The writing process

27 October 2023

People often want to know about the writing process. Where do you write? When? Where do your ideas come from? I get bamboozled by these questions. By ‘write’, do you mean the physical act of writing? That’s part of the process, and in itself contains many other processes. There’s the shitty first draft and there are the many rewrites. Some of us have preferred tools for these different stages. Actually, before the shitty first draft there’s (for me anyway) the notebook stage. My prolific productive novelist friend keeps a meticulously tidy handwritten notebook in the planning stages of her current writing project. She notes facts related to her subject, records observations and descriptions of her chosen setting. Her notebooks are works of art, literally, with drawings and paintings she does in this settling-in phase. My notebooks are a mess. Since writing is thinking made visible, my notebooks expose my messy mind. As with the house, I always tell myself I’ll tidy it all up later, and I never do. Yet I love the jotty part of the writing process. I stay away from my laptop and I only very rarely use my phone – just occasionally sending myself a few words in an email if I’ve been caught short without my physical notebook. But that would be like going out half-dressed, so it rarely happens. When the notebook is with me I feel equipped. It’s my butterfly net, my fishhook, my flypaper. You never know what is going to flow past as you walk into the day. Any notebook would do, but I have as many irrational beliefs as the next person, to which add the superstitions of a writer, so not any notebook will do at all. It has to be the right notebook, which has as much to do with texture as looks. You can’t have a notebook that sets your teeth on edge every time you turn a page. The paper must enjoy the pen, the pen enjoy the paper. I admit it, I converted to Moleskineism a while ago, and although the tithes are costly I keep the faith. In fact I keep two on the go, a small hard cover notebook which is my journal and a larger format soft cover black notebook that comes with me on outings to catch those butterflies on the wing. This is also the notebook into which I transcribe passages from books I’m reading, and in which I make attempt after attempt to begin writing of my own. Most of my poems start life and take shape over many drafts and crossings-outs in the black book.

I’ve always loved the physical act of typewriting and have invested in a smart typewriter that gives me the satisfaction of typing without the temptation of the internet. I drafted this on that device. If I had tried to write it by hand in my black notebook I would have fizzled out already, and if I had opened a Word doc on my laptop and started typing into it I would also have fizzled out. Why, I wonder? I think it’s because this old-fashioned typing without purpose keeps me from second-guessing what the point of writing this is. There’s no point. I’m just writing. Because I like to write. Probably it lets the kid-who-used-to-type-for-no-good-reason out – she got put away with childish things some time ago, it’s good to feel her fire in these fingers again.

That’s some of the writing-words-down part of my writing process. It doesn’t account for the deliberate composition of a finished work (a poem, a story, a novel, an essay). But that’s a whole different set of processes. That’s next level, a story for another day.

For all of this a writer needs time. Most of us fit our writing around the demands of paid and unpaid work. Some get up before dawn to write a thousand words before everyone else starts calling, but I’ve never been a lark and never will be. In an ideal world my schedule would run as follows: wake at 8am, come slowly into the day, be ready to appear outside the house about 11am. Take a constitutional and greet neighbours and shopkeepers along the way. Perhaps meet a friend at a cafe for coffee. Return to the house and have lunch. Take a siesta. Go to the desk at 3pm and write until 7pm. Someone else gives me dinner. Return to the desk at 9pm and write until midnight. Puddle around for a while, drink a cup of chamomile, listen to a bit of music, answer some emails, go to bed and read until I fall asleep. Wake around 8am, come into the day slowly, repeat. You can see how owls don’t fit the system and why larks have better productivity and the moral high ground.

Every so often a writer’s dream of Having Time comes true and she is awarded a residency or fellowship that for a few weeks or months legitimises her writing work and elevates her weird and scattered habits into ‘process’. And this is my lucky situation as I write this. This morning I woke about 8am and came into the day slowly. And what a day! I’m in Menton, on the French riviera, staying in an apartment that overlooks the railway line, and just beyond that, the Mediterranean. Today the sea is rough, waves surging towards the shore and breaking with boom after boom against the esplanade wall, dumping dollops of seawater and spray onto the road. I sat on the balcony with a cup of tea and watched, mesmerised, for ages. I’ve no idea for how long. Fuck the clock (TM Patti Smith). Eventually I moved, eventually I left the apartment and walked to our local boulangerie-cafe to buy the day’s bread. Bonjour madame! Bonjour! Deux jeanettes s’il vous plait. Deux jeanettes avec du sel madame? Oui, c’est ça. Voila madame. Trois euros quatre-vingts. Merci madame. Merci. Au revoir. Au revoir. Bonne journée!

