Writing when you have no time

As writers we don't need all this stuff - so do it anywhere! Me, reflected in Barbara Hepworth's (very tidy) studio.
As writers we don’t need all this stuff – so do it anywhere! Me, reflected in Barbara Hepworth’s (very tidy) studio.

Summer can be a fractured time for work. There are always festivals, holidays, weekends away, residencies. All good things, but which take me from my desk and my routine. Not that I have much of a routine. Which is sort of what this post is about. One of the questions I get asked a lot is ‘How many words do you write per day?’

I do not like this question.

Mostly because it makes me break out in itchy guilt-hives that I haven’t done enough (because you can never do enough, not really) and want to knock the asker aside so I can dash to my laptop. But also because it doesn’t really work like that. Not for me, anyway. Some days I’ll write 1,000 – that’s what I aim for when I’m in a writing phase, trying to build up my word count. Some days, if I’m on holiday and have nothing else to do, I might write 4,000. I think once I did 7,000 and it was glorious – similar to the feeling of staying in bed all day when you first fall in love with someone and only want to be with them. Only, you know, less sticky.

But other days I write zero words. Or I actually lose words, delete them and chuck them away. Some days I spend a lot of time putting in tabs and quote marks. Some days I just stare at the damn thing and it seems to get no better. I think this is OK. There are building phases of a book, and there are sculpting phases, and there are trimming phases, and there are smoothing phases. The important thing is to know where you’re at, and be sure that you’re making progress according to your own milestones. Be stern with yourself and ask if you’re moving forward, or just circling round the beginning again and again.

Last week I was away a lot, swimming in rivers, walking, eating so much clotted cream I probably now have clotted arteries. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t doing enough work – mainly because I have a book that’s so close do being finished it is painful. I feel as if I got nothing done, but in truth I did about 10,000 words. It was very rough – tapped out on an ipad mini while in bed or on the train, snatching half an hour here and there, ignoring the other people in the room, sticking down some typo-ridden text, scribbling ideas and lines in a notebook. Nothing at all like smooth, ordered writing.  A total mess, basically. But it exists. And the book has moved forward, and I hope to finish it this week (86,000 words and counting!)

So my tip for the week is this – don’t feel you need a routine. It would be lovely, of course to be one of those writers who can answer the dreaded question with, ‘Well I rise at six and do yoga and have a wheatgrass smoothie. Then I work in my turret from seven to ten, when I stop for an espresso and a biscotti made with edible gold. Manuel, my butler, comes to take away the cup’ and so on. Life gets in the way. There are dentist appointments and phone calls and laptop problems and other people with their inconvenient needs and fun and loveliness. Just get some words down, however rubbish they are, and try not to beat yourself up. Also, if you figure out how to do this, please let me know? Happy summer everyone.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    Sadly, I’m the kind of writer who needs a lot of time and space and quiet… writing in short gulps and bursts only works for my poetry, not for my novel. I love this quote from Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd:
    ‘Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is – has to be – in short bursts. I’m short of breath.’

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