we are working on, and that we need to be getting on with it… That’s how it starts anyway, as a sense only of vague unease, then grumbling and turning as time goes on, the full weight of a mental disorder beneath the apparent sanity of our other activities and thoughts. It’s the kind of turmoil that, if we don’t get back to the writing, we feel will build into a rage and then a terrible sort of crazy roar.
That is why when I write about my writing day it is both a summary of a kind of ideal time, when I am the very opposite of that awful trapped person, and a plan for an ideal scenario, when I might be in my study with my pen and a special little retractable pencil, and my computer. For of course I don’t get to “My Writing Day” every day, often I don’t get to it for days at a time. Other days get in the way. There’s my teaching, so there are teaching days and all the planning associated with that – creating courses and marking work, organising activities and publications, and other events that spring up alongside the teaching, attending meetings and doing administration and so on. There are also other kinds of writing days, when I am writing pieces like this one here, or reviews or analyses or papers or chapters… All lovely writing to be writing, but not the writing I am thinking of when I think about “My Writing Day”, which means a day of working on a short story or a novel.
At the moment, my new novel, Caroline’s Bikini, has just come out. All those days of it being with my publishers and my editor at Faber and Faber, Lee Brackstone, who’s been my editor there for quite a long time now, are past… Those days of thinking about the manuscript are over. I deliver pretty finished work, so there is never a great deal for me to do to my novels once I’ve handed it in, but it may be a case of adding some more detail here, or taking out some other detail there… Work on copy edits and typos can add up too. Was I aware that I’d changed the date here, or put someone’s else’s name there? And if I wasn’t… Well, that kind of editorial sorting has to be done. None of this all to do with “my writing”, though and as such, even working on my own novel doesn’t count as a description of “My Writing Day.”
“My Writing Day” is beautifully straightforward, and it follows a simple checklist that looks like this:
- Make a cup of ginger tea.
- Take up the draft of whatever it is I am working on, that I’ve marked up with comments and changes and rewrites ( all involving that tiny retractable pencil I mentioned earlier), and get everything down in a fresh version on the computer, printing out, page by page, as I go. The page-by-page printing is a reaction to something that happened years and years ago, when I lost an entire novel that I’d been writing on screen in my lunch breaks at a job I had back then, a story that was about a summer and a lonely girl, set in in a small unnamed New Zealand town… I hadn’t printed any of it out and the computer went down with a virus and the whole thing was lost forever. And of course, I think about that novel, still. About its sprinklers on the lawn. The fast hot twilights. The girl of the story who’s about seventeen… So, yes: page-by-page printing is something I will always do. Then, after that, there’s…
- Make a pot of coffee.
- Go through the previous day’s print out and mark up for tomorrow’s work as used for No. 2 on this list.
- And finally, the most terrifying activity that’s also on the list but not every day: Write a rough first draft in long hand. (Note to the Reader: When I am doing this, it often replaces No. 2, though not 1 and 3. And it means I may not get to 4 at all. It depends on whether I am writing a short story or a novel, but either way, for sure, No. 5 at some point always has to feature. It’s the beginning of everything, and I never, ever delete what I’ve done. I rearrange it, use it differently, then edit, edit, edit. But those written on pages are the basis always for what will come after.
By now, “My Writing Day” which started at about 9 am has become about 4 pm and my daughters are around the house – though one is now around less as she has left home for university and I miss her. We might have a chat and a cup of regular tea and something to eat, which can often count for me as lunch as lunch often gets left out of things on this sort of writing day. Then, I try, very hard, not to think about what I have written. I try not to think about until the next day.
But of course, it is there, the writing … Rumbling away while I talk to Millie on the phone about her course in Edinburgh, or to Katherine about friends coming around in the weekend. Rumbling but not getting out of hand, not making a monster of me, I hope, if I know I can get back to it the next morning. A friend emails: “What are you working on now? “Well, I write back, this summer I’ll be starting some new short stories… I’ll be up in the Highlands and, the plan is, writing every day… No sight of anything awful on the horizon at all. Only hills and skies and many, many writing days…
© Kirsty Gunn
Ed: Kirsty Gunn will be reading from her new novel, Caroline’s Bikini at Toppings Book Shop, St Andrews.