The boulangerie is on the low road to Italy, the same road that, earlier, from the balcony of our apartment, I could see getting dumped on by huge waves. The lane closest to the sea is closed to traffic. If you want to drive to Italy from France today you’ll need to take one of the two higher routes. There are some cars still choosing to take this low road to France from Italy but not many. The air is full of spray. There are several places that are especially wild, where the waves hit with serious force and explode high before dumping a load of water, stones and seaweed over the wall onto the road. You’d have to be a nutter to walk or cycle there. I’m sticking to the dryish side, myself, and yes this makes me a nutter but not a complete nutter. A sensible nutter.

Doug comes sprinting – he’s been to the supermarket and dropped the shopping home (thanks Ida!) and has come to find me. ‘I knew you’d be here,’ he says. Together we amble towards the border post, stopping frequently to take in the scene. It’s magnificent, powerful, elemental. I keep trying to catch it by taking photos on my cell phone, but what am I doing? I’m spending so much time looking at the screen of my phone and finding it unsatisfactory and deleting it, and trying again only to miss the Big Wave moment every time, and as for the light – this gorgeous sparkling light, c’est impossible … I have to stop this madness. I’m a writer, remember? Remember process? Where do your ideas come from, how do you do this thing?

You pay attention. You attend. Which is to say, you show up. And how, with what currency, do you pay? You pay by giving up your attachment to outcome, giving up your desire to purchase and own and consume. You stand or you walk in the dazzling sunlight by the booming sea and you focus on being here. You observe, you listen, you feel, but for the time being (I love that phrase – aren’t we all time beings?) you cling to none of it. You practice trusting that this is enough, and will bear fruit in time yet-to-be.

And so hours later I sit on the couch and recall this morning’s promenade. We walked to Italy as the sea surged and slammed. We sat within a circle of stones, a memorial to victims of racism and violence on this border. A bunch of yellow flowers, rocks painted with names and places. Gambia, Guinea, Nigeria, Sudan …

We bought bourbon and preserved apricots at the border store. We bought courgettes, carrots, plums and a lettuce at the Italian woman’s garden stall. I pronounced grazie very badly, mangling it with merci to invent mer-graz. We returned to France, stopping often to watch the sea. A man on a bench was talking to himself, or to the waves. A mother and her adult son walked in from Italy; he was wearing a set of plastic cow’s horns on his head. She strode on, smoking, but he stopped as often as we did, turning to the sea and dropping his head as if to charge.

We climbed the stone steps to our street, Avenue Aristide Briand. The lights clanged at the railway crossing and the barrier arms came down. Very quickly there was a queue of traffic, vehicles taking this middle-level road to the border crossing. At the front of the queue, a woman on a motorbike was having a phone conversation via the speaker system embedded in her helmet. She pulled up the visor and, still talking, turned off the engine and disembarked, putting her bike on its stand while she opened the rear luggage pod and rummaged through for a cigarette. The queue continued to build behind her. The bells were ringing, the train not yet in sight but clearly close. She was still rummaging. Suddenly a long loud honk from the vehicle waiting behind the motorcyclist. Road rage! Mais non – the driver beckoned, holding out a lighter. She scurried to his window and lit her cigarette from his flame, thanked him happily, returned to her bike. As the train passed through she shut and locked the luggage pod, mounted the bike, started the engine, levered the bike off its stand. The train was gone, the barrier arms began to lift. She rode under them and headed towards Italy, helmet on, visor up, smoking and talking.

Lightly salted, like les deux jeanettes I’ve been carrying since the boulangerie, we reached our apartment. After déjeuner, after a siesta, and having washed some of the Mediterranean off my glasses, I finally started to write. So much for process. I haven’t written anything that I planned to write today. I wrote this instead.

Also, someone else is making me dinner. Thanks Ida! 

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